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Grab Some Stones: Andy Goldsworthy's Rivers and Tides

by Sam Bower, (2002)

This extraordinary 90 minute documentary film about the work of Andy Goldsworthy is even worth driving a (gasp!) gas guzzling SUV for hours to go see. This is not an endorsement of SUVs or long road trips. This is simply a marvelous film about the work of the most influential sculptor of the 20th Century and I hope it gets seen and shown in theaters everywhere.

I think you should stop filming now and go grab some stones and make yourself useful. -Andy Goldsworthy

The winding rivers, craggy hills, pastures and rocky coastlines where Goldsworthy makes and photographs his work are well represented in this major documentary by Thomas Reidelsheimer. Alternating scenes of natural forms, his family "Home Base" in Penpont, Scotland, the swirl of river foam, the rushing tides and shaggy Alpine cattle in the Highlands watching him work contextualize scenes of the artist with bruised muddy hands, throwing snow, joining leaves and reeds, or stacking branches and stones to create his trademark cairns, holes and meandering lines.

"Rivers and Tides" gives a powerful sense of Goldsworthy's work and how it relates to his life and the beautiful outdoor places where he spends so much of his time. "I am so amazed at times that I am actually alive", he confesses at one point. That sense of wonder and an almost humming force of nature permeates his work and is part of its draw. His widely distributed coffee-table books (which were conveniently available for sale next to the soft drinks at the theater concession stand!) document the more ephemeral pieces while the longer lasting commissioned works can be seen in museums and sculpture parks around the world.

The film shows his successes and equally frequent failures as well. A precariously stacked stone form collapses over and over as he works on it, a delicate reed lattice held together with thorns crumbles in the wind before it's done. There is a palpable tension throughout the film. "When I make a work I often take it to the very edge of its collapse." "Growth, time, change and the idea of flow in nature" are his themes. If it breaks apart, it just means he still needs to learn more about the material and the place and try again.

There are treasures of thought, sight and sound in this film which during the two times I saw it were echoed by regular sighs and approving hmmms from the audience. To see how he weaves (and then crawls out of) a big driftwood hole, and to learn where he collects red stones to grind and his recipe of found clay and human hair applied, with the help of volunteers, to an enormous wall where it is left to crack and dry is fascinating. The endless tides, wind, sun, and cold which determine and destroy Goldsworthy's work are a major presence in the film. It was also helpful to see his home office/studio. Thousands of images of his work are stored in handsome floor to ceiling illuminated wooden viewing cabinets and his assistant neatly prepares large format prints for exhibition on top of even larger white tables nearby. Goldsworthy carefully documents everything he makes and has shelves full of images which haven't made it into his books. He has a nice studio.

There are some environmentalists and artists who dismiss Goldsworthy's work as decorative and ultimately peripheral to the truly urgent issues of our time. They imply that perhaps his talents might be better put to use cleaning up polluted watersheds or combatting deforestation more directly. The thinking goes that if the house is on fire do you make a pretty tower out of chairs?

Setting aside the - diversity of approaches is good - mantra for a moment, this film reinforces my view that Goldsworthy's impact is far more subtle, profound and wide reaching than his critics give him credit for. Visually stunning, his art draws people in and celebrates "seeing something you never saw before, that was always there". He works hard to make it look effortless.

Because the materials he uses are so ordinary, his transformations, taken to extremes, become so much more extraordinary. Rocks, leaves, icicles, dandelions, air. His art is empowering. He has been extremely prolific and published over a half dozen sexy books documenting his work. This has helped him bring abstract geometric art and Klee-like lines back into the world through his collaborations with nature. This art isn't reserved for art world insiders dressed in black. Whenever I go hiking now I see precariously stacked stone columns near the parking lots, spiral patterns made of twigs, and mounds of pine cones celebrating gravity and place. People who often wouldn't see themselves as "artists" make these things. Granted that many other artists work with natural materials and have been for years. Goldsworthy happens to be the most visible of these artists. My Mom began to make "little Goldsworthys" in the yard after seeing his books.

The appreciation for and connection to the cycles of life, the seasons, and the rivers and tides expressed in Goldsworthy's art is deeply important. It is what ultimately rests beneath the efforts of others to save a redwood grove, restore wetlands and create other types of environmental art.

"Rivers and Tides" was awarded Best Documentary Film by the San Francisco International Film Festival, Certificate for Outstanding Achievement from the Brooklyn International Film Festival and if the extended runs in theaters in the San Francisco Area are any indication, it will have a significant impact on the popularization of this growing art movement. It re-emphasizes for me the importance of collaboration (between artist and film maker, word and deed, person and place) and the vital role of the media in all its diversity to get this message out there. It is a moving reminder of the power of art to get people excited about life and the beauty of nature.

We need this film. Please see "Rivers and Tides". Make better art. Save the earth.

(And kindly ditch the SUV unless you really need it...)

Playing at a theater near you!

© 2010