Artist Andy Goldsworthy’s work embraces the landscape and is lauded wherever he has worked around the globe. So a new project near his Dumfriesshire home is particularly close to his heart, he tells Mark Fisher
ANDY GOLDSWORTHY is sitting in his Dumfriesshire home framed by a painting made of sheep shit. It’s a piece I last saw at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in a major retrospective of the artist’s work last year. To create it, he placed a bucket of feed at the centre of a canvas and let the sheep walk all over it. The result: an earthy splatter painting with a luminous circle of white gleaming through the mud where the bucket once sat.
It’s a reminder that even in the comfort of his cottage, sitting in front of a desk strewn with folders, large-format transparencies and CDs, this artist is never far from nature. Whether it’s the slate sculptures that line his driveway, the conical cairn that welcomes you into his village of Penpont or the delicate curtains of horse chestnut stalks he pins together with blackthorns, Goldsworthy is fascinated by the Earth’s raw materials. “It’s very important to keep my roots in where I come from, which is farming and an agricultural landscape of which people are a part,” he says, his gentle Yorkshire accent undiminished after 20-odd years in Scotland.
It was at that Yorkshire Sculpture Park exhibition I first saw his Striding Arches, a set of free-standing structures made from great wedges of sandstone. Back then, freshly cut and positioned in front of the exhibition hall, they were tame and tidy. Now they’ve reached their intended home on the peaks of three hills in nearby Cairnhead, they are rugged and rooted, looking as much a part of this man-shaped landscape as the Forestry Commission pines.
“It’s great to see them in a place like this where they do really feel part of that landscape,” says Goldsworthy. “They have this undulating feel. It’s like being in a sea of hills and this wave of an arch breaks the calm of the sea.”
A day earlier, I’m with Jan Hogarth, project manager for Dumfries & Galloway Arts Association and the Gingko consultancy, to trek across the fells and see the Striding Arches for ourselves. “It’s not described as a walk, it’s described as a walking adventure,” she says, as we stumble down a marshy slope. To get here, we’ve taken a winding single-track road from the village of Moniaive before taking to the hills of Dalwhat Glen. The route is largely up to you – which is what makes it an adventure – seeing as no official path exists to link the arches, sitting within sight of each other at the highest point of three hills.
“The path is made by people walking,” says Goldsworthy, who is interested in nature’s relationship to human beings. “The work isn’t finished until the path has been made. Those arches need a line and the line is as much a part of the work as the arches. And people are as much a part of the work as stone. So it’s now waiting for that to happen. I don’t want to be prescriptive about it.”
This is not the first time the 52-year-old sculptor has built arches. Ten years ago in Montreal, he constructed his first for Cirque du Soleil made from 80 tons of the same stone the early Scottish settlers brought with them as ballast for their ships. He’s built ice arches at the North Pole, a stone arch sheltering an elm tree at Witchita University and 11 arches lapping up out of the sea in New Zealand. But these Dumfriesshire arches are extra special to him, being designed for his own neighbourhood.
“That has a huge significance,” he says, enjoying the stunning views beyond his six-acre field to the southern uplands. “My home is really important to me and is the origin of many of my ideas and feelings towards the land. So it’s great to be able to make a work of this scale near to my home.”
Of course, building something in his own back yard means he can’t escape from it, something he last experienced with the Penpont cairn he built to mark the new millennium. “I kept seeing that little hill outside the village and how it had a sense of guarding the road,” he says. “It was such a strong place to make the work, but I kept thinking, ‘Andy, do not make it there; your kids have to pass it every day in the school bus; they are going to have to suffer this sculpture for the rest of their lives, let alone me.’
“Also, I do get a lot of resistance where I make works – it’s part of an artist’s life. I’m prepared to fight the fight, to be pilloried, attacked and sometimes loved. Your home is somewhere you can retreat from those battles, but I can’t retreat from this one. So there was a real sense of concern there, but ultimately, as with the cairn here, the artist kicks in and you just know you’ve got to make the strongest work possible, no matter what flack you get.
“One of the reasons I love this area and have stayed here for 20-odd years is the broadmindedness of the people who live here. I’m English living in a small Scottish village and I’m an artist; that’s two reasons to be treated as an alien. But right from the beginning when I first moved here and I had the smallest house in the village – a two-roomed house, I was incredibly poor – there was such an open-mindedness and tolerance which I really liked. That’s developed over the years into a genuine interest and support. The farmers come across me making these things on the land all the time and they become my friends as well as critics and have seen more of my work than anybody.”
He hopes to raise funds for further arches to add staging posts in the nine-mile circular journey. He’s also built a fourth, on lower ground, wittily forcing itself through the window of a byre, so the building itself becomes part of the artwork. The hope is that this expansive piece of land art will contribute to the regeneration of a region still recovering from the restrictions imposed after the foot-and-mouth outbreak of 2001.
“It’s very rare that I do anything on top of a hill,” he says, on a visit home in between trips to France and San Francisco. “In some cases, the promontory seems to have appeared just because I put a work on it. There’s a round arch that I made nearby here called Touchstone North which is not really on a hill, more of a field, but once I put the work there, it became a hilltop. But, for the Striding Arches, these were definitely hilltops to begin with and I think it’s the first time I’ve taken on the idea of breaking the skyline.
“I’m very conscious of the impact even a person has on the skyline and the attendant sense of arrogance that comes with placing something on a hill. There are enough monuments in this area where the Victorians have built some great phallic pile on top of a hill. It’s a very domineering, arrogant gesture. That’s made me very cautious about making works that do that.
“Nonetheless, there comes a time when you feel you want to use that sense of seeing from a distance and breaking the skyline. If you’re going to do that, there has to be a reason for it. In this case, there’s the spatial relationship between one and the other. You don’t have a sense of the distances between things until you put something there that defines them.”
Although he sometimes creates work for gallery spaces, Goldsworthy is in his element in the great outdoors, where he tunes in to the rhythms of the landscape and lets nature subject his sculptures to a process of continual change. “The beauty of the cairn and I hope the arches too is that it’s a different work every day you pass,” he says. “Having the works around has taught me a lot about change. I went up the hill in winter when one arch was made and it was snowing. It was like it was floating. That’s a very different sculpture to the middle of summer. If people go up there and just come across the arches, I hope they see the way they pick up on the surrounding landscape, the sense of flow, the glacial movement, a sense of geological change and the human nature of that changing landscape.”
• For more information on Andy Goldsworthy’s Striding Arches project, visit www.stridingarches.com