Beauty and the Brand:

Andy Goldsworthy as challenge to radical relativism

Midsummer Snowballs – Beech branches/Finsbury Square & Moorgate /
Early Afternoon/21 June 2000, 2000. View of one of the Midsummer Snowballs
installed around the Barbican Arts Centre area of the City of London.
Andy Goldsworthy's work has been celebrated and critiqued in equal measure for its delicate rendering of the ephemeral beauty of the natural environment, brought to an enthusiastic public via stunning photography and beautiful picture books. Here, Goldsworthy discusses both his art's reception and perception alongside other broader issues. Beauty in the Brand was the second in FDR's two part Goldworthy interview, and was also published in FDR7 issue 7

In the comments book to Andy Goldsworthy's Time exhibition at the Barbican in the high summer of 2000, one visitor had written Goldsworthy's work 'has a beautiful meditation to it'. Repeatedly it is this word 'beautiful,' which is associated in the public mind with what Goldsworthy makes. In other quarters, including some of the arts' world fraternity, the aesthetic category of 'beauty' has long been suspect, and partially in consequence, one suspects, because his audience relates to the work as 'beautiful', Goldsworthy has come unstuck with some in the theory and book-led knockabout of art criticism. Unsurprisingly, he neither repudiates beauty, nor sees it as irrelevant to the present day.

"Nature is intensely beautiful," he says, "and at the same time very unnerving, and at times deeply frightening. You feel it if you've ever stood in a wood that has been blown down after a strong wind, a volcano, or any of these incredible acts of nature. You feel it as soon as you go out to the land, where everywhere you go things are dead, decaying, fallen down, growing, alive. There's this incredible vigour and energy and life. And it's sometimes very difficult to deal with. I would hope that I don't have a kind of romantic view of nature. I do feel the beauty of it, for sure. But it's a beauty that's underwritten by extreme feelings."

Outdoor works – Andy Goldsworthy 2005
"There is a feeling at times that people want me to represent something for them, that part of themselves, they associate with nature, and with beauty. They get quite upset if I go outside those parameters. Of the reactions to the melted stones (at the Barbican), some people found it too violent. People are often looking for fairly superficial ways of understanding the work. For instance, I was about to give a lecture and while I was waiting there were two people behind me talking. One was trying to describe to the other what it is I do and he was saying, 'He uses 100% natural materials, and never uses any tools.' And I thought 'Oh, Christ' Yes, I do use the land, but I also use tools...and there are reasons for that. It's not some sort of rule for the sake of a rule. The reason I don't use tools for a lot of the works is the freedom it gives me - the sensation of touch, and I need that. I need that shock. The hand, with ice or stone. But I've also made sculptures with huge machinery, and I've made large earthworks. And I'm very happy to do so in the right circumstances. Usually in my lectures, I put in an image of a JCB doing one of my sculptures, and you can hear the 'Oh dear!' in the audience."

Goldsworthy – Marks on a tree - 2005
David Nash describes Goldsworthy as a bridge between the public and the art worlds more astringent practitioners, Donald Judd, Richard Serra, and casting further back, Constantin Brancusi. But he is also a bridge between environmental art and the big art world. Despite his forerunners, he is not represented in that hanger cathedral to late twentieth century modernism, the Tate Modern. This is an absence, which has bewildered many, though Goldsworthy himself says he isn't bothered by it. In addition the perception of Land Art as radically at odds with the collision between theory-heavy post modernism and the Thatcherite fashion-frenzy of 'eighties and 'nineties Brit Art, has meant that his work is assumed to be at odds with the rampant materialism of the times.

Some autumns ago I happened to visit the oldest of the sculpture parks, Grizedale, in the Lake District. For many years it was at the leading edge of what may be called, for want of a phrase, the mid-period emergence of British Land Art. David Nash's work was present as was early commissioned work by Andy Goldsworthy. But during the nineties this by now established Land Art pathway was felt to be outdated. Audiences were dwindling. The proprietors, the Forestry Commission, felt radical action was needed. Grizedale required a relaunch, and as part of its relaunch it would need to be rebranded with the busy work of a completely new image templated over the decaying leaf fall of the old.

Taking a wall for A Walk – Grizedale Sculpture Park –
Goldsworthy's well known early dry stone wall project
in Grizedale forest.
In 1999 the Forestry Commission brought in a young new Director, and things began to change indeed. Out with the old and in with the new. One of the most high profile casualties, in part surely because he is so high profile, was Goldsworthy. The Director derided one of Goldsworthy's best known early works, Taking a Wall for a Walk in some high profile broadsheet features, with the media demolition job guaranteeing considerable attention to the centre. Grizedale land art was turning into a media event. And this, rural based art as media event, became part of a new ethos to be adapted, in tune with the urban art school post-post modernism and irony, in the hope that it would pull in the punters.

The revolution has been continuing at Grisdale. And what has been happening appears in many respects to represent the extension of the aesthetics of eighties art as shock by another name into the deep rural. At the heart of its aesthetic is a perspective which doesn't give credence, and isn't interested in the experience of a 'living' natural world. By contrast the land artists were a reflection of a culture re-discovering the living qualities of the more than human world, and the immediacy of being in the world. Land Art was interested in beauty, and in another notion often ignored in the art lexicon, delicacy, which in the metropolitan urban melting pots feel irrelevant. That said, the trauma unfolded by the destruction of the Two Towers on September 11th 2001, may have brought people to re-evaluating the place of beauty and indeed, delicacy, in balance with the avant-nihilism which is so much part and parcel of current art actions out on the streets.

And more recently….

One interpretation of this contrasts is Goldsworthy's work gives credence to beauty, whereas the post modern radical relativism cannot be doing with such credence, making it difficult, if not impossible, to talk about the beautiful in the world before us. In the usual aesthetic conventions the beautiful has been reduced to a subset of the Enlightenment Sublime. Originating with the eighteenth century philosopher Kant, but gaining ground in the last twenty years or so, nature has been sidelined into part of the experience of the Sublime rather than an independent category of experience. Yet at the same moment, if we were asked how in a hundred years time, looking back on this time of terrorism, of September 11th and of the Gulf War part 2, would people find themselves beauty loving, or beauty neutral? And from the perspective of the present, in a hundred years time, will people be beauty loving? My suspicion is that people would find themselves answering with beauty to any such questions.

"Life and being alive is a form of beauty," Goldsworthy says. "This is our, and my, time. And yes...there is a beauty." Goldsworthy ponders for a while. "I think beauty contains a sense of truth, and that is really the difficulty, there is something in the sensibility of beauty that actually isn't a real beauty at all but is just prettiness and decoration. These are very, very difficult areas. I fly very close to the wind at times, and there are occasions when I fail, and the piece veers towards decorativeness. I fight that all the time, but I take on difficult subject matters. Flowers, petals, and leaves. Snow and ice. These are subjects that have been layered with sentimentality for so long that we can't see these things any more. It is a very brave thing to do to take them on and to work with, a sunset (for instance)! Everyday the sun rises and sets and at times it is this fantastically spectacular, deeply disturbing event, that happens. This blood red sun
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: Galerie Lelong

happens. And yet that's reduced in our consciousness to a pretty sunset. Because a lot of artists have just gone and pandered to the prettiness of it. I think the challenge is to forget and to see the thing as it is and work with it. It's like wool. In the last few years I have been working with wool. It is an incredibly difficult material to work with, given people's associations of wool with sheep, pastoral landscape. And yet the whole landscape around here is made because of sheep. Scotland is depopulated because of sheep. The political and social impact of sheep is so profound on the British landscape. We still look at them, and our perception of them is that they are woolly and pastoral and cute. But if you've ever listened to a sheep eating, the way they tear at the ground, they're continuously rip, rip, ripping. It's a very brutal animal in its own way. Yet the perception is that it's cute. I feel this obligation to try and work with the sheep and with wool. I noticed that when the sheep feed from containers or saltlicks and the farmer moves the saltlicks round they leave incredible abstract shapes on the land. So I lay canvas down, put the food container on the middle and then they come and eat. And that made a painting. That makes connections to the way the British landscape has been worked by farmers in Scotland, worked by sheep. I feel an obligation to do these works. I'd get a much easier ride if I stuck with stone and wood and metal. These subjects have been layered with sentimentality for so long that we can't see these things any more. The territory of flowers is hard. But I have to work with them, because I would have an incomplete understanding of nature, and the land, if I didn't work with them."

"Sometimes I think that we're so frightened of nature and so frightened of death, that we like to play with it and look at it. It's a way of us trying to avoid it if we can look up its arsehole. And if we've done that, we're okay, we can handle that. But in fact it's still there. Nature is that, it's death. Our nature is that we will die. And if I feel that every time I go to work, then the work comes to life, I bring it to life, and then it dies. Every day there is this great sense of loss."

"Loss is something that we have problems dealing with. I mean I lose things, I lose my work everyday. We lose our youth as we grow, we're all losing our parents, losing people we know, we're losing all the time. There's a deep sense of loss… (very quietly) It's what I'm dealing with in my work. And I'm not doing it out of a sense of anti-art bravado. It hurts me to see these things die, fall down, collapse, decay. But then I see the beauty in that, the sense in that. A lot of the recent work is actually about the decay, the changes actually making the work stronger and so it develops into something else."

Midsummer Snowballs – Beech branches/Finsbury Square &
Moorgate/Early Afternoon/21 June 2000, 2000.

More of the Midsummer Snowballs
installed around the Barbican Arts
Centre area of the City of London
Part of the anti-art credo has been the uptake of non-natural, at times, 'ugly' materials. It provides a potential new breadth which formerly was not available. Goldsworthy says he relates to this new palette of materials to some extent. But the reason he's drawn to work the way he does with materials is completely other. "It is to find these layers in a place. There's a journey you can make from the leaf into the place, to the tree to the growth. Whereas you cannot make that journey if you come across something that has been dumped there or it hasn't got that resonance with the place. It's not the materials so much that I'm interested in as the connections to the whole, and to the whole place. And the life of the materials. In an urban situation it's much more difficult to understand all those connections and where things have come from. But I do make attempts to deal with that. Picking up catalogues and ordering any material, whether it's wood or clay or stone, is not the same as going to the clay pit and digging the ground. Or finding a tree. There's that connection that feeds the ideas."

Goldsworthy is not sure whether the urban environment allows only a limited exposure to that experience of a hands-on connection with the materials which have a wider context with the whole or not. "I think there are possibilities everywhere to find some sense and I think the best works I've made on, for instance, pavements are the ones where I've lain in the rain and left a shadow. The feeling of the human imprint on the pavement, the walking of people's lives passing through and the wearing down of the paving. The human presence is ingrained into the pavement when I lie on it and leave a shadow. And then the shadow dries up or gets rained over, and I think that articulates a way of understanding something of the nature of the urban place. But the idea of going to a garbage dump and starting to re-arranging garbage would be hard to do, I think. And maybe it's something I haven't come round to understanding yet. Maybe I could."


This is a version of part two of the Andy Goldsworthy feature which appeared in Fourth Door Review 7, alongside an interview with Thomas Riedelheimer, director of Rivers and Tides, the award winning documentary on Goldsworthy and his work, see here. Part one appeared in Fourth Door Review 6 and focuses on, amongst other material, on the relationship between Goldsworthy's work, new media and performance art.