Sculpting wilderness

Artist Andy Goldsworthy’s studio is the big, wide world.

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Hollywood has always loved tortured artists. In the ’50s, John Huston made Moulin Rouge (1952) about melancholic-obsessive Toulouse-Lautrec; and Vincente Minnelli gave us Lust for Life (1956), the story of Vincent Van Gogh, with spectacularly distressed Kirk Douglas in the lead. Forty years later, the fascination for inspired suffering was still there in Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat (1996), Mary Harron’s I Shot Andy Warhol (1996) and Ed Harris’ Pollock (2000). You could almost read the minds of audiences in the dark, in little thought balloons floating above their heads: “Ah, it must be painful to be a genius.”

But maybe not. Here’s a very different film about art, one that shows Scottish environmental artist Andy Goldsworthy at work in the great outdoors, and there’s not a severed earlobe, abused substance or lonely ego in sight. Instead, we watch as Goldsworthy goes about his calmly persistent business — piling stones, collecting driftwood and picking dandelions, then checking streams, tides and winds for signs of their cooperation or not.

If this sounds about as exciting as watching laundry dry, then we’ve set off on the wrong foot. Exquisitely filmed on various locations in Canada, Scotland, France and New York state, Rivers and Tides is that rarest of documents — one that lets us in on the intimate moments of the creative process as they come together in a startling work of land art or crumble in failure.

Pretty much the only voice we hear is Goldsworthy being hesitant or inspired as he talks about his projects. Though he repeats himself a little, he also comes up with a pure spike of wisdom now and then, one that drives his reasoning behind a particular sculpture into our minds: “The work is in the change.” This terse comment applies to the whole range of pieces that Goldsworthy makes and places in natural settings, with the expectation that they’ll be transformed by rushing water, sprouting weeds, even the rays of the sun.

We see him on a beach in Nova Scotia, blowing on his fingers in the pre-dawn cold as he sculpts icicles into snaky forms. Biting and shaping the chunks of frozen water, he’s making a work that will only last until the rising sun heats it and can only survive in a photographic record. But during its brief existence, the ice serpent glows in the sunlight and shocks us with its fragile beauty.

Piling up driftwood on rocks that will soon be submerged by the tide, Goldsworthy builds an igloo shape with a perfectly circular opening in its roof. With just enough room at the base for himself to get in, he sallies back and forth for sticks, branches and small logs, working against time and the incoming ocean. Then when the waters rise and carry off the dome, we’re reminded that “The work is in the change.” Not in the destruction, but in the inevitable transformation.

There’s something profoundly enlightened about Goldsworthy’s relationship to his surroundings — which are, after all, ours as well, except that he keeps on seeing them and interacting with them, while many of us pretend that they’re not even there. Or are there to be ruined. As he moves from site to site and invention to conception, we sit in hushed amazement at the range of his ideas and choice of materials: stones, sand, vines, petals, grass, reeds, rivulets, gravel, blossoms, ice and snow. The branches of a tree sway in the wind and Goldsworthy tries to keep the motion from wrecking a web-like twig construction. A chain of red leaves rides a current through rocks, past small, trapped pools of vivid color — further signs of his almost unobtrusive handiwork.

Perceptively directed by Thomas Riedelsheimer and with a symbiotic score by Fred Frith, Rivers and Tides lets us hang for 90 minutes with an artist at peace with the world and in awe of it. Like a spiritual descendant of land-art original Robert Smithson and Zen master Shunryu Suzuki, Goldsworthy is all about eyeball-to-eyeball transmission. His art is his teaching and his patient practice.

It shouldn’t have taken two years for this beautiful film to reach Detroit. (Maybe someone thought it needed a dose of suffering and neurosis.) But now that it’s here, it’s a must-see for anyone interested in contemporary art.

Opens Friday exclusively at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple, W. of Telegraph). Call 248-542-0180.

George Tysh is Metro Times arts editor. E-mail him at [email protected].

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