Andy Goldsworthy has come to know the stones. And the leaves, the ice, the water, the grass. He’s an artist who’s medium is all of nature, and he knows that the changes he enacts on his surroundings can only be temporary. Rivers and Tides is a journey into Goldsworthy’s world, following him as he travels around, creating art from the most simple means.
The primary focus of the film is Goldsworthy’s art, and that’s certainly enough. His sculptures capture the surreal beauty of an unnatural phenomenon in the natural environment. Early on in the film, the camera remains close to the artist as he molds small fragments of icicles around a jutting tree limb, sticking the small fragments together — but it isn’t clear at all what the finished product will look like until the camera pulls back to reveal a completed snake shape winding upward through the air, delicate and liable to fall apart at any second, but not before Goldsworthy’s camera captures the image.
The snake motif is a recurring theme of the film, and it appears frequently in Goldsworthy’s work — whether it’s in the gentle up-and-down waves of lamb’s wool on top of a stone wall, or embedded in the plaster of a new house. But the most striking example of the snake comes when Goldsworthy directs the construction of a wall going through the woods.
The camerawork in this scene is awe-inspiring, once again not revealing the full wall until all is done. But once the camera does pull back, for a long aerial shot that flies all along the tremendous length of the wall, we are blown away by the beauty of the work — the edge of the wall points like an arrow towards a highway with trucks whizzing by, and then the camera zooms back, following the wall to where it submerges under a pond, then comes up on the other shore and winds through a thick woodland, creating a snake shape by flowing around the trees.
Another great image is seen when a large acorn-shaped stone pile that Goldsworthy has created is overrun by the sea. The director juxtaposes the time lapse photography of this scene with another set of time lapse images, this time of a very similar stone pile at Goldsworthy’s own home. As the pile by the sea slowly disappears underwater, the one in the fields is slowly surrounded by bushes and tall grass until it too is invisible — the juxtaposition of the two scenes indicates the universality of nature. Time lapse is used throughout the film to express the constantly mutating nature of Goldsworthy’s art, but never quite as effectively as in that scene.
Later in the film, the camera makes the trip down a small, rapidly flowing river between treacherous rocks on all sides, to reveal some small pools in the rock formations that Goldsworthy has filled with dandelions to create bright yellow crevices in the gray surroundings. The film is always incredibly deft at capturing the surprising beauty of Goldsworthy’s art, revealing each new work in the way that you might discover it while walking in the countryside.
But beyond the camerawork, which is remarkable, the film’s narrative sense is just as compelling. When the camera is not watching Goldsworthy at work, it’s watching him at home with his family, which provides a nice little glimpse into the life of the artist. Even better is seeing what happens when one of his sculptures fails, a side of his art that most would never otherwise see. This is particularly well-done during one long day in which the artist struggles to create a giant pile of stones, racing against the approaching high tide, and each time it collapses under its own weight. As Goldsworthy himself says, each time he tries it, the pile gets higher, and he knows the stone a little better. This is, in fact, the key to his art.
Archived article by Ed Howard