I can appreciate installation or site-specific art, but I don't understand it. Or maybe it's the other way around. That's how conflicted I am about it. On the surface, it has a lot to do with your conception of what art is. But I think it goes deeper than that. I think it goes right to the heart of an individual's personality. Could I be site-specific "earth" artist Andy Goldsworthy, a Scotsman who creates works of art in nature using natural materials? Not in a million years, and it has nothing to do with my being an American.
Allow me an explanatory anecdote: the camera focuses on Goldsworthy as he tries to create a work of art from stacked rocks on a beach, and when those rocks collapse after hours of painstaking work, he exhales, scratches his head, or simply gazes heavenward. This was, mind you, the fourth time it had happened to him, and the tide was coming in and time was running short. If I were in that same position, I would have shouted a few choice words that would have guaranteed me a spot in a much lower place, and I probably would have picked up one or two of those rocks and chucked them into the sea. I would have been fuming, but Goldsworthy was as cool as Zen-coach Phil Jackson calmly asking Kobe Bryant if he wouldn't mind passing the ball for a change. I don't have the temperament to work against nature all the time, knowing full well that nature will always win, and that whatever artwork I create will be erased the same way a snowman bites the big one when the temperatures rise. But, of course, Goldsworthy doesn't see it as working against nature. When a creation of his is reclaimed by the sun, a river, a tide, a wind, or a growth of new plants, he finds it exhilarating, this dialogue with nature, this connection, this way of understanding the relationship between nature and art, between humans and nature.
Goldsworthy could be a Zen master himself. The graying, fiftysomething artist lives for moments of synergy that result from his artistic interaction with nature. He uses pieces of wood to link garlic leaves together into a long chain and then arranges them in a spiral in a semi-agitated stretch of stream. And then, the way the wind will animate a mobile, the water uncoils that leafy spiral and sends it snaking, like seaweed salmon swimming to their eventual death, downstream. Or he'll spend hours finding iron-rich rocks in a stream, grinding them and adding water to make natural red-dye balls of clay, and then tossing them into the water again and recording this on camera. I HEAR his explanation and am entranced by the mysticism of it all—how the rock gets its redness from iron, just as our blood gets its color from iron, and how this redness, this energy, lies just beneath the surface of our skin and the skin of the earth. But I prefer my art to be hangable, displayable, a more permanent and traditional expression and extension of the self that reaches out toward immortality (however faux) rather than submitting to the flow of things.
However you feel about site-specific artists, Thomas Riedelsheimer has created a beautiful film that not only captures Goldsworthy's vision and world/art view, but also matches his quiet and mystical manner. Riedelsheimer employs time-lapse photography to show Goldsworthy's creations being gradually buried or destroyed by nature, and, in some cases, resurrecting with the spring thaw the way that other seemingly dead elements of nature have. That expansive time-view photography is blended with computer-game style ground-level camerawork which, for example, follows a river but doesn't appear to be simply floating down it. And to give a broader visual perspective Riedelsheimer includes aerial photography of some of the larger installations and the grander context of nature within which Goldsworthy works. There are close-ups as well, and 180 degree pans that, again, capture the mystical feel that nature has for the artist.
Installation and site-specific artists create works that are more often than not impermanent, and so photographs of the artwork are essential because they're the only lasting record. This film shadows Goldsworthy in a very unobtrusive way, recording his travel to commissions, his laborious work, and even interaction with locals and his own family back in Penpont, Scotland. And yet—here's the amazing part—the tone doesn't abruptly shift when the camera leaves Goldsworthy in his "natural" element, speaking quietly to the camera about his work methods and philosophies. Even in a diner, the filmmakers are able to manage a consistent tone and level of ambient sound.
"Art for me is a form of nourishment," Goldsworthy says. "I need the land. I want to understand that state and that energy that I have in me that I also feel in the land, the energy of life that is flowing through the landscape, that intangible thing that is here and then gone." The two biggest influences on his work are the sea and the river, and all of his installations—even those far removed from water—bear resemblances to the snaking impertinence of a river that goes where it goes without apology. In one such installation, Goldsworthy is shown walking about his sleepy little Scottish town gathering up dandelions. It looks like simply the mark of eccentricity until the camera cuts to a field in nature where a solid mass of violet flowers are cut by a bold and snaking line of dandelions.
The camera follows Goldsworthy as he works in his native Scotland and on commissions in Nova Scotia, France, and upstate New York, the quiet interrupted only by the artist's own quiet ruminations, backed throughout by a New Age score by Fred Frith that includes stringed instruments and a didgeridoo. When Goldsworthy arrives, he begins almost immediately, working intuitively after "shaking hands" with the place.
Just after sunrise the camera shows Goldsworthy on the coast of Nova Scotia breaking icicles apart and biting them and using his saliva and water to reattach them to take a snaking strand that appears to weave in and out of a coastal rock outcropping. And the filmmaker captures the sun as it backlights the site-specific sculpture, as Goldsworthy muses, "The very thing that brings the work to life is the thing that will cause its death." All of this is fascinating, especially to people with a mindset like mine, who think of art as being more permanent than fluid. Goldsworthy is a fascinating man, and "Rivers and Tides" is an equally fascinating film.
Given the challenge of natural lighting, Riedelsheimer has done a fantastic job of minimizing halos, shadows, and overly dark or washed-out frames. Though it's not stated anywhere in the publicity, to my eye, the film appears to be presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and as I said, the camera work is wonderful. In only a few spots—the opening and later when we see a close-up of Goldsworthy—there's slight graininess.
The audio might have been a little more friendly, though. I personally would have liked to have the enveloping feel of 5.1, rather than the Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo that relegates the sound to the center channel, for the most part. That's the announced mix, but it almost sounds to me as if it could be Mono, it's so center-specific. Then again, it marries the sound to the image all the more, so I suppose there's an argument to be made for each side. Somewhere in the middle between robust and flat lies the word I would use to describe the sound quality for "Rivers and Tides." Not extraordinary, and certainly not noticeably deficient.
There's a photo gallery of Goldsworthy's works, along with short textual bios of Riedelsheimer and Goldsworthy. But the cream of the extras are "seven never-before-seen short films," which are outtakes, really, filmed by Riedelsheimer in the same style as this excellent documentary. The longest is a 20-minute segment on the Storm King Wall that Goldsworthy and his crew (it's a BIG wall) build in upstate New York. The other segments, just as fascinating for their documentation of his art, are on his autumn works (3:46 minutes), garlic leaves (3:05), the ice arch (4:28), black stone (5:06), leaf works (5:40), and the old studio (1:56).
"Andy Goldsworthy, Rivers and Tides, Working with Time" won Best Documentary from the San Francisco Film Critics Circle, and Grand Prizes at the San Francisco Film Festival and the Festival Du Film Du Monde Montreal. With Riedelsheimer's accomplished camerawork and Frith's massaging New Age score, Goldsworthy's emotional core finds a perfect showcase. This is the meditative life illustrated, a meandering journey that links art, nature, and humans. At one point the camera shows Goldsworthy watching a sheep give birth, and after talking about the qualities of the sheep we cut to see Goldsworthy trying to find a new way to look at the creatures that dominate the crags of his native land by arranging snaking lines of sheep's wool across the landscape. With child-like wonder, Goldsworthy sums up his attitude and the spirit of this film in one succinct observation: "I am so amazed at times that I am actually alive."