Until 6 January 2008; Yorkshire Sculpture Park
Andy Goldsworthy is not an acquired taste. His art, lodged in the
fields, snaking through woods and spirited away by rivers, is one
of immediate appeal. Trip over his work in the countryside and you
will be enchanted by its unexpected magic; look at his glossy photographs
in a gallery and youll be seduced by the colours and patterns
he charms out of nature.
Its probably this instant appeal that has sown the seeds of
doubt among many in the art world. Goldsworthys detractors say
that his work is lightweight, little more than tricksy outdoor decoration.
Land Art purists prefer the high conceptualism of Richard Long, this
years big festival hitter at the Scottish National Gallery of
Modern Art. In fact, though Goldsworthy has lived and worked in Scotland
for over 20 years, he is represented in our national collection by
just one small photographic work.
Apart from individual works dotted here and there (in particular in
his home-town of Penpont in Dumfriesshire), Scots have never had an
opportunity to explore Goldsworthys art in the round. That remains
the case, but if you fancy a trip over the border, Yorkshire Sculpture
Park has recently opened a massive exhibition of the artists
Its massive in more ways than one: small works, photographs
and documentation dating back as far as 1976 occupy two gallery buildings,
and installations and larger paintings fill another two. Four new
outdoor works (none of them petite) are dotted around the country
park, a full 40 minutes hike from one end to the other.
Understandably, for an exhibition which is to last until next January,
there are none of Goldsworthys more transient offerings to be
found out of doors. No blood-red leaves wrapped around rocks, no bendy
twigs drawing lines in space, or ornate dams of stone and wood straining
under the pressure of a gushing burn. These, the artists most
decorative works, are his most private too; having watched them disintegrate,
he lets us into the secret with photographic evidence.
Theres no doubt that much of Goldsworthys work does look
very pretty. He paints with the colours that nature provides, whether
with the changing hues of beech leaves or the hidden red of iron-rich
stone. He draws with stalks, stone walls, snow, clay. He enjoys the
serpentine undulations of the wiggly line, and the perfect form of
But Goldsworthys intentions go way beyond the purely decorative.
His collaboration with nature doesnt stop when the light fades,
or the rain crashes down. It recognises the brutality of nature, and
the harsh realities of working the land. Far from the hopeless hippy
romantic that you might imagine him to be, Goldsworthy has worked
in farming since the age of 13, and knows that its not all fresh
That much is clear in his collection of paintings made from animal
manure and blood. In his Sheep Shit Snowball series, Goldsworthy placed
snowballs full of excrement on large pieces of paper, allowing the
melting flow to meander across the rumpling paper. The results are
surprisingly luscious, the rich brown liquid zig-zagging its way to
a final standstill in deep, textured pools.
A further painting of deer blood and snow is almost too gruesome to
look at. The blood is blackened and encrusted, thick and tarry, binding
straw to the paper. There is no decorative daintiness here; no wishy-washy
tree-hugging whimsy. This is the Monarch Of The Glen turned inside
out; the dirty, ignoble guts of aristocratic sporting pleasures. Goldsworthy
is neither a deer-stalking gent nor a bare-foot hippy he is
a farmer-artist, gritting his teeth and getting down to work with
all of natures powers.
This farming link is made explicit in Shadow Stone Fold, a working
sheep enclosure built to the specifications of Yorkshire Sculpture
Parks resident farmer. But this is no ordinary fold, like the
wooden ones used locally. Its beautifully constructed in locally
quarried stone, and though its maze of gates and two-way mechanisms
are built to order, the secret in its centre was certainly not on
the farmers menu.
Hidden at the heart of the fold is a wall with no gates, somewhere
sheep can never reach. Seven protruding steps in the wall invite you
over and into this private area, where you encounter a 10-tonne slab
of golden sandstone, flat on the ground. Sharing the space with this
massive chunk of stone, you feel a sense of security which comes largely
from the slabs great permanence. Its a miracle it got
here, but even more so if it ever moves again.
That first encounter with the stone has great impact, and much of
Goldsworthys best work does assault your senses when you are
least expecting it. In the Underground Gallery, a former white cube
space is transformed by the simplest of means: its walls are entirely
plastered in cracked and drying clay, the sunlight broken into a thousand
fragments by the myriad of curvaceous surfaces.
Next door, the gallery walls are entirely redundant, the room remade
as an upturned basket of 760 logs of chestnut wood. The impact is
sudden, and its a joy to sit in the darkness of the womb-like
space and watch the reactions of visitors as they walk in for the
first time. The smell of musty, warm wood hits them along with the
darkness, and the beauty of the pattern of interweaving wood gradually
reveals itself to their adjusting eyes.
The only room I have ever experienced like it was a reconstructed
crannog on Loch Tay, and indeed Goldsworthys Outclosure, a high
circular wall outside, reminds you of a ruined broch both powerful
players in Scotlands social and architectural history.
Its not just about high impact, though. Once the surprise has
subsided, you can begin to consider the strong conceptual underpinning
to Goldsworthys art. Its not of the fashionable self-referential
variety, turning a mirror on the process of its own making; instead,
through close attention to materials, it tackles questions of change,
growth and social history.
Running through all of Goldsworthys work is a palpable tension
between permanence and transience. Whether built from tonnes of sandstone,
chunky tree logs or tiny leaf stalks, his works hang together without
glue, cement or nails; designed to last, but not forever. His fascination
with disintegration has led to some pretty spectacular feats in the
past, such as the furtive depositing of giant snowballs in midsummer
Not quite melting, but still intensely fragile, the Clay Room speaks
volumes about the building it occupies. The clay reaches right up
to the concrete rafters, and almost merging into them, its a
stark reminder that even the most durable materials are essentially
of this earth, and will fall apart in time.
The clay all 20 tonnes of it was dug out of the land
at Yorkshire Sculpture Park itself, re-establishing that connection
between the land and buildings which otherwise might seem alien to
it. Goldsworthy is a man who gets under the surface of a place, and
runs his hand over it too. With stunning economy and eloquence, he
draws out truths we didnt see before. Once seen, they will never
Black, Sunday Herald 15.04.07