Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Rivers and Tides is a documentary that follows British earthworks artist Andy Goldsworthy as he proceeds about his work – in Nova Scotia, where he constructs something vaguely akin to an igloo of driftwood that is carried out into the Bay of Fundy by the rising tides, at the Storm King art park in Mountainville, New York, where he arranges leaves into a circle of red & yellow, and at his home in Penpont, Scotland. Goldsworthy works with stone, twig, leaf, even ice, creating works that can last minutes or centuries, depending on the circumstances & materials used. (The piece above, which is literally hanging from a tree, collapsed before Goldsworthy could finish it, an occupational hazard in his work.) Some of these pieces – a wall at Storm King that snakes through a grove of trees, several egg-shaped mounds of stones or wood chips that one could run across in a wood or along a roadside – become site works. A few actually survive a trip to a gallery, or else are constructed (reconstructed?) there. But most are evanescent, surviving only as photographs in Goldsworthy’s many coffee table art collections or as limited edition prints in the hands of collectors.

At one level, Goldsworthy’s work is gorgeous – he knows it & he knows we know he knows we know it. On another, that’s a problem. Between the intellectually rigorous & the faux natural drop dead gorgeous, Goldsworthy will always opt for the latter. One is reminded of the austere philosophical pieces Robert Smithson used to produce, that simple cut in the lawn at the museum in Houston, the mound of earth in a gallery corner up against a small mirror leaning against the wall. The closest to that Goldsworthy can get is using a thorn to etch a curlicue line across a row of garlic leaves – a straight line would have been so much better. Goldsworthy’s success at all this is undeniable – yet one feels (I feel) that he is getting to have the career that Smithson might have had, if only he had lived.

And yet not. Goldsworthy’s work exists in a continuum that might start, at one extreme, with Robert Smithson & then continue to Christo & Jeanne-Claude, then to Goldsworthy & finally to somebody like Jim Denevan, the Bay Area chef who does “beach art.” That’s the intellectual rigor chart. Another variant, tho, might put Goldsworthy’s position second, just to the right of Smithson, with Denevan third & the Christo/Jeanne-Claude team fourth. That’s the inwardly motivated chart. One can shuffle these cards a lot of different ways, but only on some sequence that measures “warmth” or some vaguely fuzzy term like that does Smithson finish anywhere but first.

I doubt seriously that Billy Collins or Ted Kooser would agree. That Smithson could have been contemplating the historic implications of the work of Frederick Law Olmstead within his own work on Spiral Jetty would just make them scowl. That Denevan’s spirals in the beach mimics Smithson’s jetty, this time as farce, might be lost on them. But then, this is the branch of poetry that thinks promoting Shakespeare will cause people to write more like Dana Gioia or Ed Hirsch, instead of, for example, Olson or Zukofsky.

One of the great values of the austere approach is that it throws the viewer/reader back on his or her own resources. They have nothing to do but actually look, read, hear. Narrative figuration – Denevan sometimes draws fish, for example, just as Goldsworthy builds stellae in the form of eggs, or snakelike curlicues of various material – lets the viewer escape, literally, to the frame of reference. They no longer have to be in the art. Smithson for the most part avoids that & so, for that matter, do Christo & Jeanne-Claude. Think of John Cage’s 4’33” or Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight, works that actually force you to confront the evidence of your senses.

Yet Smithson’s engagement with the history of landscape architecture, Cage’s with Buddhism, Brakhage’s with the history of film (or poetry, another art as temporal as film) are all also always going on. To know about them expands our understanding of the artist’s endeavor – but the reality is that they’re not necessary to look or listen. With somebody like Goldsworthy, tho, that reliance on reference to nature never ever goes away. In that sense, even tho his work – like this documentary of it – can be fascinating to look at, it will always be (“always already”) compromised.