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The nature of Andy Goldsworthy

The ephemeral, delightfully moving sculptures of Andy Goldsworthy exist beyond their original fleeting moment as photoworks

Originally published in AR February 1988, this piece was published online in March 2018 in connection with the publication of AR April 2018 on Rethinking the Rural

Partly to recapture the wellsprings of art, the original awe at nature’s variety and sense of oneness with the universe found in primeval art, many sculptors, particularly in Britain and the United States, now work with natural materials in nature. But while the Americans, often with earth-moving equipment, work at the heroic scale demanded by their huge landscapes, the British work in smaller more modest ways. Most modest of all, but amongst the most delightfully moving, are the ephemeral sculptures of Andy Goldsworthy. These exist beyond their original fleeting moment only as photoworks, the light integration of photograph and text of which have been loosened to suit our layout.


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Ice points, held upright in muddy pond bottom, Helbeck, Cumbrial. January 1983

Crystalline shards of ice, precariously poised beside a pond, form an arch that glistens and sparkles in the sunlight. Soon each face melts, shards slip past each other, and the whole crashes into a chaos of scattered fragments that slowly seep into the earth. On the next day, thin sharp shards project as a cluster of small translucent sails from the cold waters into which they are steadily dissolving. In another season, coloured leaves or petals stuck by spittle form chains or patches of contrasting colours that soon break up as the parts curl up or blow away. A chain of leaves slides slowly over the still surface of a pond, or even floats away in a conga dance on the surface of a stream, casting a shadow that leaps over pebbles and bright winking wave patterns in a self-destructive and frenzied fandango.

Though Andy Goldsworthy has made enormous and relatively durable works such as those in Grizedale Forest (AR September 1985), some of his sculptures are tiny, even inconspicuous, and the vast majority - like those described above - are ephemeral. For most of us they exist only second hand in photographs. Originals lodge only in the memory of the artist, and maybe of a few fortunate others. Some sculptures are so ephemeral - such as rainbowed splashes, or loose clusters of thrown sticks - that they can be appreciated fully only in a prolonged instant frozen on film.


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For these ephemeral works, Goldsworthy uses almost nothing other than recording equipment of camera and notebook, a sharp eye for potential sites and materials, and a robust preparedness to work long hours in all sorts of weather. Materials are selected and gathered on-site or close by to cause minimal disturbance, and arranged not only as their own characteristics suggest, but also to enhance the place and be enhanced by light and weather. The role of the artist is to roam the countryside looking for suggestive sites and materials and divining how best they might be used that day. Drifts of autumn leaves may be swept into red-brown swirls on bright green grass; beach sand packed into sharp shadowed snaking ridges; rocks or slivers of stone balanced in precarious stasis against swift-flowing stream or scudding sky; leaves or pebbles colour-graded in Jines, transient or permanent; fern leaves or feathers split down their central stems and pinned with thorns in flat arabesques or jagged flashes outlining black holes in the earth. And then photographs are taken before works disappear - and often, more poignantly, to record their degradation and disappearance.

‘Goldsworthy is exceptional not just in the ephemerality of his sculpture, but in the prolific and unselfconscious way he creates it to be enjoyed purely for what it is, devoid of cultural resonance and pretension’

What then is the art work? The sculpture that so few ever see, or the photographs or sequence of photographs that are the public medium? The answer inevitably is both the sculptures and the photographs. Photography selects the best views, light effects and backgrounds as well as only the best works. But seeing the sculptures for themselves offers thrills of its own. For many of the most exciting, both when made and when being made, are those - like the ice arches and balanced rocks - that constantly court collapse into chaos. For artist and spectators (though Goldsworthy usually works alone in remote places, he once worked throughout a winter month on London’s Hampstead Heath where the public could find him) flaunting failure at every fresh moment adds a frisson. It highlights the ephemerality of a work that may fail even before it is finished, or fail to please even when finished.

Many sculptors, both in Britain and abroad, now work in the landscape with materials at hand. But the products are often highly conceptual and/or monumental. Goldsworthy is exceptional not just in the ephemerality of his sculpture, but in the prolific and unselfconscious way he creates it to be enjoyed purely for what it is, devoid of cultural resonance and pretension. Having spent much of his youth as a farm labourer he simply continues to work with the land and what it offers in its seasonal cycles. But then except perhaps in the modern age, British art and literature has been largely a celebration of the glories of landscape, countryside and nature and has denigrated the urban and cultural. Now, even many English have lost the arrogant assumption of an a-cultural superiority and for them permanence and grandeur are barely credible in new works by man. Ephemera entices. And Goldsworthy proves that sculptures that slip quickly away can be more than pretty and poignant, they can be sufficiently touching, even startling, to provoke a recurring reverie that echoes in the memory.


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Sticks and stalks/pushed into muddy lake bottom, Yorkshire, Sculpture Park. 29 April and 8 May 1987

For ‘the formation, construction and display of sculpture and artwork created from natural materials and the growing of plants and trees’ the Earl of Dalkeith has granted Goldsworthy a 35-year lease at a peppercorn rent on two to three acres in the Scaur Water Valley on his Buccleuch Estates. This is near Goldsworthy’s home­studio in Penpont, Dumfriesshire.

Last year Goldsworthy spent a total of three months working for part of each season as Artist in Residence at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park where several of the works illustrated here were made. This work will be documented in a publication out soon. In late 1987 Goldsworthy spent two months working in Japan where he also had an exhibition.

This year he will be in Australia (coinciding with an exhibition at Roslyn Oxley Gallery, Sydney) and will make seasonal visits to France where there will be an exhibition at the Centre d’ Art Contemporain in Castres. As part of the’ Artists in National Parks’ project Goldsworthy will be working in the Lake District. The resulting works will be shown at the Victoria and Albert Museum from mid-June to end of August, followed by a regional tour.

Many thanks to Andy Goldsworthy for use of his transparencies and to Clive Adams of the Fabian Carlsson Gallery which represents Goldsworthy, for the care and trouble taken in obtaining the copies of transparencies and photographs.

This piece is featured in the AR’s April 2018 issue on Rethinking the rural – click here to purchase a copy