A Reflection on River and Tides.

The following is an analysis of River and Tides, a documentary about the work of Andy Goldsworthy, available to stream on Amazon Prime.


In Goldsworthy’s work, time is always (although sometimes understated) present as a subject. It seems to me that many land artists/site specific workers attempt to fight natural elements to make a more durationel piece. Goldsworthy instead embraces natural processes and the passage of time in his work. For example, in the beginning of the film he works to construct an egg-shaped pile of stones before the tide washes in to gift it to the ocean. Beautifully enough, when the tide recedes, the ocean gives the sculpture back. All too aware of the impending tide, Goldsworthy asks the camera operator to help him with his collect of stone. In a race against the tide, we watch as the structure collapses not once, but twice. The whole scene is quite anxiety producing. Goldsworthy must be aware of his surroundings and in tune with the cycles of the earth. This perhaps is why he stated that his best work is made closest to home. While he is strategically arranging a bamboo-like plant from a tree limb to create a fragile vail, he says that he likes to push his works to the edge of their stability. Just then he notices the wind pick up, moments later the whole thing collapses.

We see the rounded zigzag of a rivers path repeated throughout his work. He obsesses over this pattern and notices it again and again in his natural surroundings. Even with all of this repetition, Goldsworthy claims to feel uprooted whenever he travels. We connect with the landscapes that we know, feel a sort of kinship to them. This can easily be lost when you experience a new place, for even though you may understand the tide, it is turning over different rocks, lapping up on different shores. When speaking of his commissioned piece in upstate New York, he said he first needed to experience the place. In those particular woods he was drawn to the forgotten stone walls he saw being swallowed by foliage. Instantly he thought of Scotland and suddenly this new place no longer felt foreign.

About ten minutes into River and Tides, we watch Goldsworthy painstakingly forming shards of ice onto a rock into the repetitive river shape discussed earlier. We see his excitement just as the sun peeks over the rocky hillside and illuminates the sculpture from both sides at once. This was not something he planned for, but instead took in stride. By allowing himself the time to exist within the space he was creating, Goldsworthy opened himself up to unexpected possibilities. Much of his work operates in such a way; towards the end of the film we see him painting with red pigment from a stream. He tells us he had worked there several times before discovering the rocks with which he paints. These rocks are red from iron, as is our blood, and so we are connected.

Place is connected to life and death, this becomes much more apparent when we accept the passage of time rather than fight against it. At one point in the film Goldsworthy recalls talking to an elderly woman in his village who told him, “When you look at this [village] you see birth, when I look at it I see death”. He notes that he wants to remember both the births and the deaths. Every place has an untold history lying just below the layers of its surface. So much life has been lived and so much more is soon to follow. Ephemeral works can’t help but to talk of time. Goldsworthy was able to build his swirling dam-like structure with the driftwood brought in by the tides. It was these same tides that carried the piece off to its watery grave. Maybe it is best not to think of this as two definitive stages: life and death, but rather a never ending cycle. He touches on this at the end of the film with his iron pigments. Man taking part in the rock cycle, not to stop it, but rather to understand.

Destruction and evolution (in art and maybe more broadly as well) differ only in what happens next. Destruction is change that is final while evolution is change that causes adaptation. Very rarely does a work go entirely to plan, even less so when time and natural elements are introduced into the equation. Adaptability is key in art; expecting failures and accepting that what you learn from the failures may drastically alter your final piece is crucial. This too is a cycle. We learn most from our materials when we push them farther than they think they can go. The same could also be said about ourselves. It is at the edges of possibility that great discoveries are made.

Time teaches us about place most obviously through a geological lens (sediment deposits and the carving out of canyons). More subtly, time reveals clues about the land when we spend the time to let it. Every second the light is changing, new things become apparent while others are hidden in freshly formed shadows. There is also the element of weather to be discussed when working outside. Again, adaptability plays a key role here. In the studio, we are protected from rain, dirt, dust and the likes by four sturdy walls. This environment allows for more control over outcomes. This isn’t to say that failures and discoveries can’t happen in an artist’s studio (they most certainly can and do) but the likelihood of a gust of wind suddenly carrying away hours of hard work is far less. Things can also be left out in the studio setting with the understanding that they will be in relatively the same place when you return. The variables that we remove from our studio settings can be valuable in the art-making process. They provide us with a way out of our own headspace and into new possibilities and perspectives.

I had been painting with mud in my studio all last year. This summer I took my binder of found images and three small paintbrushes into the woods. I settled in by the creek, and while the babbling water at first was soothing, the mosquitoes quickly grew so thick that I could no longer concentrate. July in Ohio is not the time to be making work by a body of water. If I tried again this Autumn it would be an entirely different experience with an entirely new set of challenges to overcome.

Throughout the film we see Goldsworthy creating pieces to exist in that very same space they were created. It is about the artist and his relation to both time and the land. In a gallery setting, these once warm pieces grow cold. It is no longer about the relationship of the artist to the place through object, but rather the relationship of the viewer to the artist through object. The second is far less personal, tactile and poetic.

It is easy to let our perceptions be swayed by nostalgia, memory and a variety of other rose colored glasses. Goldsworthy touches on this when he is speaking of Scotland’s sheep, “We can’t see past their wooliness”. He talks of the animals strength underneath of all that wool and their permanent impact on the land. By draping their wool delicately along a stretch of stone wall, Goldsworthy gets to the essence of the sheep – more strength than fluff. When I first began documenting my hometown, the images were romantic, bathed in golden hour light and memories of a positive upbringing. The work was honest in its bias; it documented the truth, but only mine. I was too close to my subject. Now 2,000 miles away from my hometown, I am finally able to have honest conversations with myself about it’s realities. It took removing myself entirely, to begin to understand the intricate weavings of small town life.

Absence is one of the greatest reminders of presence. I can’t help but think of the Twin Towers missing from the New York City skyline. I can see them still, though they are no longer there. Joel Sternfeld beautifully captures this absence in his book On this Site: Landscape in Memoriam. The series captures seemingly ordinary scenes where violence once occurred (the balcony where Martin Luther King Jr. was shot). The absence of any real subject opens the doors for the viewer to imagine what it is they cannot see. Sternfeld has photographed the past by showing us the present. We feel the history of these places even though upon first glance we may not know exactly what that history is.

This film played up Goldsworthy’s submission to chance. The intuitive nature of his work is necessary in ensuring a final product (as fleeting as it may be). I admire both his adaptability and perseverance. These are two traits that I hope to adopt in aspects of my own studio practice.

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