“The very thing that brings the work to life is the thing that will cause its death,” remarks Scottish artist Andy Goldsworthy by way of explaining his work in the early sections of Thomas Riedelsheimer’s documentary Rivers and Tides. It’s really the only explanation you need to understand Goldsworthy’s work, though the film will offer more insight into the process as it goes. That’s not always a good thing, because the fascination of this movie lies in the mesmerizing quality of just watching what nature does to Goldsworthy’s creations once he finishes with them. Goldsworthy takes items found in nature—leaves, rocks, driftwood, icicles, natural dyes etc.—and creates fascinating, often beautiful designs and structures from them. He then lets nature take its course. The works are given a kind of permanence by being photographed, but the obvious joy he takes in their creation is grounded in their very transitory nature.
We’ve all done something like it. It’s a concept inherent in childhood. You build a sandcastle and dreamily watch as the surf erodes it back into sand. You “bore” holes into the earth with a garden hose and watch the dirt change shape and see the patterns formed by the froth on the water. I suppose at its simplest it’s taking a dandelion that’s run its course and blowing the seeds from it to be carried off by the wind. Goldsworthy takes this to new levels, but it’s the familiarity of the basic idea that makes his art so very accessible. That familiarity is also what imbues it with its dreamlike quality.
In the course of the film, we watch him construct a fantastic shape out of icicles that will melt as the sun hits them. He creates a spiral structure from driftwood only to watch it float away on the tide from the whirlpool it emulates. At one point, he grinds red stones to release the dye therein, then forms the remnants into balls that he tosses into the river to color the water bright red. The results are striking—even to the point of being alarming, since the image of a small waterfall slowly turning into a torrent of red might well be from a horror picture. Describing these works really does nothing to convey the truly mesmerizing experience of watching them happen. If the film tends to let Goldsworthy overexplain what’s happening, it also affords ample to time to languidly take in the imagery and let its beauty and simplicity speak for itself.