The Beauty of Decay Artist Andy Goldsworthy Explores the Dark Side of Nature

British artist Andy Goldsworthy creates beautiful and disturbing works from natural materials such as rock, ice and blood. Two current shows in Spain and England highlight his breadth and the degree to which he is still pushing his own boundaries.

By David Gordon Smith


Three wooden domes stand inside a massive glass building. Climbing inside, the visitor finds himself in a cavernous room constructed of tightly packed branches and tree trunks, where little daylight penetrates. The space is disconcerting -- what is keeping the structure up? -- but at the same time somehow comforting.

The installation, which opened Wednesday in the Crystal Palace of Madrid's Reina Sofía museum, is typical of the works of the British artist Andy Goldsworthy, which often manage to be simultaneously surprising, disconcerting, and implausible -- and always beautiful. After three decades making art, the youthful 51-year-old is at the top of his game and making some of his best work. "I hope after 30 years I am seeing things more clearly and have a deeper understanding of what I'm working with," he told SPIEGEL ONLINE in a recent telephone interview.

Goldsworthy, one of the best known exponents of land art, works exclusively with natural materials, including rock, wood, ice, leaves and thorns, as well as wool, blood and excrement. Some of his works, which always involve huge technical skill, last for decades or longer, such as his massive fir cone-shaped stone cairns, while others, like an armful of snow thrown into the air, are destroyed within seconds and only continue to exist as photographs. In fact, photography comprises the main way in which his art is appreciated by the public; his coffee table art books are huge sellers in the United Kingdom.

With the Madrid installation, as with much of his art, Goldsworthy is seeking to make his viewers think about the material he uses and its relationship to the natural world. "I could imagine people getting very angry and perplexed at an artist like me purportedly cutting down all these trees and making a sculpture out of them," Goldsworthy says, explaining that he is actually only "borrowing" trees from a forestry plantation near Madrid which are en route to a paper mill. "The interesting thing for me is that if I had brought that material into the place in the form of chipboard or plywood, no one would have said anything."

The Madrid installation, which took Goldsworthy six weeks to build, working during the night to avoid the Madrid heat, is the artist's first-ever show in Spain. Ironically for an artist whose work is so rooted in the landscape and a sense of place, he is constantly traveling around for commissions. As well as a long-standing collaboration with the Storm King Art Center sculpture park in upstate New York, the Scotland-based artist has made works in Cumbria in England, Nova Scotia, Colorado, Washington D.C. and New York City in the last few years.

And, in a sign of his increasing stature in the art world, he is currently holding his largest ever exhibition, in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in England. The show celebrates the 30th anniversary of the park and is also the largest exhibition ever held there.

It is something of a return home for Goldsworthy, who was an artist-in-residence at the park in 1987. "It's always very interesting to go back to a place you've worked in before," he says. "I think I can get more from a place by returning many times -- I feel like I'm digging deeper and getting to know the place better and that I draw more from it."

For an artist whose work deals with time, change and the cycles of nature, the return is especially appropriate. "Going back to Yorkshire Sculpture Park is particularly poignant," he says. "Obviously when I went there 20 years ago I was a lot younger and so there is a strong sense of change. There's a strong strength of growth in the park, and hopefully also in myself."

London-based art critic Richard Cork certainly feels that Goldsworthy has grown. "It's the best show I've seen by him," he says. "It stretches him, and you realize quite how adventurous he is. You get the impression that it's someone working at fever pitch."

Cork was particularly impressed by the gallery works at the exhibition, which features new permanent outdoor commissions as well as new indoor stone, tree and clay installations. In one room, a screen of horse chestnut stalks hang in space from the roof, held together with thorns. "It's beautifully done," says Cork. "It looks very simple and effortless, but you know it must have taken him hours to do."

In another room, Goldsworthy has built a huge egg-shaped structure out of tree branches. "This thing rears up in front of you, and you think, what's holding it up?" Cork says. "There's an element of danger."

Indeed, Cork feels there is always a darker side to Goldsworthy's work, despite its beauty. "He's not afraid of making you aware of decay and damage," he says. One room at the YSP show has nothing except a cracked wall made of clay bonded with human hair, resembling a dried-up river bed. "It's very mortal and vulnerable," he says.

For many people, Goldsworthy's works with blood and excrement are disturbing. But the artist says he is only trying to reflect nature in all its facets. "Things like blood and urine are difficult things to work with, in that I don't want to be gratuitously shocking," Goldsworthy says. "But in the landscape and on farms you can't go far without coming across something that is shitty, bloody or dead."

The paradoxical character of his work comes out especially in the excrement drawings at the YSP show. "When you go into the gallery and see the windows at the far end of the room, you don’t know what the material is," he says. "It's only when you get up close that you realize that the material is actually cow shit that I've spread onto the window and then made this river-like form which runs through it. You're actually looking through shit into the landscape."

As always, the point is to challenge the viewer's conceptions about the landscape and the distinction between the natural and artificial. "Hopefully there's the realization that the landscape is so green and rich agriculturally because of the animals which are on it and the amount of shit that's put on it," he says.

For Cork, Goldsworthy's work, with its focus on the value of the landscape, is more relevant than ever. "One of the messages of his art is how we need to understand nature and how we get into trouble if we don't," he says. "It's a belief which has never been more pertinent."

"En Las Entranas Del Arbol" is on show at the Reina Sofía in Madrid until Jan. 21, 2008. The Yorkshire Sculpture Park exhibition runs until Jan. 6, 2008.

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