publication of the International Sculpture Center
in Nature and Culture: Andy Goldsworthy
Three Cairns demonstrates several important aspects of
by Lenore Metrick
to Contents page>
Elm Leaves Scotland, 2002.
View of site-specific work.
work receives accolades for its lack of manufacture. Each piece features
nature unadulterated: branches, stones, leaves, and snow.
It takes an effort to step back from Goldsworthys virtuoso performance
and see beyond feats of technical skill, to realize that his art consists
not in uncovering nature but in his ability to make artifice appear naturalized.
While Goldsworthy is the first to clarify that he uses modern tools and
machines, he as quickly emphasizes that when adhering chains of poppy
petals or icicle spirals, he uses no glue: spit is his adhesive.
And the backdrop for this work is naturehe situates his art on forest
grounds or in trees or streams. Because of its association with nature
or, in the case of the cairns, pre-modern culture, Goldsworthys
work tends to be seen as a visionary transmission direct from nature itself.
His ephemeral sculptures rely on an abstraction that has become so acclimated
that it no longer requires any effort of vision, and the viewer does not
notice it as art. Yet while nature is messy, sloppy, dirty, random, arbitrary,
and overabundant, Goldsworthy creates order: meticulously selecting materials,
sequence, and ultimate form. In Goldsworthys art nothing ever appears
decrepit or gross.
Richard Long arranged
stones into a circle, minimally intervening with nature. Although Goldsworthy
gives himself more latitude, positioning the natural materials into more
exceptional situations, in the first instant of their viewing his ephemeral
pieces raise the possibility that nature alone produced these remarkable
spectacles. To create this effect, Goldsworthy selects elements of nature
and arranges them until they just exceed the limit possible for natural
organization and enter into an irrefutable human ordering. But by erasing
traces of his own hand he heightens the affinity between his constructions
and their setting and conceals the history of his intervention. Lines
of bright pink that drip down from shrubbery, as in the line of licked
poppy petals (1984), or the beech trunk with its shock of green moss (1999)
seem heightened extensions of a natural intensity, as if centrifugal force
pulled them together for that instant, and we glimpse them just before
they drip, collapse, or tumble over. Through his photographs of sycamore
leaves pinned together with pine needles hung from a tree (1988) we voyeuristically
participate in the fragile line of light and lilting leaves before they
are blown apart, upsetting the entire scheme.
Mud/moss/beech tree/spring into summer/Drumlangrig, Dumfriesshire,
Unique Cibachrome print,
92.25 x 38.75 x 1.5 in.
courtesy: Galerie Lelong
East Coast Cairn, 2001.
Limestone, 8.5 x 21.6 ft.
Work installed at
the Neuberger Museum of Art.
photographs allow us to sustain that privileged moment of suspension:
a tension, an eternal hesitation, a step outside linear time. His work
satisfies our expectation that such a perfect moment can be found and
lived, endorsing our myth of direct and unmediated communication between
nature and culture. Goldsworthys art appears to restore some kind
of clairvoyance, allowing us to see clearly what has always been there.
In this narrative, art becomes less a creative product and more an uncovering
of nature; the artist serves as a handmaiden to nature.
interest in situating art on the cusp where nature becomes articulate
through culture results in epigrammatic, non-discursive works. Independently
the components do not exist as art: separate them and they revert entirely
back to natureleaves, grass, sticks, rocks. Only the whole is intelligible
to culture, not by virtue of its materials but through its participation
While his earliest
works in any medium are complete artworks in themselves, they also function
as building blocks, familiarizing Goldsworthy with a materials properties
and adding to his aesthetic vocabulary. In many of these pieces the whole
is the sum of its parts. Much like the complete oneness of a sand dune
or a stone, pieces such as stick stack (1980) and trench
(1987) seem to preclude examination of part-to-part relationships, impelling
acceptance as a single totality.
But further explorations
become more discursive, proportional to Goldsworthys familiarity
with the material. We see this in his succession of leaf sculptures. In
the earliest ones, overlapping leaves emphasize their contrasting elements
through a color change (Sycamore, 1979), a pattern formed by zigzag
edges (Elm, 1978), or through the thin raised line of the stem
(Sycamore, 1984): essentially two-dimensional patterns placed on
the ground. The small sycamore leaf boxes created in 1984 have a self-contained
density: they assert an emblematic presence, yet they remain closed and
elemental. But his leaf box shown in the Venice Biennale (1988) tentatively
supports itself on its stems; while the sycamore box (1989), extending
and stretching its stem legs, playfully expresses part-to-part relations.1
East Coast Cairn/Made Between High Tides/No Collapses/Calm/New Rochelle,
New York/November 2001, 2001. Stone. Set of 13 unique Cibachrome prints.
Galerie Lelong and Haines Gallery
The impression that
later art pieces arose from the early ones by a natural or evolutionarily
inevitability needs to be quickly deposed. Perhaps the most convincing
argument against this misconception is to look at the same early leaf
pieces and trace them through another path.The jagged edge in Horse
Chestnut (Yorkshire, 1982) can be seen as leading Goldsworthy to his
interest in a serpentine pathway, which appears first in his pieces using
leaves only and then in works in which coils of leaves unravel as they
float on water (Hazel leaves in a rock pool floating downstream,
Dumfriesshire, 1991). This undulating form recurs, still ephemerally,
in pieces using river clay, as well as in works with ferns or dried clay
on gallery walls (Musée Departemental de Digne, France). And the
wave form becomes set, stacked in stone in Stone River (Stanford,
2002). The wall solidifies and seems to make permanent the flow that had
previously been expressed as transient and malleable. Any number of paths
can be traced because the art arises not from nature but from the artists
explorations of particular aspects that sustain his interest, which he
subsequently realizes through a number of materials and variations of
arranges natural elements until
they just exceed the limit of natural organization.
In Stone River,
the heavy stone mass with its sharp peaked upper edge reveals Goldsworthys
play with contradictory concepts, found throughout his works. Leaf
hole (1988), at the Centre dArt Contemporain, Castres, exploited
the dual lineage of one of his motifs: holes exist in nature but also
derive from contemporary visual culture (Richard Longs stone circles
or Kenneth Nolans painted rings come to mind). Leaf hole
articulates Goldsworthys interest in shaping containers not only
for their outer form, as in the leaf boxes, but also for the voids thus
fascination with the power of the void becomes most developed in his work
with cairns. Since his first work of stacked stone in 1980, he has explored
the cairns affinity with silences. The cairn is a tangible manifestation
of negative spaces, marking the existence of people no longer present.2
Sculptures such as Limestone Cones (1985) in Brough, Cumbria, stand
as loci for these convergences.
latest piece, Three Cairns (2002), pushes conceptual limits. We
might say that it achieves the apotheosis of cairns. We see immediately
how it elaborates questions of presence and absence initiated in earlier
investigations of holes and cairns, exploring their conceptual as well
as their physical properties.3
This overtly architectural piece encompasses an enormous area, literally
a continent. Goldsworthy built three permanent cairns, each about eight
feet tall: on the east coast at the Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase,
New York; on the west coast at the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego;
and in the Midwest at the sculpture garden of the Des Moines Art Center.
At the Des Moines site he also built three stone walls approximately 13
feet high, almost nine feet deep, and 14 feet wide, each roughly 60 feet
from the central cairn. The walls are solid on three sides. The fourth
side, facing the cairn, has a large opening, chiseled to form a cavity
duplicating one of the three cairns in shape and size. In each wall, then,
negative space forms a cairn. Near each site Goldsworthy also constructed
a second cairn as a temporary sculpture. The two coastal temporary cairns
were quickly destroyed by water, while the temporary Midwestern cairn,
engulfed by burning prairie grasses, still endures.
Prairie Cairn/For My Father/Newton, Iowa, 20012002,
two views of the work during a controlled prairie burn at the Conard
Environmental Research Area, Grinnell, Iowa.
top: Mike Crall, Des Moines Art Center. above:Lenore Metrick
In the orchestration
of negative and positive forms Goldsworthy surpasses the dialectical possibilities
of individual cairns and holes or voids. At its most simple, the Des Moines
piece reads as built cairn (presence), negative space cairn (absence).
But vision immediately begins to insist otherwise: the depth within the
cubicles seems not merely hollow but also present and solid. Entering
the negative space of the chamber brings an encounter with volume, with
the fullness of space, a tactile absorption into its otherwise hidden
interior. An anticipation of absence gives way to a sense of wholeness.
In another inversion, the built cairn standing alone in the environment
begins to speak of isolation and absence. This plays against the cairns
irrefutable density and gravity, its capacity to pull people in.
Just as Goldsworthys
art comprehends, even exploits, the human propensity to idealize nature,
it also dehistoricizes the past. Coupled with his preference for rural
sites without evidence of industrialization, the works seem to affirm
not an anti-contemporary attitude but an a-contemporary one. The modern
urban world never directly enters. But then are his cairns merely instant
projecting something like a mythic present, Goldsworthys work cannot
be reduced to a form of nostalgia. The Iowa cairns use indigenous stone
and are set among trees in a park-like setting, but unlike previous cairns,
these have been constructed with mathematical precision. The stones have
been precisely cut to form a smooth gradated surface; the three wall structures
have accurately squared corners and even sides. While maintaining the
shape and therefore the implications and meanings of cairns, Goldsworthy
creates an affinity between these structures and the bordering architecture
of the Art Center. In acknowledging natural and created structures, Three
Cairns explicitly rejects the entrenched perception of modernity as
exclusively urban. They include the slower pace of a modernity still forming
itself, found almost everywhere outside of the few mega-urban microcosms
of New York, London, Paris. They remind us that we create contemporary
culture from constant negotiations with the still-present past and through
mediation with fragments of nature.
art, much of which is ephemeral, has become familiar through large coffee
table books displaying colorful, finely reproduced photographs, accompanied
by a supporting text written by Goldsworthy. Most of the pieces no longer
exist. He encourages viewing his photographs as documents, a window to
his art, and not as the art itself, stating that his photographic process
uses no devices to alter how the piece actually appeared. While one of
the first epithets given to photography was the pencil of nature,
we are reminded that people dont take photographs, they make photographs.4
Photographing sculpture involves choice and decision and point of viewthere
is no objective image. Some photographs of sculpture cease to be merely
mediators between the sculpture and the audience and have become art objects
themselves, as with Edward Steichens 1902 photograph of Rodins
sculpture. The question is: When does mediation end and the medium itself
become the art?
images displace our attention from the surface layer of photography. Although
both photographic medium and subject contribute meaning, we imagine that
we look through the photograph rather than at it. He effects this by constructing
the ephemeral pieces to anticipate the photographic viewpoint. Unlike
most sculpture in which the reduction of three dimensions presents a frustrating
decision for a singular photographic view, Goldsworthys sculpture
already appears two dimensional and coincident with the photographs
picture plane, with one clearly optimal view. Through photography, the
sculpture loses its autonomy as a created thing. Although Goldsworthy
laboriously constructs each sculpture, the photograph superimposes a reading
of discovery upon his art. Like safari photographs that appear to capture
rare phenomena, these photographs are complicit in fostering the belief
that we have discovered a found natural object, as opposed to viewing
a photograph of a work of art.
text-based analysis has proven to be a powerful system for comprehending
aspects of art, it fails the visual arts by acknowledging only those elements
of visual representation that coincide with language. For sculpture, the
effects of such limitations have been profound. Textual characteristics
and relationships outside of the art piece per se are highlighted, while
visual components such as volume and texture are minimized or disregarded.
The same analysis that perceptively reads conceptual works disenfranchises
art such as Goldsworthys, which is structured less linguisticallythe
silences, the way a single cairn carries its remoteness, even the colors
often are lost.
By locating his work
outside of artistic centers and the central critical discourse, Goldsworthy
has traded one myth for another: his sculpture has become entrenched in
a popular vernacular rather than postmodern jargon. Many people who generally
distrust art recognize something in Goldsworthys work with which
they can participatethe inclusion seemingly affirming that no intellectual
investment is necessary. Goldsworthys art becomes described in a
manner that conflates art and life.
Coast Cairn/Made Between High Tides/Difficult Stone/Returned the
Following Morning/Pigeon Point/23, 24 August 2001, 2001.
Suite of 13 unique Cibachrome prints.
Galerie Lelong and Haines Gallery
But after all is
there any harm in naturalized discourse? Goldsworthy himself often appears
to endorse it;
his book titles betray that tendency. To pick just three: Stone;
Wood; and Time are grand naturalisms
that deflect further exploration. But artist and viewers speak the same
words with, I believe, quite different intentions. Goldsworthys
words reflect his experiential relationship with the work. This becomes
dent in his response to a viewers comment: The most rewarding
thing ever said to me was by a Dutch woman of a shape I had carved in
sand. She said, Thank you for showing me that was there. That
is what my work does for me myself, the discovering what was there.
Artists strive to
experience ideas physically, to give tangibility to ideas. Absorbed in
the process of creation, they describe a sensation of uncovering what
existed, of materializing what was invisible. But this prior existence
never was within nature, it is found in the mind of the artist. The language
blunts the distinction between giving physical expression to a concept
versus uncovering something within nature. These signal two disparate
orientations toward visual art, merged into one passive approach by a
Throughout the last
century, modern arts agenda has been to call attention to the process
of its making, emphasizing its fabrication and banishing a view of art
that mistakes it for nature. Goldsworthys art disguises its seams
and persuades the viewer to disregard its artifice, effortlessly undoing
the past 100 years of art. Whether Goldsworthy adopts these postures deliberately
à la Andy Warhol or not, the result remains that his art demands
a new critical attention that addresses aspects of visual culture now
only addressed in essentializing language. His art has begun a conversation
among people who had previously not participated, expanding the limits
of the art world.
Their inclusion poses
a critical challenge to art discourse. Goldsworthys work offers
a choice: his sculpure plays on the presumption of an essentialized or
mythic world, but it also awaits our recognitiondespite colored
leaves and spit rather than pigment and glue, or more accurately because
of themof the myths cultural construction.
Metrick is a freelance art critic, and Docent Educator at the Des Moines
Art Center. She is currently working on her dissertation at the University
1 Paul Nesbitts essay Leafworks provides a chronological
detailing of the leaf pieces from the earliest in 1977 through 1990. He
states that Goldsworthy began to build up knowledge of leaves through
the process of making sculpture and proceeds to enumerate the works
and their increased proficiency. See Hand to Earth: Andy Goldsworthy
19761990 (New York: Abrams, 1993), p. 99.
2 Stacked Stone, 1980, Blaenau Flestiniog, Wales.
3 This piece was co-curated by Susan Talbot, Museum Director, and Chris
Gilbert, Associate Curator, both at the Des Moines Art Center.
4 See W.H. Fox Talbot, The Pencil of Nature (London, 1844).