My family has spent a lot of time in museums lately; both boys love to draw and paint, so we often take them to see works by other artists. We don’t stay long, but we’ll look closely at a painting or two, talk about what materials the artist used, wonder whether the painting was made outside or in a studio. I lift Eli up so he can see better, and we stop in the gift shop for a postcard of our favorite. But San Francisco is the home of a different kind of artwork, too: sculptures by a Scottish artist named Andy Goldsworthy that offer a quite different experience. The boys have reached their arms around his tall redwood Spire, climbed up and over Stone River, walked like tight rope walkers, arms outstretched for balance, along the path of Drawn Stone. We’ve sat in the dirt beneath Spire with a gathered pile of sticks and built our own miniature version; we did the same with pebbles at Stone River. These pieces are alive and accessible to them in a way a painting can never be; and for a pair of energetic kids, they’re just fun.
And so it occurred to me to show my kids the beautiful documentary about Andy Goldsworthy’s work, Rivers and Tides. Even if you don’t have any of the artist’s work near your home, it’s easy to prime your kids for a showing of the movie with a trip to the beach for an afternoon building sand castles, or a walk in the woods or park, where you gather sticks and leaves and lean them into delicate dwellings. Then go home, make some popcorn, and settle in to watch an artist at work.
Rivers and Tides (Thomas Riedelsheimer, 2001) shows Andy Goldsworthy both at home and away, creating artworks both grand and small. Some pieces are no more than a slim string of leaves, needled together with tiny sticks, floating in a stream. Some, like San Francisco’s Spire, constructed of dozens of redwood trunks, grow into their landscape. Goldsworthy builds tall eggs out of wood and stone, sticks or ice; cows rub their horns against them, trees grow up around them until the sculptures disappear. When built at ocean’s edge, they slowly disintegrate in the tide; his ice sculptures sag and melt. He arranges red, orange and yellow leaves in a circle at the base of a tree, or lays a thin line of sheep’s wool across a stone wall. Often the only witness to these ephemeral sculptures is the artist himself.
My sons Ben and Eli watched, entranced, as Goldsworthy appeared to pierce a stone with a delicate serpentine of icicles. His only tools his kneepads and his fingerless gloves, the artist shapes shards of ice with his teeth, then glues them onto the rock using nothing but the cold air to freeze them into place. He stands back to look, satisfied and also surprised at how the rising sun shines fully through one of the loops of ice, their shape echoing the swirls of the tidal inlet.
In another scene, Goldsworthy builds an egg-shaped cone of stone on a black sand beach. It’s early in the morning, cold, and he anxiously checks his watch, aware of the rising tide. “I think you should stop filming,” he says, smiling, to the cameraman, “Gather stones. Do something useful.” The delicately-balanced pile of slate grows, collapses, grows and collapses again. My boys giggled, excited by the quiet drama of it, wondering if this time the structure would hold. Meanwhile each time it falls, the artist sighs a little deeper, takes maybe a moment longer to stand back up from his discouraged crouch, but he always does, and although I didn’t make a point of it, I was glad to see my very perfectionist children watch the artist fail, and regroup, and continue. “Total control can be the death of the work,” Goldsworthy comments; “each time [the sculpture falls] I understand the stone a little bit more.”
I won’t claim that Ben and Eli entirely understand the artist’s philosophy here. Why work so hard building something only to watch it collapse? I paused the film a couple times and tried to explain. He’s interested in the relationship between the stones, the water, the earth; he likes to watch the impact of one on the other. So it’s okay — it is in fact part of the artwork — for it to fall down or drift apart. We talked about the pleasure of building sand castles — actually for us, usually sand trains and planes — on the beach, the quiet zen of piling sand and tucking pebbles and seashells into the crumbly walls. We build, and then we stand back to watch, holding our breaths, as the waves start to lick at the sand and reclaim it. Maybe we take a picture, but just as often we gather up our sandals and shovels and leave the beach behind, the pleasure all in the process.
Rivers and Tides offers no comments on the artist’s work but his own, and he never sits down to discuss it; instead, like the artists in Who Does She Think She Is?, Goldsworthy’s seen always at work: sketching; building; gathering flowers, moss, stones or sticks for a new piece. He talks about his process in voice-over–his desire to communicate with the land through his work, to comment on and honor the history of a place — but often long sections are quiet save for Fred Frith’s gorgeous soundtrack while the camerawork follows the trajectory of a leafy sculpture floating down the river. Just once we see Goldsworthy, briefly, at home. It’s a chaotic breakfast scene where he is the quiet center, sitting at the table munching his toast, seemingly miles away from the clamor of his children eating and gathering their gear for school. His wife asks him what he’s working on that day, and he jokes that she’s working for the filmmakers here, trying to get him to speak about his inspiration. I wondered about her, about all the work she does that makes his possible; Goldsworthy talks about how rooted he is to his home, about the inspiration he draws from his long residence in one spot, but he’s talking about the landscape, not his family. Still, there’s a humility in his conversation about his art, a sense of service to something larger, that I can only imagine — even if the film doesn’t depict it– extends to his family as well.
Toward the end of Rivers and Tides, we watch Goldsworthy gathering stones, red with iron, from a stream near his house and using a rock to grind them into a powder; he sprinkles the dust into small pools, dyeing the water deep red, or throws a big ball of the powder into the stream to make a vivid red splash. Ben and Eli love this, of course, and are plotting ways to recreate the piece. I love what Goldsworthy says about these fleeting artworks: “We set so much by our idea of the stability of stone. And when you find that stone itself is actually fluid and liquid, that really undermines my sense of what is here to stay and what isn’t.” His words resonate and make me think of his work in relation to what I do with my boys: we cobble together these moments — some sweeter than others — and trust that what we are building, this intangible, impermanent thing called childhood, will persist in memory, a lovely and delicate thing.