Film

Andy Goldsworthy’s Ephemeral Art and Laborious Process, in a New Documentary

In the documentary Leaning into the Wind, the celebrated sculptor and environmental artist muses on the impermanence of his art.

Andy Goldsworthy in <em>Leaning into the Wind</em>, a Magnolia Pictures release (photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures; © Thomas Riedelsheime, all rights reserved)
Andy Goldsworthy in Leaning into the Wind, a Magnolia Pictures release (photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures; © Thomas Riedelsheimer, all rights reserved)

Every article about Andy Goldsworthy tells you he’s an artist who works with nature. Very early on in director Thomas Riedelsheimer’s new film Leaning into the Wind, his second about the artist (after Rivers and Tides, 2001), Goldsworthy  says, “Why even mention it? Nature is everywhere.” For him, the boundaries between nature and self are disappearing fast and that is the basic philosophy behind every piece of art he creates. His artistic journey is an exploration of the inherent connectedness binding people, places, and the environment. When, in one scene, he enters a mud hut in Rio de Janeiro, he feels the presence of the people who have been there before him. It is an innate connection that he detects, acknowledges, and strengthens through his art. There is an almost Wordsworthian earnestness in Goldsworthy’s quest to connect with nature, which is awe-inspiring almost to a fault.

Andy Goldsworthy in <em>Leaning into the Wind</em>, a Magnolia Pictures release (photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures; © Thomas Riedelsheime, all rights reserved)
Andy Goldsworthy in Leaning into the Wind, a Magnolia Pictures release (photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures; © Thomas Riedelsheimer, all rights reserved)

In the Brazilian hut, the artist sees a little circle of sunlight on the mud floor and traces the ray of light to a hole in the ceiling; his hands unsettle the dust, as it goes on to draw shifting shapes against this sliver of light. He keeps unsettling the dust and playing with the ray of light till the light and the dust are indistinguishable from one another. Riedelsheimer’s camera captures the initiation, the peak, and the disintegration of this process. As much as Goldsworthy is a sculptor, he is also a rigorous photo archivist. He believes in preserving the moment in which his ephemeral and shape-shifting pieces of art look their aesthetic best.

Themes of labor and cyclical rhythms recur in the film, as is only fitting given that Goldsworthy started out as a farmer. It is the rhythm of gathering, stacking, cutting, and building that pushed him into creating art. He has drawn a lot from the physical toil that goes into farming. Riedelsheimer constantly focuses on the artist’s hands as he lifts, cuts, pastes, and creates. Leaning into the Wind conveys a sense of Goldsworthy’s art being a product of immense labor, rather than the result of whimsical inspiration.

Andy Goldsworthy in <em>Leaning into the Wind</em>, a Magnolia Pictures release (photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures; © Thomas Riedelsheime, all rights reserved)
Andy Goldsworthy in Leaning into the Wind, a Magnolia Pictures release (photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures; © Thomas Riedelsheimer, all rights reserved)

Riedelsheimer’s film is a travelogue of Goldsworthy’s visits to San Francisco, Dumfriesshire, Morecambe, Missouri, Gabon, and Southern France. His camera tracks the artist’s journeys, and even beyond his physical travelling, it moves in and out of Goldsworthy’s memories, taking us to Clougha Pike, Times Square, Leeds, and many other unnamed spaces inside the artist’s mind, with Goldsworthy’s voice guiding us. Standing at Morecambe, at a point where ancient open stone graves lie exposed, Goldsworthy talks of his school in Leeds, of the church where he married his (now departed) former wife, and of his famous Clougha Pike sculpture, which is a conglomeration of all his life’s experiences in the aforementioned places. To take memories from all over and deposit them in a different place is the way he makes his stories travel; it is his way of leaving his presence behind.

Andy Goldsworthy in <em>Leaning into the Wind</em>, a Magnolia Pictures release (photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures; © Andy Goldsworthy, all rights reserved)
Andy Goldsworthy in Leaning into the Wind, a Magnolia Pictures release (photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures; © Andy Goldsworthy, all rights reserved)

In Dumfriesshire, Scotland (where he lives), Goldsworthy sees a huge canvas staring at his face after a gigantic elm tree falls. At first, his art with the tree reflects the cracks and the sharpness of the fall; then, when he fills the cracks with snow, we sense a slow dissipation of the violence of the fall as the elm log starts responding to the passing seasons. Goldsworthy uses the brightest yellow autumnal leaves to celebrate the rejuvenation of the tree, its prolonged life as art — while completely aware of the eventual disintegration of the leaves and the tree itself. He incorporates death into the process of art making and celebrates the eternal kinetics of nature and seasons, so much so that he names such artworks Ephemeral Works. That is when he decides to photograph his artworks: to capture a moment, to freeze a memory in the forever-shifting dynamics of time and life. We see the yellowest of yellows and the greenest of greens frozen in photographs, as the camera hovers over the same trees, leaves, and grass as they quietly fade away. There is always a danger in seeing such transient artworks on screen, for the illusionary permanence that film offers. For viewers who haven’t seen Goldsworthy’s art change with time, the gaze of Riedelsheimer’s camera almost imparts a false stability to the  works.

Andy Goldsworthy in <em>Leaning into the Wind</em>, a Magnolia Pictures release (photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures; © Thomas Riedelsheime, all rights reserved)
Andy Goldsworthy in Leaning into the Wind, a Magnolia Pictures release (photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures; © Thomas Riedelsheimer, all rights reserved)

However, Goldsworthy’s art is driven by an awareness of instability and mortality, which makes it a profound celebration of the present, of life. In one scene, he giddily lies down on the ground in the rain, leaving behind a dry outline of his body. He then walks away, knowing that the rain will fill his “rain shadow,” yet doing it anyway, as if to prove that he was here — present yet at peace with the inescapability of erasure. In another scene, the artist pastes the brightest petals onto pedestrian roads with water, knowing that rain water will inevitably sweep it all away. For him, the point is the joy of seeing the beauty of red and yellow petals lighting up the concrete.

As Goldworthy admits, his life did not take the linear, ambitious path he had envisioned in his youth. As the screen fills with an image of Goldsworthy’s face coughing up petals and rising into the air against moss covered hills, only to be blown away by a gust of wind, we see the cyclical processes that are inherent in his art. What goes away comes back, and what comes in must go away. The joy of freezing the moment when his works bloom pushes the 61-year-old to forget the pain of falling off a tree when he was 14, lean into the wind, walk on — through forests, brooks, and farmlands — and come out with the brightest flowers in hand.

Leaning into the Wind is playing at Film Forum (209 West Houston Street, West Village, Manhattan).

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