Interview: Andy Goldsworthy, artist and sculptor

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After his Glenmorangie Annual Lecture, Andy Goldsworthy talks about how the seasons shape his work, and why he is still ‘leaping around’ at 56

ANDY Goldsworthy is in his Dumfries-shire studio the day after the area’s first snowfall. “It’s a really important time,” he says. “There’s an elm tree that collapsed a few years back. I worked on it when it when was standing upright, and I’ve been working on it as it’s decaying. It’s like a prone figure lying across the stream. It’s been made white with the dusting of snow, so I made a line drawing along the trunk, a black line on the white fallen tree. It was a good work for the first work of winter.

“There was another snowfall last night, so the line had gone white. I turned the tree black by rubbing mud into it. So yesterday’s black line had become a white line today. Those changes to the work produce another idea or another work. It’s never the object I make that has been of interest, but how it taps into the things that flow through a place and change a place. It’s a window into the processes that make that place what it is.”

Goldsworthy is one of Britain’s – and indeed, the world’s – most popular artists. His sheep enclosures, stone and wooden cairns, “walking” stone arches and cracked mud walls are made even more familiar by his use of photography to grant immortality to artwork that sometimes “lives” for just hours. Nine years ago he was the subject of a documentary, Rivers and Tides, directed by Thomas Riedelsheimer and produced by Edinburgh-based Skyline Productions.

Tonight at the National Museum of Scotland Goldsworthy gives the Glenmorangie Annual Lecture, which is part of the sponsorship launched in 2008 between the museum and the whisky maker, to support the study and understanding of the people of early historic Scotland.

“Giving a lecture or doing anything at the National Museum, and particularly at the Early Peoples section, where I already have works in the collection, is always an interesting context,” Goldsworthy says. “It’s interesting having to deal with the objects’ live past. That’s something I feel very strongly everywhere I work in Scotland. You can feel the presence of the people who have lived, worked, died in those places. Their memory is ingrained in every rock and tree and field. It’s a very tangible sense of the presence that’s made evident in the stuff that I work with.”

After more than two decades here, Goldsworthy, who grew up outside of Leeds, is surely an honorary Scot, and feels more connected to the land than some of its natives. “This is the place where I live, and where my children have been born and brought up. That makes the [landscape] more poignant, and gives it more meaning. I don’t think my art would have grown the way it has without the British landscape and that strong sense of social nature and layering to the landscape. As much as I love wildernesses, I respond better to those landscapes which feel somehow ingrained with people in them.”

Is it that he actually envisages the past while he works? Not quite, he says. “It’s more that I’m a continuation of what was there. That’s a big difference. I think that’s what interests the NMS. They feel a maker can give an insight into a subject or a material that can’t necessarily be provided through academic approach. It’s not enough for me to just look at something. I don’t want to be a spectator, I want to be a participant. I don’t understand something until I’ve worked with it and actually made something out of it.”

As a younger man Goldsworthy resisted any suggestion that he was like a child. This is not playing. But fatherhood has altered his perspective. “Seeing the intensity with which the very young discover the world… It’s not enough for a child to look, they have to touch to start seeing things for what they really are. That’s what I try to do, too. I am not going to accept that it’s water; I want to know it’s water; I’m going to put my hand in it.”

Does he feel the same sense of engagement, the same depth of knowledge, when constructing large pieces that require a crew of craftspeople and heavy machinery?

“It’s very different. I like it because of that. The ephemeral works are done in the spirit of discovery and experimentation. It’s like nourishment. If ephemeral works are putting things into your account, the permanent works are, in a sense, taking it out. It’s a good thing to have that movement of feelings and understandings.

“What’s become very, very interesting for me is that the permanent and the ephemeral work have blurred somewhat. Change has become deeply written into the permanent pieces. For example, at Jupiter Artland there are large boulders in the cleft of coppiced sycamore trees. Over time the trees will grow around the stones. And I just made a cairn in Australia. On top of the cairn, in a shallow dish carved out of the stone, a small Strangler Fig has been planted. They grow in the boughs of trees to get up to the light and throw down roots, and kill the host tree by strangling it. So this tree will digest the sculpture over time.”

And those changes make the art more interesting, Goldsworthy finds. “I don’t even call it a collapse, because many times, it transcends the original work. It becomes stronger and stronger, in a perverse way.”

He’s driven by a consuming need to understand nature. “The best way is to get in there and make works. There’s a huge resistance from the place – like the physical challenge of crawling up this elm tree, which is very slippery and slimy at this time of year – and you’re working against time. There’s all these tensions that you engage with. I don’t subscribe to this idea that the landscape is this wonderful, therapeutic, relaxing place to be in. For me it is in-tense, and tense to work with. That tension is what I’m trying to understand. And when you start making your work, you create a tension, as well.”

When I look out my window, I know, sure as clockwork, that come spring, the crocus blooms will be followed by daffodils. I’m alert to those patterns, and aware of the repetition. Does he never look around and feel a bit, well, bored?

Laughing, he says: “Repetition is very important. I return to the same places many, many times over. Each time I am shown a different aspect of it. I can learn an awful lot by that. The dead elm tree I work on is one of many elms in this very small woodland, most of which have died through the Dutch elm disease. There is one tree that fell into a stream and then into a bog on the other side, so it revived and has become very, very vigorous. Because of the place it’s in, that tree is where [the leaves turn] the most intense yellow.

“Each year I work with that yellow of that leaf. It is a measure of that tree’s tenacity to survive the disease and its collapse – and not only survive, but thrive. Each year it produces a different intensity of yellow. One year in particular, it was beginning to reach its peak when I started working. You can imagine the excitement attendant to this, the thoughts and ideas of what I could do with it. Then one night it rained and overnight it froze, and all the leaves turned black and dropped off!

“Each year’s yellow has a different life, a different end, and set that against this tree struggling to keep a foothold in the landscape. If this yellow goes, I lose one of the most important colours to work with. Imagine a painter, every day they go into a studio and there’s a little bit less yellow, until there’s none. It has a profound effect on what they do, and it does for me.”

He’s frustrated by the idea of colour as merely surface decoration. “There’s a complete connection to the life and vigour of something evident in its colour. That’s a big issue for the museum, as a collection of objects that have largely lost their colour, to some extent, because they’ve been removed from their context. Colours have lost some of their life, and as a result some of their meaning. These are really interesting things to think about.”

Is he finding that as he ages, the physical demands of his art are changing the work itself? “Not yet. I’m still leaping around, but I’m 56, so I have to deal with that. We all have to deal with loss, and the older we get, the more loss that occurs, and that affects how I see things. Yes, there is a deep sense of loss when I make a beautiful piece of work that then collapses, or decays, or floats away, but what I’ve been trying to say is that I’m seeing the sense in that. There’s a depth to some of the things I make now that I wouldn’t have been able to touch on earlier in my life. One of the great things about art is that it can reflect a person’s whole life. I hope that as I get older that I can work with that in a way that reflects into what I make. I’ll just have to see.”

• Andy Goldsworthy gave the Glenmorangie Annual Lecture at the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, as part of the Glenmorangie Research Project on Early Historic Scotland. The initiative funds an archaeological research post at the NMS, and a landmark book, to be published in 2012, will present findings about Early Historic Scotland based on new research. A major part of this research involves commissioning artists to make pieces inspired by Early Historic artefacts. For more information visit www.nms.ac.uk.