Eden Benchmarks
Exploring the cultural landscape in East Cumbria
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Andy Goldsworthy (Instalment 15)

“The object of art is not to reproduce reality, but to create a new reality of the same intensity.”

                                                                                                         Alberto Giacometti

One of Andy Goldsworthy’s sheepfolds, called the ‘River Stone Fold’, is located near Deadman Gill Bridge. Goldsworthy was the main theme of a guided walk I once led through Swindale Beck Wood, where he made many of his earliest ephemeral sculptures.  Photographs he took of these featured in his 1985 debut touring exhibition ‘Rain, Sun, Snow, Hail, Mist, Calm’.  He lived at Brough for four immensely productive years making some of his most formative and enduringly repeated images, including a series of gravity defying stacks of balanced stones he’d gathered from the beck.  He called them his ‘River Stone Thoughts’ and he reconstructed three of these in the walls of the ‘River Stone Fold’ where their close confinement now keeps them safe from collapse. 

He built another sheepfold downstream at Church Brough Primary School, which is one of the six Pinfolds; a lovely circular fold, perfectly encompassing a rotund and almost cuddly cairn.  The children use it as an outdoor classroom and named a new extension of the school building after him.  Goldsworthy did some workshops with them and they filled lots of scrapbooks with drawings, poems and comments; my favourite comment was one written by a little boy who simply recorded the fact that “Andy Goldsworthy was born in 1956......and is STILL ALIVE!”  I assume his incredulity came from the fact that the artists he’d previously learned about were mostly dead.     

I first met Andy Goldsworthy in 1983 at a second hand furniture sale in the Kirkby Stephen Auction Mart.  I’d seen photographs of his sculptures and read about his work. An article in the local paper included a picture of him after he’d been awarded a bursary to purchase a new camera by the regional arts board. I liked what he was doing so, when I saw him, I couldn’t resist going over and introducing myself as a local admirer.  He and his first wife, Judith, who tragically died in a car accident many years later, were very friendly and we went on to maintain a casually cordial relationship during the remaining years they lived at Brough. 

Relatively unknown at that time, Goldsworthy worked as a part time gardener in return for a cottage, some modest remuneration and a regular supply of firewood. In his spare time he made his tenuously powerful sculptures with the stones, tree branches, leaves, grass stalks, feathers, mud, snow and ice he found in Swindale Beck Wood, always perfectly synchronised with the changing seasons and accepting of climatic extremes.  It was the fragility of his work that I admired; the lightness of his touch and his rapport with wild nature; making abstract representations of nature with nature. Soon after that first meeting he was appointed as an Artist in Residence at Grizedale Forest in the Lake District and quickly shot to fame with his ground breaking timber sculptures, ‘Sidewinder’ and ‘Seven Spires’, before subsequently moving to Scotland.

When I explored the paths through Swindale Beck Wood several times, in advance of my guided walk all those years later, the powerful affinity I felt for his activities was such that everywhere I looked I could almost see the original, but long gone, artworks in my mind’s eye.  I’d never seen any of those actual sculptures, only the photographs he took of them, but his intense collages and lines of coloured leaves, dynamic grass stalk squiggles, broken and scratched pebbles and zigzagging patterns of split feathers pervaded my perception of the wood’s tangled story at every turn. Every tree shrouded enclave evoked ethereal reincarnations of his powerful serpentine forms, the ribbons and rings of brightly coloured flowers and unnerving jet black holes and trenches; spine tingling impressions of his conical stone cairns and precariously balanced rocks, stacks, columns and spires materialised on every stony river bank at every turn.

“I need the shock of touch.  Nature is in a state of change and that change is the key to understanding. I want my art to be sensitive and alert to changes in material, season and weather. Each grows, stays, decays. Process and decay are implicit.  Transience in my work reflects what I find in nature.”

                                                                                                                Andy Goldsworthy

Goldsworthy modestly denies that his photographs are anything more than keeping a record and creating a permanent memory of his making experience.  He is, of course, rather a good photographer and it is the beautiful photographs of his ephemeral sculptures, solitary private acts of making, which he shares with us in his big coffee table books.  The photographs aren’t artworks in themselves but they are the nearest anyone gets to seeing the real things, let alone owning one.  If I could have kept just one of the sculptures he made in Swindale Wood it would be one that consisted of four dark brown, mud covered, roughly spherical rocks, sitting on a bare, wet river bank, their lumpy somnolence animated by radiating white circles of joined up grass stalks.  The stalks, held together with thorns, sketched a freely drawn line in the air that seemed to spin around the rocks like an electrical charge.  Taking the sculpture away would have been sacrilege, like separating a rare wild orchid from the fungi it needs to germinate its seeds. The fusion of the muddy stones and the grass stalks was an evanescent gesture belonging entirely to that time and place and to Goldsworthy himself in his private moment of making.

Another one I liked was the snakelike or meandering river shape he constructed by splitting and inverting bracken stems, a form he first made with sand on the beach at Morecombe as a student.  He returns to this serpentine form again and again, once on a notably permanent and gargantuan scale using soil and, of course, with some of his dry-stone walls; although they are not intended to mimic a snake or a river, the analogy is irresistible as they are both, as he has said, expressions of the shape they occupy following a line of least resistance through the landscape.  Goldsworthy’s preoccupation is to seek “a new reality of the same intensity” as the one he observes in nature and he is very good at transmitting that intensity into other peoples’ heads!

I often find myself sitting on the side of a hill looking down at the sinuous twists and turns of a river and thinking how much it resembles a Goldsworthy artwork when I know perfectly well that it is the Goldsworthy artwork that looks like the river.   The same applies to his holes when I look at the entrance to a rabbit warren or his rafts of coloured leaves floating on water when I see sheets of them accumulating quite naturally, in autumn, on landlocked pools near the banks of a river.                       

His primary strength is his aptitude for acute observation. I remember him telling me how he’d visited Claude Monet’s garden at Giverny in France where he made some ephemeral sculptures from descendants of the same flowering plants and foliage that the great Impressionist artist had brought to life with paint on his sensationally monumental canvases in the majestic ‘Waterlilies’ series.  It made me think that, when he works with colour he is a modern successor to the French Impressionists’ movement, sharing their obsessive preoccupation with its illuminating power.  It reminded me of a remark made by Paul Cezanne, Monet’s more erudite painting contemporary, when he described Monet as having “only an eye, but my God, what an eye!” In my own explorations of the countryside, constantly in thrall to the dizzying inventiveness of Mother Nature, I find that I look at things with an increasing awareness I suspect has been heightened by my knowledge of what Goldsworthy has seen before me with his tenaciously searching eye.

“For the impressionists a green apple on a red rug is no longer the relationship between two objects but the relationship between two tones – a green and a red”
Fernand Leger

The colours, which so invigorate many of his compositions, amaze his millions of admirers; they love them for their astonishingly decorative finesse, but he denies any ornamental intent and insists that his use of colour is purely an expression of nature’s raw energy.  He sees the ‘prettiness’ as an unfortunate distraction.  One of my earliest glints of an interest in science was the revelation that the colour of an object is not actually within the object itself but the product of this raw energy in light, where wavelengths of colour are absorbed by the object or sent back out again to be registered by our eyes.  It’s an optical illusion! It felt like a confidence trick then and I still don’t quite believe that the kingfishers’ plumage is, in reality, a dingy brown and the apparently luminous blues, greens and oranges are fabrications of light reflected from overlapping layers and angles of its feathers.      

I returned to my car, via a public footpath that bisects the corrugated slope of the lynchet inscribed hill nearest to Great Musgrave.  Goldsworthy is a keen fly fisherman and I wondered if he had ever ventured this far downstream, along his beloved Swindale Beck, to test his angling skills.  The landowner here is a participant in a ‘catch and release’ fly fishing scheme, introduced by the Eden Rivers Trust to provide anglers with more affordable access to stretches of the Eden’s tributaries where most of the fishing rights are the exclusive preserve of the wealthy.