Tuesday, 25 September 2007



(First published 14th August 2007)

Andy Goldsworthy’s sculpture derives from a branch of Conceptual Art called Land Art. Land Art was initially concerned with an extended identity for the work, as documentation of an event or duration, its location or place. Goldsworthy emerged in the late 70s and as a latecomer, has tended to consolidate or return identity to a self-contained object, a sculpture; that still draws upon a specific site, sometimes for location, sometimes for materials, but nevertheless surrenders some of the attenuation or phases to its identity as site, event, and record. Goldsworthy’s recent work can be seen at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, (March 07-January 08).

Goldsworthy maintains these other strands, notably in the lavish books that now follow phases to his career, but much of the interest and impetus to spreading the work across phases, has subsided; strictly departs from Land Art. Conceptual Art has been dealt with in Posts 4, 17 and 39, where performance by the artist is a feature of the work, but with Land Art, other kinds of duration are demonstrated, stressing place above activities. This development begins with gallery-based installations, such as those of Yves Klein and Arman in Paris at the Galerie Iris Clert, stressing the emptying or emphatic filling of the gallery, as a container and place. The practice then moves outdoors, to works like Christo’s Dockside Packages at Cologne (1961) and on to Earthworks, by Claes Oldenburg, Michael Heizer and Dennis Oppenheim. Longer term, larger scale works are labelled Land Art – sometimes Sky Art – and come to stress remoteness of site or viewing perspective over duration, and where works resort to industrial equipment, to create something closer to landscape gardening, as in some works of Robert Smithson or Heizer, Land Art is drawn irresistibly toward the concerns of architecture and engineering. Other Conceptual Art is later pursued in this domain.

Short-term Land Art persists through the 70s; and in particular British artists Richard Long and Hamish Fulton favour more restrained intervention, more seasonal and solitary recordings. But importantly, the work is not to be simply a nominated site, a remote point on a map. The place must also be physically sampled. The artist’s presence or brief activities there alone will not be enough to do this, nor pictures and documents that record these. The task requires an explicit display of phases to the work, to properly work, at least under this interpretation of Conceptual Art.

Goldsworthy is similarly drawn to remote wilderness, essentially a romantic vision of nature as the absence of Man. But the crucial issue is what means are available to exemplify the place as a duration. Merely photographing his presence there leaves the work as just a photograph, which is not enough for Conceptual Art. Nor can the artist’s presence be just any hiker’s activities, for these then will only be about hiking, rather than the place beyond that. The formal constraints upon Conceptual art – and here Land Art – are actually quite severe, contrary to initial impressions. As with Long and Fulton, Goldsworthy looks to sampling soil, stone and vegetation, to temporary arrangements permitted by these materials, that then celebrate the environment, remain distinctive from merely hiker’s or holidaymaker’s debris.

In many cases the simple geometric forms arrived at, marry Modernist abstraction to ancient and traditional building and demarcation (see also Post 42). The work is local, transient, modest, yet ageless, pervasive, necessary. To photograph or otherwise record them, then struggles to avoid prettiness or artiness, to underline its documentary function. As Land Art progresses to more elaborate collecting and displaying, the work often loses its particularity to a site or time, in predictable methods or construction, looks too practised to properly sample place more than artist and preference. In this, we sense the exhaustion of the project, the subsidence of Land Art.

Goldsworthy preserves his primitive materials, stone and wood especially, and construction that needs little beyond gathering and careful combining. But the questions of how durable or permanent, how local or remote such activity can still be, and whether they strictly refer to phases of the work become blurred with more ambitious commissions and installations. Indeed this point is raised in a thoughtful criticism by David Lewinson. Land Art here would seem to end in a rustic Minimalism, a picturesque trophy to the past and virgin lands, by their nature.

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