Port Angeles 556, 2009
The other day I watched a documentary about British artist Andy Goldsworthy called Rivers & Tides. (You can see short clips here and here.) If you enjoy Goldsworthy’s work I suggest you watch this film in a comfortable place because for most of the film Goldsworthy and his associates are out in the dark hours before and around dawn in the cold north of Scotland. Even if you like that kind of weather, Goldsworthy spends a lot of time reminding you just how miserable it is.
Goldsworthy’s not out then because his enjoys frostbitten fingers. He’s there because that’s the best time to create the ephemeral things he likes to create around water. (Get it? Rivers and Tides?)
I’ve always associated Goldsworthy with durable things like stone walls. If that’s your impression, too, Rivers & Tides will turn your impression upside down because it’s all about things Goldsworthy creates that are purposely short-lived and designed to be destroyed by the same materials that they’re made from.
Along the edges of freezing rivers and bays Goldsworthy builds stone totems, timber towers and fanciful, arcs of ice, the latter of which he fashions by breaking natural clumps of ice apart and reshaping them using the heat of his hands in the way that a sculptor of steel would use a welding torch.
Goldsworthy doesn’t assemble these works up on the high land where they might be seen and enjoyed by others. (He apparently missed the Sunday school lesson about the danger of building castles in the sand.) In fact, he builds them exactly where he knows time and tides will destroy them. Sometimes they go from concept to completion within a single tidal cycle. I’m not sure that the concepts are even planned in advance. One gets the impression from this film that Goldsworthy just shows up and works quickly with what’s at hand.
One also gets the impression that many of these ephemera will not be seen by anyone. The various projects shown in the film certainly aren’t, or at least aren’t seen by anyone else while they actually exist.
Still, there’s something appealing about them. Maybe it’s the sandcastle builder in me that likes them. One of the great pleasures of my childhood and again when our daughter was young was building sandcastles at the beach. Our castles may not have been all that imaginative—we were big on the dribble school of design—but they did have vast networks of caves and arches and moats. And like Goldsworthy’s stones and timbers and ice, they were all blown away by the wind or washed away in the next high tide.
All of this seems to go entirely against the notion of why some of us embrace photography. The history of photography is all about recording things so that they survive, so that they endure. We even have a tool, the Polaroid process, that enables things to be revealed over time. I don’t know that we have anything that purposely takes away other than our own poor darkroom skills. Lots of the pictures I took of historic structures and architectural details in Richmond, Virginia, during the early 1970s have faded with time.
But watching Andy Goldsworthy purposely create things that he knows will last barely longer than it took him to build them, that would barely qualify as performance art because they can’t be duplicated because the materials themselves go away does make one wonder what the photographic interpretation of this idea might be. Pictures that purposely fade away? Pictures that you purposely destroy after a certain amount of time?
I’ll have to think some more about this.