Clay Wall, 2000. Site-specific installation of wood, hair, and clay extracted from the grounds of Storm King Art Center. Executed with the help of wallers from Scotland. Photo: Courtesy Galerie Lelong.

Natural Time and Human Experience: Andy Goldsworthy’s Dialogue with Modernity

In southern England’s West Sussex, the roads, lanes, and paths are quieter and more distinctively rural than the eastern parts of the region. Although the famous east-west chalk escarpment of the South Downs’ hills straddles the entire county, there’s no competing urban center to match the frenetic pace and gloss of Brighton. It is a beautiful, if recognizably worked, managed, and for the most part prosperous region of England, the land holding onto its agricultural character, elements of the past pulled into the present.

What has been missing from West Sussex is a sense of participation in contemporary British culture. Travel through its small villages, and you would be forgiven for thinking that the cultural upheavals of the last decade or so never happened. In today’s Britain the cultural industries are so entwined with regeneration, tourism, and other regional economic projects that using art to open up the commercial prospects of every quiet backwater is a ubiquitous policy. So four years ago, regional tourism officers began casting around for ways to use contemporary art to lure both attention and audiences to their particular neck of the Sussex woods. They took their case to Stefan van Raay, the newly appointed director of the local Pallant House Gallery, in the area’s historic cathedral city, Chichester.

View of Chalk Stones, 2002. 14 sculpted chalk stones, installed at West Dean, West Sussex, U.K. Photo: Countryside agency/peter greenhalf/sussex downs AONB.

Raay must have considered who would meet the criterion of working in the natural surroundings, yet would be contemporary and high profile enough to attract the attention of the notoriously London-centered media. He had put on the first Scottish show of Britain’s best-known land artist, Andy Goldsworthy. He also knew that for the last decade Goldsworthy had been looking for the right place to site a singular art project, a path made out of chalk created specially for walking on during the night hours, when the material would reflect the lucent dark light of the moon.

With the possibility of realizing a long-cherished project appealing to Goldsworthy, various other strands of a major arts program began gaining momentum, and the idea of a series of chalk stones placed along a country path took shape as a parallel piece to the moonlit path. Last year, on the eve of midsummer, after any number of difficulties – including building permit problems and uncertainty about a chunk of funding – Goldsworthy’s work and a related ensemble of installations and exhibitions finally opened.

View of Chalk Stones, 2002. 14 sculpted chalk stones, installed at West Dean, West Sussex, U.K. Photo: Frances Lord.

As the last of the chalk boulders were being hewn into shape, Goldsworthy repeatedly referred in interviews and press releases to how he has long been drawn to this soft, porous, and at times brilliantly white sedimentary material.

The first time he experienced natural chalk, at the Goodwood Sculpture Park many years ago, it brought intense surprise. “I found,” he said during a meeting while working on the chalk boulders, “the earth was white, and wet, which was like finding the sky in the ground. It was a beautiful contradiction of everything I held to be true about the earth.”

Goldsworthy’s two pieces use the chalk in completely different ways. The trail includes 14 chalk boulders, some up to 14 metric tons in weight, marking a path within the South Downs park land running from Cocking to opposite West Dean College, the respected Arts and Crafts center at the edge of the small village of Singleton. The meandering Moonlit Path consists of crushed chalk, set beneath towering oak woodland. It is a dozen or so miles away on the edge of the grounds of Petworth House.

View of Chalk Stones, 2002. 14 sculpted chalk stones, installed at West Dean, West Sussex, U.K. Photo: Frances Lord.

Goldsworthy has spoken of the moonlit walk as “an idea of doing something for the night, the idea of a line which would lead you into a place you wouldn’t normally go.” He has written of how the sense of place changes from day to night. Until the Petworth estate’s invitation, the idea always became snagged in legal red tape: the notion of people wandering in the woods at night was a bit too wild for other possible sites. At Petworth, the work has remained open for a whole year, with organized walks held during, as well as immediately before and after, each month’s full moon. Goldsworthy had already made other pieces for the night, but Moonlit Path directly engages with the landscape as a path, an “aspect of the landscape drawn by the activities of people.”

Walking the other trail in daylight, the contrast between the crushed chalk chippings and the vast boulders is evident. In the diary he kept during the project, Goldsworthy remarks on the brightness of the powder compared to the original lumpy material, a phenomenon that surprised him. He also notes how working with chalk is closely interconnected with the contingencies of weather. A very wet early summer meant that completing the boulders turned out to be a more complicated process than anticipated: the boulders needed to dry undercover in order to draw their whiteness out before they could be placed along the trail. Goldsworthy hoped that people would come upon the boulders as an alien out-of-placeness, unconnected to the earthbound chalk invisible underfoot, hence his conviction that they needed to begin white. Over the next two or three years they will gradually fade and color, “from white to the place.” How long the boulders will remain in the elements appears undecided.

Cut out of the ground at a local chalk quarry, the sheer size of the stones influenced their eventual siting along the trail. In his diary, Goldsworthy writes how the stones reminded him of previous works. Although clearly stone, the chalk boulders offered the sense of working with a leaf. Once completed, their rounded quality was powerfully reminiscent of the sandstone that Goldsworthy had smoothed out of soil in Santa Fe. The process of completing what nature carries out in its own time – the elemental rounding and smoothing of the stones’ surfaces – dramaticizes how strange the immediate world around us can appear when it is framed in slightly different contexts. This transformation is another part of Goldsworthy’s approach, which works within, rather than across, the grains of nature.

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.

Some way along the path I come across the boulders, set at seemingly random but, in fact, carefully chosen points. Though large, they appear restrained as human interventions in the land: one boulder emerging out of a clump of nettles, another semi-hidden in the scrub beside the track. Their spheroid heaviness, the chalk still bright in the high-summer sun, reminds one of the archetypal, primal nature of Goldsworthy’s forms, whether spirals, circles, lozenges, or spheres. The stones appear as primary artifacts of the world, half-hewn, half-elemental, though also bound by deep time, having lain undisturbed underground for literally thousands and thousands of years. As Lucy Lippard states in Overlay, stone suggests immortality merely because “it has survived.” For Goldsworthy, an artist recognized for working with the fast-changing transience of nature, these stones have a much more slow-motion ephemerality, making a conceptual link to his London installation, Midsummer Snowballs, which appeared in the Barbican district on the same midsummer evenings exactly two years earlier.

Indeed, Moonlit Path and the chalk boulders are his first large-scale series of interlinked exhibitions in Britain since the Barbican exhibition, “Time.” It isn’t chance, of course, that these works were timed to open exactly two years after that show. It is also hardly coincidental that the form and color of the 14 boulders are related to Goldsworthy’s snowballs, which appeared in the streets around the Barbican. There, Goldsworthy prepared 12 snowballs from snow frozen in Scotland. Each was filled with materials local to his Dumfriesshire home – berries, grain, straw – transported south, and left to melt in the course of the next few days to the bemusement of commuters and local residents.

Beech branches/Finsbury Square & Moorgate/Early Afternoon/21 June 2000, 2000. View of one of the Midsummer Snowballs installed in London.

Midsummer Snowballs was only part of a showcase of Goldsworthy’s work, which, alongside the launch of his book Time, featured a parallel exhibition and series of events at the London Barbican Arts complex. These included the performance of Le danse du temps, the second of his collaborations with the French dance company Ballet Atlantique, to a score by the Vietnamese composer Ton-That Tiet. The dance also integrated a real-time film of a Goldsworthy-crafted clay wall cracking, projected onto the stage’s backdrop, while a real clay wall curved around the gallery space, its cracks fissuring in every direction, towering over Rock Pool, an installation in which melted stones splayed across the floor. These were supported by further new media experiments, including video works of the stones melting inside Goldsworthy’s kiln and a live Web cast of the snowballs in their street settings. The different elements revealed a new dimension to Goldsworthy’s work, exploring, and even embracing, new media. The vivid ochre stones that Goldsworthy had melted into new, wholly unrecognizable wodges of transformed matter looked as if they had stickily oozed and bubbled onto the floorspace. The wall, too, was dramatic and overpowering in its scale.

Goldsworthy has suggested that the snowballs, the melted stones, and the clay wall, as with other pieces, are powerful, almost primal images of the nature of “how things are,” and of the built environment in which they are contained. This is at odds with the usual perception of Goldsworthy at the heart of a narrow, purist constituency in environmental art, which only uses natural materials in natural photogenic situs, a position he is at pains to distance himself from. In the forward to Time, he points to how he uses modern technology, contending that both his life and work are completely 21st century. He would not, he says, pretend to get to America by swimming. This stance is also at odds with the claim made by certain critics that Goldsworthy is more craftsperson than artist – one reason for his exclusion from (and Richard Long’s inclusion in) London’s Tate Modern. Certainly, “Time”’s ensemble of pieces emphasized a more complex relationship to modernity than is usually admitted in Goldsworthy’s case. The strangely alien ambiance of the melted stone evoked igneous metamorphosis: the resulting lumps, folds, and warps – almost postmodern signifiers of the non-platonic – at odds with the ideal harmonious world imputed to Goldsworthy’s work. The use of film, video, and the Internet, all in the “Ur-urban” site of London’s City district, also suggests a broader context for his work than has generally been acknowledged. The city setting and the melted stone resonated richly in an area that suffered bombing and fire in the London blitz of World War II. Goldsworthy researched stories of buildings in the immediate area “literally melting,” so that, for him, the melted stones draw on longer histories and fit a conceptual, carefully thought-out backdrop, pushing the envelope of connections for a particular – manmade – place.

Sheep’s wool/Charterhouse Square/Mornings/21, 22 June 2000, 2000.

War and peace bring different kinds of change to the humdrum lives of cities, which Goldsworthy echoes by engaging with the subtleties of slower-motion transience. His broader point is to challenge the sense of the city’s permanence, its aura of strength, stability, and longevity, to reveal the fragility of this permanence and to frame it within the temporal fact that change is all – all the more so in the ever-changing city. For Goldsworthy, the clay wall plays with the ambiguities of permanence. It is both a meditation on the land and the material that London is built upon, the clay basin of the river Thames.

In a similar vein, the snowballs weren’t about snow as such, but about the processes of time and change. These pieces marked the closest Goldsworthy could get to the city’s everyday life, a dialogue of flows between the snowballs and the city’s inhabitants, particularly the daily tidal flow of commuters, which he describes as “a river of people.” The dialogue between the two flows is similar in spirit to the dialogue he seeks when placing works in relation to a real river, a point he mentions in Time. Seeking out the heart of the city may not be that unusual a preoccupation for an artist, but framing that preoccupation within a wholly ecological context, relating it directly to questions about a city’s ecological equilibrium, is a different territory altogether, alien to the current mainstream of British artists.

If the ballet performance, videos, and Web cast added a new multi-media dimension to Goldsworthy’s work, they are the exception proving the rule of land art practitioners with whom he is often connected. Perhaps he is more in tune with the zeitgeist than many think, moving closer to the ongoing and interrelated art movements that came of age when he was a student, from process and conceptual art to performance and multi-media work itself. Le danse du temps—with its slowly moving film backdrop, spartan stage elements, and the dance itself—is Goldsworthy’s most fully realized attempt to integrate multi-media, technology, and elements of the established land art vocabulary to date.

Ash keys/Barbican Centre, Silk Street/ Morning to Afternoon/ 21 June 2000, 2000.

This diverse and relentless portfolio of work suggests a man wanting to step beyond the land art box. While the west Sussex projects include a variety of ingredients straight out of Goldsworthy’s recognizable oeuvre, the “Time” works suggest that he is perhaps the most willing of the established British nature artists to take on the changing landscape of the contemporary world, from the place of new media and performance in land art to the life cycles of cities. For a new generation of young artists, such as Brighton’s Red Earth, performance is allied to a relation to the land. Goldsworthy, 10 years younger than many of his land art peers, forms a bridge between the generations, using a range of contemporary settings for uncovering the ephemera of the moment, as much as the deep past of geomorphology. In so doing, Goldsworthy’s art practice finds itself a conduit between lived human experience and nature’s forms of time.

Oliver Lowenstein runs the green culture, arts, and architecture journal, Fourth Door Review His in-depth interview with Goldsworthy appears in the new edition, available from 68 Gilboa Road, Westmoreland, NH 03467–4705, USA

Walks on Moonlit Path are arranged around every full moon, through summer 2003. Contact or write to Footprints of Sussex, Pear Tree Cottage, Jarvis Lane, Steyning, West Sussex, BN44 3GL, U.K.

The Chalk Stones trail runs between Cocking and Singleton, West Sussex. There is bus service seven days a week from Chichester train station. Also see South Downs Web site,