‘The child,’ Wordsworth famously remarked, ‘is father to the man.’ Growing up in West Yorkshire, the land was always close to Andy Goldsworthy’s heart. At 13, he began to spend his free time working as a farm labourer, developing an awareness of the seasons and what the poet T. S. Eliot identified as the cycle of ‘birth, copulation and death’. He has likened the repetition of farm work to the physical nature of making sculpture. During his time as an art student at what is now the University of Central Lancashire, he created ephemeral works of rock and stone at nearby Morecambe Bay, which were washed away by the tide, adding the element of time to his use of found natural materials.
In the 1980s, land artists such as the great Robert Smithson of the monumental Spiral Jetty made in 1970 took work outside the gallery, the sacred space of the modernist white cube, to question the status of and the framework around a contemporary art object. By placement within a natural setting, the viewer was challenged to consider preconceived notions of what constituted a work of art. In the late 50s and early 60s, the materials of technology and industry, as used by sculptors such as David Smith and, later, Sir Anthony Caro, became the dominant language of the New York Art World. Any notions of ‘craft’ pretty well collapsed. The result was that many artists felt estranged from the land, from the slow accretions of time and entropy. Curatorial control became prevalent, with the imposition of limits set by someone other than the artist.
In the 80s, Andy Goldsworthy became associated with the burgeoning Environmental Art Movement
in which artists were beginning to question how human societies affect the environment in which we live. In America, these included the likes of Nancy Holt and in the UK, Richard Long and Hamish Fulton. Drawing on Romanticism, they moved the debate along from simply feeling awe at the natural world (as did Turner and Constable) to examining the connections between the sociological and the environmental. Turning to science, ecology and philosophy, artists began to suggest an ethical relationship to climate change and environmental damage, an awareness of the world in which we live. Seeking out new and unusual locations meant they could work away from the gallery system and the commercial art market. Incorporating his love of photography, Andy Goldsworthy documented his often ephemeral, beautiful works constructed with stones, leaves, snow and ice before they disappeared. ‘Each work,’ he said, ‘grows, stays, decays – integral parts of a cycle which the photograph shows at its height, marking the moment when the work is most alive…..Process and decay are implicit. His aim was for his audience to experience the natural world, to feel how we all exist as part of its warp and weft. Instead of simply representing the landscape in the manner of a traditional landscape painter, he embedded his work into the landscape itself, collaborating and negotiating with it, allowing his materials to speak for themselves, to tell their own stories. Storm King Wall,1997-1998, is one of the artist’s most iconic works.
In 1989, Goldsworthy constructed his serpentine Wall that Went for a Walk in Cumbria. A decade later, he built the 2,278-foot stone wall, Storm King Wall, on the foundations of an old dairy farm wall found in the woods overlooking Moodna Creek in New York’s Hudson Valley. Made to last, it evokes a lost agricultural past. Using no mortar, he simply interlocked and fitted field stones together in the manner of the Yorkshire dry stone walls of his childhood, built for centuries on the moors and in the dales. Constructed in a coppice near a creek, it took three weeks, five men and 250 tons of stone to build. If a wall is a delineation between spaces, one that defines, say, the ownership between two fields or stretches of land, this refuses to play that role as it loops around and between trees and saplings on its way down to a pond, creating a relationship between ground, sky, water and trees.
Goldsworthy speculated that, gradually, these same trees would cause the wall to collapse, just as their roots had probably caused the demise of the original wall. In many ways, it is unremarkable because it has become so integrated into the landscape with its simple serpentine elegance. But it’s more than a delineation between this place and that or a declaration of ownership. It is a way marker, which, if walked along or beside, changes how we experience the contours of the land, even our relationship to the sky. It defines the place, making it special, as it curls and doubles back between the trees, emphasising them so that, if it were not there, we probably wouldn’t notice. This observation is made more poignant in the knowledge that it will be the trees and their roots that one day will destroy the wall.
Although made nearly 40 years ago, this work could not be more relevant to the current debate about what our relationship should be with the natural world. While we still pump out fossil fuels into the atmosphere, mine lithium for batteries and pollute the seas, this built intervention snaking its way through the landscape reminds us, as we pillage and destroy, that we can build and live on this planet if, only, we adopt the credo from the Hippocratic oath: First, do no harm. Beautiful in its quiet monumentality, Storm King Wall demonstrates that it is possible to live in creative harmony with the world.
Top Photo: Andy Goldsworthy British, b. 1956: Storm King Wall, 1997–98 Fieldstone 60 in. x 2278 ft. 6 in. x 32 in. (152.4 cm x 694.5 m x 81.3 cm) Gift of the Ralph E. Ogden Foundation, Mr. and Mrs. Joel Mallin, Mrs. W. L. Lyons Brown, Jr., Mr. and Mrs. James H. Ottaway, Jr., the Margaret T. Morris Foundation, The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation, the Hazen Fund, the Joseph H. Hazen Foundation, Inc., Mr. and Mrs. Ronald N. Romary, Dr. Wendy Schaffer and Mr. Ivan Gjaja, and an anonymous foundation Photo ©Andy Goldsworthy, courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co., New York Photo by Jerry L. Thompson.