Art as Vivid and As Fleeting as Nature

SOMETIMES English artist Andy Goldsworthy finds it necessary to remind people that his more highly colored works are not painted. He says ``It's not paint!'' rather like the acrobat who says ``Look no hands!'' His works are recorded in photographs, certainly, but the colors photographed are not courtesy of your local studio. They are selected, quite literally, from nature. The ``Cherry Patch,'' for instance - which he constructed (in Japan in 1987) out of cherry leaves - torn and joined with spittle, and placed on the ground, to present a vivid and unexpected contrast between their yellow-gold and red pigmentation - seems quite surprising in its color. But the color is natural, and the only enhancement of it is in its recording on film.

Goldsworthy's photography is straightforward, however; he uses no special filters or lenses. He believes that if we are astonished at the colors in his structures it is because we ``forget'' how strong nature's colors and contrasts can be, until, by some strategy or rearrangement - and that is basically what his works are - we are once again alerted to them.

When he was in the Arctic last year (where he made the piece shown here out of snow), he was astonished at first by the blueness of everything around him. Then, after a few days, his eyes had adjusted and he saw it all as white again.

The point is that we soon grow used to natural colors. Familiarity can be a kind of indifference. But their vitality and extraordinary potency is still there. It takes ``art'' to make it suddenly and expressively visible once more.

For Goldsworthy, art is a continuous learning process, and he finds this process (when at home he works outdoors every morning) vitalizing to his own vision of the natural world. Others, seeing his works, also tend to see natural phenomena in a fresh light.

Part of this freshness may have to do with the evanescent, impermanent nature of much of Goldsworthy's work: It partakes of the fragility of some of his chosen materials - leaves, sand, snow, ice, twigs, petals - even that most delicate of frozen forms, frost.

Works floated on the surface of a pond, such as berries and the blade-like leaves of irises, can hardly be photographed before fish nibble them curiously from below, or ducks from above.

In the Arctic it was the wind, when it came, which distorted and then completely smothered or wiped away his screens and walls and monoliths. The Arctic piece made on April 2, 1989, was - as his diary noted - made in a period of stillness and calm, which Goldsworthy had never before experienced.

While much of his work is made without tools, and using techniques that nobody else uses (in his words, ``four of five ways to tear a leaf, or to strip the bark off a twig''), his experience working in the Arctic was different. He notes (his Arctic writings and photographs have been published in a book called ``Touching North''): ``I came here with no tools but was willing to be guided by the Inuit and I have ended up probably using more tools in my every day to day work than I have ever done before.'' All the same, he was pleased to have made some snow pieces with his hands, because he wanted the work to be ``about the snow and not about the edge of the saw.''

The piece shown here was, however, constructed with tools, a tall wall of blocks of snow which he carved into, in parts, until the snow was thin enough to be translucent. His photograph shows the brilliant sun silhouetting the opaque parts and penetrating the translucent ones.

The impermanence of many of Goldsworthy's works is at the heart of his art; he far from objects to it. It is as though the very nature of change - which he observes each day in the countryside - is reflected in the tension and intensity of his art.

He is proud of not using art materials. He has, for instance, scratched pebbles - in a work composed of these rounded stones, graded in size and split in half - to make the split edge lighter (and the fissure between the two halves of the pebbles darker by contrast). But he laughingly points out that these scratch marks, a kind of drawing, were not made with some art-store pastel or crayon. Much simpler than that. They are made by scratching one pebble with the sharp, broken edge of another.

Similarly he once made some large drawings with graphite. But this graphite came directly from a mine. It was not graphite purchased in the form of fine-art, 3B drawing pencils. He has also marked leaves in some works with the white of bird-droppings, or with mud.

The point must be that nature can provide most of the tools of a willing artist's trade, as well as his media and subject-matter. But then he mustn't mind if his works are not long-lasting.

That Goldsworthy's works can melt, collapse, come unstuck, fall off a damp surface when it dries, or blow away, adds to their poignancy and their immediacy.

Color photography gives his works the only continuing life they have. The kind of ``immortality'' sought by artists in their use of superb oil paint or durable marble, is, as Goldsworthy's art points out, somewhat suspect, or at least not necessarily the stuff of art. Art, he seems to imply, should not have time to gather dust. Art, also, can be made of materials which are as cost-free as the air - and why not?

He does, however, make some more lasting works - some of slate, some of sandstone - and even some of his brittlest structures can last a while. The sandstone cones and slate mounds he has made are stacked or piled without any kind of fixing or cementing - but their material is longer lasting than snow or sand.

Some of the pieces he has constructed out of leaves, the commonest leaves - sweet chestnut, London plane, sycamore, beech - using thorns, twigs or pine needles to hold them together, have been assembled into remarkable sculptural forms which have some structural durability. Some are like pine cones or wasp nests. Others are bulb shaped, or horns or spirals, or shaped like wriggling snakes.

The photograph here of some of these inventive works was taken by Goldsworthy in his studio at home in the Borders of Scotland. The sculptures are like collected specimens, natural artifacts (if that isn't a contradiction in terms) shelved in a cupboard. Though Goldsworthy is so inextricably concerned with the big outdoors, with nature in situ, he also works indoors. And sometimes his studio becomes the place where past works achieve a certain respite, a certain preservation, from the disruptions of ever-changing nature.

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