Disjunctions in Nature and Culture: Andy Goldsworthy

Three Cairns demonstrates several important aspects of Goldsworthy’s career.

East Coast Cairn/Made Between High Tides/No Collapses/Calm/New Rochelle, New York/November 2001, 2001. Stone. Set of 13 unique Cibachrome prints. Photo: Courtesy Galerie Lelong and Haines Gallery.

Andy Goldsworthy’s 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 Goldsworthy’s 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 nature—he 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, Goldsworthy’s 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 Goldsworthy’s 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.

Elm Leaves Scotland, 2002. View of site-specific work.

Goldsworthy’s 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. Goldsworthy’s 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.

Goldsworthy’s 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 nature—leaves, grass, sticks, rocks. Only the whole is intelligible to culture, not by virtue of its materials but through its participation as art.

While his earliest works in any medium are complete artworks in themselves, they also function as building blocks, familiarizing Goldsworthy with a material’s 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.

Prairie Cairn/For My Father/Newton, Iowa, 2001–2002, 2001–02. Stone, view of the work during a controlled prairie burn at the Conard Environmental Research Area, Grinnell, Iowa. Photo: Lenore Metrick.

But further explorations become more discursive, proportional to Goldsworthy’s 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

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 artist’s explorations of particular aspects that sustain his interest, which he subsequently realizes through a number of materials and variations of form.

Prairie Cairn/For My Father/Newton, Iowa, 2001–2002, 2001–02. Stone, view of the work during a controlled prairie burn at the Conard Environmental Research Area, Grinnell, Iowa. Photo: Mike Crall, Des Moines Art Center.

In Stone River, the heavy stone mass with its sharp peaked upper edge reveals Goldsworthy’s play with contradictory concepts, found throughout his works. Leaf hole (1988), at the Centre d’Art Contemporain, Castres, exploited the dual lineage of one of his motifs: holes exist in nature but also derive from contemporary visual culture (Richard Long’s stone circles or Kenneth Nolan’s painted rings come to mind). Leaf hole articulates Goldsworthy’s interest in shaping containers not only for their outer form, as in the leaf boxes, but also for the voids thus created.

Goldsworthy’s 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 cairn’s 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.

West 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. Photo: Courtesy Galerie Lelong and Haines Gallery.

Goldsworthy’s 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.

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 cairn’s irrefutable density and gravity, its capacity to pull people in.

Just as Goldsworthy’s 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 Stonehenge”?

East Coast Cairn, 2001. Limestone, 8.5 x 21.6 ft. Work installed at the Neuberger Museum of Art. Photo: Courtesy Jim Frank.

Though seductively projecting something like a mythic present, Goldsworthy’s 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.

Goldsworthy’s 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 don’t take photographs, they make photographs.4 Photographing sculpture involves choice and decision and point of view—there 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 Steichen’s 1902 photograph of Rodin’s sculpture. The question is: When does mediation end and the medium itself become the art?

Mud/moss/beech tree/spring into summer/Drumlangrig, Dumfriesshire, 1999. Unique Cibachrome print, 92.25 x 38.75 x 1.5 in. Photo: Courtesy Galerie Lelong.

Goldsworthy’s 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, Goldsworthy’s sculpture already appears two dimensional and coincident with the photograph’s 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.

Although postmodern 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 Goldsworthy’s, which is structured less linguistically—the 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 Goldsworthy’s work with which they can participate—the inclusion seemingly affirming that no intellectual investment is necessary. Goldsworthy’s art becomes described in a manner that conflates art and life.

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: StoneWood; and Time are grand naturalisms that deflect further exploration. But artist and viewers speak the same words with, I believe, quite different intentions. Goldsworthy’s words reflect his experiential relationship with the work. This becomes evident in his response to a viewer’s 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 shared rhetoric.

Throughout the last century, modern art’s 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. Goldsworthy’s 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. Goldsworthy’s work offers a choice: his sculpure plays on the presumption of an essentialized or mythic world, but it also awaits our recognition—despite colored leaves and spit rather than pigment and glue, or more accurately because of them—of the myth’s cultural construction.

Lenore 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 of Chicago.

1 Paul Nesbitt’s 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 Sculpture 1976–1990 (New York: Abrams, 1993), p. 99.
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).