Perfectly Mobile, Perfectly Still

David Craig

  • Time by Andy Goldsworthy
    Thames and Hudson, 203 pp, £35.00, August 2000, ISBN 0 500 51026 1

Sculpture need not be a bronze statue of a town councillor or a marble figure of a goddess, respectfully plinthed in gallery or plaza; or a curvaceous wooden form strung like a harp which we gaze at in dumbfounded silence. These days, it may well be a drystone wall winding between trees before burying its end in a lake, like the great Norse serpent for ever drinking the world’s waters dry. Or a cairn on a Highland headland with a fire flaming inside it. Or a longboat made of stakes and stones and turf, grounded in the undergrowth of a forest.

These works often use materials that have come to light in the place itself – leaves, rubbed red stones, dry sticks, thorns, the dark fluid from mushroom gills, stones picked from scree, blocks of snow and slivers of ice, earth, deer-dung, scrap iron, fern fronds, spruce thinnings and off-cuts. In this, the land artists are following the footsteps of the original Australians, who ground their ochres from earth in rock holes next to the overhangs which they adorned with fish and birds and lizards and spirit-figures. They are also working as nearly as humans can to the processes of nature itself. If you look at the photographs by Paul van Vlissingen taken monthly from one August to the next at Rudha Cailleach, or Witches’ Point, on the north shore of Loch Maree, you find you’re watching a mobile image, pregnant in each of its 13 stages, the more so because it alters so much as the winds and currents urge and reposition the four types of stone that compose the spit. Now it resembles the tail of a ray or skate, now it’s a sea-tangle head, now it’s a hand whose forefinger points westward. Sometimes it settles down as the head of a bear with an eye and snout that look east in July, west in the second August. If the images were printed on successive pages of one of those tiny flick-books, the tongue of shingle would lash to and fro like a dog shaking a rat.

Compare this work of nature with Spiral Jetty, which Robert Smithson built out into Great Salt Lake in Utah thirty years ago. It’s more neatly coiled than the spit at Rudha Cailleach. Both change continually, the one in its shape, the other in its invisibility; indeed Salt Lake rose recently and drowned the Jetty. At some stage in the submersion it must have become a tapering tongue, finally perhaps a mere stub. Smithson, an adventurous character (who was killed when flying a light aircraft to look at one of his works from above), might have welcomed the flood – he was working with the dirt and gravel of the desert and knew his work was exposed to weathering. The land artists are at ease with change. They go beyond Henry Moore’s pleasure in the greening of his bronzes by oxidation (especially near the sea). Talking to John Fowles in 1987, Andy Goldsworthy came out with this wonderfully relaxed notion: ‘Ten years ago I made a line of stones in Morecambe Bay. It is still there, buried under the sand, unseen. All my work still exists, in some form.’

That is of course true of all matter: dust particles from the canvas and pigment of the Mona Lisa will blow about the world some day. The difference is that the land artists usually garner their materials from the place where the work finally blossoms; and they process these thorns, stems, stones and feathers as little as possible before embodying them in their works. Chris Drury’s Whale Bone (1993), illustrated in his recent Silent Spaces, is ‘simply’ a pilot-whale vertebra with 13 ochre lines etched into each of the twin tines where the upper bone structure forks. The symmetry of its ‘wings’, the converging ridges in its ‘face’, the meerschaum shadings of boney stuff itself are untransmuted. Goldsworthy’s sea-urchin-like icicle cluster, made in the winter of 1987, consisted of icicles ‘with their thick ends dipped in snow then water, held until frozen together’. He rearranged the ice daggers – that is all. Their ribbing, their smoothness or roughness, are as the freezing of the water moulded them.

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