Like Turner and Constable, Andy Goldsworthy could be termed a British nature artist. But unlike his forebears, Goldsworthy has made his chosen medium not paint, but nature itself. In the sensitive and stimulating documentary Rivers and Tides, he handcrafts numerous sculptures and installations from leaves, stones, dirt, snow, and ice, elegantly composing organic, archetypal forms like birds’ nests, giant eggs, yonic folds, and snaking river-shapes. For one construction, he snaps twigs into varying lengths and weaves them together into a whirlpool-shaped web, gently suspended from a tree branch. But when Goldsworthy adds one stalk too many, his intricate curtain flutters to the ground, destroyed. The gray-bearded artist sighs, but is unfazed. “When I make a work,” he explains, “I often take it to the very edge of its collapse. And that’s a very beautiful balance.”
Most of Goldsworthy’s works are similarly ephemeral, even momentary. Trudging far from human habitation, he communes with local materials, collects what he finds, and organizes rough-hewn objects of contemplative beauty, evocative of Tibetan mandalas or Zen rock gardens. In a tiny woodland inlet, he sets autumn leaves upon still waters, perfectly formed into a fire-colored rainbow that slowly floats apart. For a Canadian commission, he nibbles tundra icicles, fusing them onto a crag to create a sinuous, serpentine swirl that glistens in the northern sun while melting. “The very thing that brings the work to life is the thing that will cause its death,” muses Goldsworthy, a winter-fleeced philosopher of evanescence. The artist provides the film’s only narration; at times, director Thomas Riedelsheimer allows the camera to linger even when he trails off into Wittgensteinian silence.
His most beautiful sculptures are unsellable, but Goldsworthy is not a mendicant outsider. Museums collect his photos of the site-specific performances; he also creates more durable structures from rock and mud. Like cinema itself, his art is time-based, encouraging humbling reflections on mortality. While some live and die within mere seconds, works like his ominous, human-sized stone eggs could endure as long as Stonehenge or the Cerne Giant, two prehistoric precedents for mystic British land-art. Appropriately, Riedelsheimer shoots Goldsworthy’s mini-megaliths with a landscape painter’s eye; set to Fred Firth’s modernist score, some images verge on Kubrick territory. The documentary ends with footage of Goldsworthy throwing armfuls of snow into the wind, forming giant ghosts that swirl overhead—then dissolve.