Saturday, 1 May 2010

Goldsworthy's shadowlands

Inside a comfortable stone farmhouse, deep in the rolling hill country of Dumfries and Galloway, conversation has taken an unexpected turn. This is the home of Andy Goldsworthy, the world’s foremost environmental artist. It’s a beautiful spring day, he has spent the morning in the fresh air and the time is surely ripe to discuss the joys of the British countryside. But almost unbelievably, from his seat under one of his huge muddy “paintings” — literally, Sheep’s Footprints on Canvas — the artist has suddenly managed to transport himself to the streets of New York.

You are not going to credit this, he says, his keen eyes shining with laughter, but he was almost arrested by the NYPD a month ago — simply for being an artist. He’d been trying to make rain shadows outside the Rockefeller Centre. His plan was to lie down on the pavement, just as a shower began, so that the dry shape of his body would remain after the raindrops soaked the concrete around him. Alas, as soon as he set about his work the long arm of the law intervened. “There is a video of me being evicted from outside Fox News,” Goldsworthy snorts. “Corporate America has such a fear of a terrorist attack. They own the bloody sidewalk.”

So he was frogmarched away? “Oh, yeah. To be honest, the police were great about it. They wanted to know what I was doing but they were OK. The security guards simply would not look me in the eye. I said to one guy, ‘What’s wrong with the world? I had far more freedom in Moscow when it was under communism than I have had in New York this week’. It really was oppressive.”

Goldsworthy’s Gotham City adventure seems absurdly out of character. Here is an artist who, through three decades, has elevated drystone walling to high art, built rivers of stone and clay in parks and galleries across Europe and America, and can make rocks appear to bleed by covering their sharp edges with red autumnal leaves, glued down with spit.

With this body of work it is easy to see how he can be labelled “the British countryside’s most engaging propagandist”, though such descriptions make him shake his head. He has never been a campaigner for an unspoilt rural idyll. As a new book celebrating his permanent works makes clear, it is human intervention in nature that fascinate him: the forests we cut down, the land that is grazed, the stone walls and slate bridges that punctuate the view. He despairs of the chocolate-box image of the countryside and worries that his artworks have helped to perpetuate that image.

“I have become more annoyed at that perception about my work — and about the countryside,” he says. “It has become this kind of pastoral backdrop for relaxing weekends. Nature can be relaxing, it can be healing. But it can be brutal and harsh and difficult, too.

“Nature doesn’t stop when you reach the city boundary,” he says, which is why his trip to New York came up in conversation in the first place. He might be sitting within earshot of a skylark, but Goldsworthy insists that there is a direct link between his day-to-day world, deep in the calm of rural Scotland, and the hurly-burly of Manhattan. “What do we leave behind in the city?” he asks, pleading for understanding. “What gives it its life but our human presence? The shadows articulate that very strongly: the rain falling, the shapes on the pavements. It’s about the nature of the city and of the people who occupy it. New York was the first time I had gone and worked with what I’d find on the streets. It’s very much the equivalent of what I do in this place, which people call the countryside.”

Goldsworthy’s adventures on Sixth Avenue are only part of the story. His focus is Man and Nature and he believes his work to be entering a new phase, reflected by his “obsession” with the rain shadows and by the permanent works he is creating. He cites Roof, nine brooding stacked-slate domes, conceived and installed over more than two years at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. “Maybe it’s a way of beginning to flex your muscles and understand things,” he says. “The whole conceptual process, the whole physical act of making it, the scale of it. It is just much more complex.”

Admirers too have registered a new brilliance in his output. When, in a recent essay, Antony Gormley despaired of finding contemporary artists who could address the climate crisis of “our perilous times”, he turned with relief to one of Goldsworthy’s most recent works. From the outside, Stone House – Bonnington, in a wood near Edinburgh, part of the Jupiter Artland sculpture garden, looks innocuous enough. But within the dark interior the earth has been completely cut away, down to the bubbling igneous surface of the bedrock, revealed in the dim light cast from a single window. When Gormley stepped inside he was exultant. He had been shown “the underneath” of everything, “a useless building in which we could encounter our dependency: a brilliant work”.

Such elemental pieces are conceived in the fields and glens around Penpont, Goldsworthy’s home and testbed since 1986. These days it is a well-ordered place that signals the artist’s prosperity. A sign in the drive warns off visitors arriving without an appointment. Inside, his studio and photographic archive are kept in order by an office manager and by Tina, his partner, an academic at the University of Glasgow.

It was all rather different when Goldsworthy arrived, a refugee from the English Pennine landscape. Born in Leeds in 1956, but with roots in Bacup, Lancashire, he had studied art at Preston Polytechnic. He was pulled farther north by sheer economic necessity, first to Cumbria, then to Langholm, finally to Penpont: “I was poor and it was very cheap.” He stayed because he was accepted by the community, but never lost his northern English accent.

Over the years he has repaid the tolerance of the locals by filling their land with his art. A handful of these works are permanent. The Give and Take Wall, his first wall sculpture, was built in Scaur Glen in 1988; last year, in a powerful stream near Drumlanrig Castle, he built the Marr Burn Arch. In the years between he made perhaps a dozen stones, stacks, folds and cairns, which occasionally hove into view across the landscape.

Substantial as these are, far more of his energy has been spent on his ephemeral works, which he makes at a feverish rate. Every year, 200 or so of these emerge, their dragonfly lives glimpsed only by farm workers and the occasional hiker. This morning, he says, he was experimenting with mud paintings (“It was a peaty mud, I tried it on trees — it wasn’t very good”), but everything is possible: streamers, rushing down the course of the Scaur burn, coloured pools made of bluebells or dandelions, delicate curtains built of twigs or icicles and deftly worked by the artist’s hands and teeth.

What does it feel like to make a perfect piece of art that is never seen by anyone else? Goldsworthy laughs nervously, as if he’s never thought of that. “What does it feel like? Amazing. But not because I’m alone. Because it’s amazing to get something right.”

Andrew Morton, who has the neighbouring farm, sees more of his work than anyone in the world. Goldsworthy remembers a morning when he was making a frost shadow. The artist explains: “Where my shadow falls, the frost remains. I have to stand a long time, three quarters of an hour. Andrew was on his quad, I could hear him and I could see him go out on top of the hill. And he could see me, someone standing still — it’s amazing how you stand out. So eventually he went down to a turnip field of his. He drove back up, shouted ‘Morning’, and dropped me off a couple of turnips. And drove straight on.”

Like these shadows, many of his ideas endure, and repeat themselves. Ten years ago he packed 13 giant snowballs with pinecones, berries and barbed wire found in the countryside and brought them in to the City of London to melt, in celebration of the millennium midsummer (not everyone celebrated — it was an act of “urban terrorism” according to the art critic Brian Sewell). A darker emotion informs artworks that he is making now for the isle of Alderney, though the principle is the same.

The gestation of this installation speaks volumes for Goldsworthy’s ingenuity and thoughtfulness. When he was invited to the Channel Island, Goldsworthy imagined “a tax haven, very swish”. Instead, he discovered a place with “a real island mentality” and a brutal wartime history. After 1940, Alderney was occupied by the Nazis, who fortified it and built a concentration camp. The German bunkers remain, along with a bitter memory of occupation.

“See that boulder over there?” he says, stepping into the courtyard behind his studio and pointing at a giant clay sphere. “I’ve used clay from the island, and, like the snowball, I’ve embedded things inside. They will be placed all over the island and, as they erode, what’s inside will leech out. Some of them are very strong — it will take years, but some are by the sea and they might erode more quickly.”

After he had outlined this idea at a public meeting he was asked by an islander not to use barbed wire in the boulders because “memories are that raw”, he says. Pondering his response, he finally alighted on a vivid and moving work: “The boulder I will put outside the concentration camp will have poppy seeds in it, so over decades the seeds will germinate and this red growth will come out of the stone.”

These progressions take Goldsworthy far from the accusations of New Age whimsy that once dogged his work. But to move onwards it is not enough for this artist to build on his ideas from the past, which sometimes seems too cosy, even to him. His constant theme is change and transition, and in that process, he says, some works must inevitably be abandoned.

Take the sandstone cairn that stands sentinel on the road into Penpont, a piece so familiar it could be embossed on Goldsworthy’s business card. You can find a clutch of similar works anywhere between Edinburgh and Oxfordshire; another 20 or so are scattered across three continents.

“I consider the cairn to be finished,” he says, with more than a tinge of contempt in his voice. “When I see the catalogue and I count how many I’ve made, it really annoys me. There is an idea that people become more compromised as they get older — it’s gone the other way with me. I was making them for legitimate reasons, but in retrospect when you see them . . .” He leaves the expletives unspoken.

And yet, just when he thought that he had made his last cairn, the idea revived itself. His plan now is to mark out a rainforest walkway in Queensland, Australia, in a project pregnant with symbolism.

Goldsworthy plots out his artwork rigorously. “There are fig trees in the forest that grow high up in the canopy. A bird eats a fig, then wipes its beak on the bough of another tree. The seed germinates and then these incredible roots, this latticework, falls down around the host tree. It strangles the tree it is growing on — it eats that tree. It is amazing. They call them strangler figs.

“That was a good enough reason to bring the cairn back. I am making a cairn, and I’m putting a strangler fig on top, so it will grow and digest the sculpture.” By then all that old New Age whimsy will have been eaten up, leaving only this great artist.

The Andy Goldsworthy Project is published by Thames and Hudson at £35. To buy it for £31.50 call 0845 2712134 or visit Jupiter Artland reopens on May 14 at Bonnington House, Kirknewton, Edinburgh;

This appeared on page 3 of the Weekend Review section of The Times.

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