Andy Goldsworthy: Anthropocentric/Ecocentric Beauty

It is through the time-honored association of ‘beauty’ and ‘nature’ that Goldsworthy has earned his acclaim among art-lovers as well as legions of people who rarely engage with contemporary art. The sensual rapture his works evoke is apparent in the following quotes:

–     “Goldsworthy opens our eyes and all of our senses to the beauty and the multiple -enchantments of the natural world that we so often take for granted.”

–     “His work whispers to us of winds streaming off mountains, of shoots and branches, the transience of beauty in nature.”

–     “Using nature as his canvas, the artist creates works of transcendent beauty.”

–     “The work inspires me to embrace each moment of beauty for the time that we have it and to make the ordinary…extraordinary!”

If beauty was merely ‘skin deep’ it would not inspire the bliss expressed in these quotes, or the perennial production of treatises, poetry, and song. They attest to the fact that beauty assumes divergent forms. This formal morphing evolves in tandem with each culture’s defining features. This fluity provides the opportunity for beauty to display another remarkable attribute; even though it is always manifested as a temporary construction, it consistently embodies a culture’s most esteemed values. Beauty, therefore, may appear differently, but it represents each culture’s conception of ultimate delight and unsurpassable merit.
Goldsworthy is extending the historic narrative of beauty by disclosing two sets of values regarding relationships between humans and ecosystems. One body of work epitomizes anthropocentric beauty; it reinforces contemporary systems of production and organization that assert control over non-human entities, materials, and conditions. The other manifests eco centric beauty; it is consistent with protecting and enhancing ecosystem functions, not commanding them. While Goldsworthy’s popularity springs from the conservative nature of the former, his lasting legacy may ultimately be traced to the vanguard aspects of the latter.
In creating his anthropocentric artworks, Goldsworthy greatly expands the role of craft and manual dexterity in art.  Instead of limiting his creative engagement to observation, representation, and interpretation, he activates tactile interactions with the physical actualities afforded by each site. Goldsworthy explains, “Looking, touching, material, place and form are all inseparable from the resulting work…. I need the shock of touch, the resistance of place, materials and weather, the earth as my source.”   The desire for intimacy with nature’s substances and forces during the creative process has led Goldsworthy to reconfigure art production accordingly:

–    STUDIO: Instead of the confined space of an indoor studio, Goldsworthy’s creative acts are conducted in forests, along shore lines, besides streams, within fields, and many other pristine outdoor settings.

–    MEDIUM: Instead of applying a manufactured product like paint or pastel to a manufactured surface such as canvas, Goldsworthy produces form, color, and texture by assembling actual twigs, ice, petals, snow, leaves, and stones that he then arranges. He leaves these scavenged materials on site after they have served their purposes as mediums for a work of art.

–    TOOLS: Instead of purchasing ready-made tools like brushes, chisels, binders, and adhesives, Goldsworthy collects his resources on site. His sculptures are carved and/or assembled with feathers, thorns, reeds, water, and sometimes the artist’s own saliva.

–    CREATIVE PROCESS: Instead of the free expression of artistic will made possible by the steady-state predictability of an indoor studio, Goldsworthy contends with the variability of climate, season, and weather. The actual construction of an artwork is dependent upon whether the day is breezy or calm, rainy or dry, sunny or cloudy, below or above freezing, etc.

The site determines the work in all ways but one. Form is the noteworthy exception, and it is the distinguishing feature of Goldsworthy’s work. These forms are not discovered; they are conceptualized. Collecting, trimming, arranging, and joining these forms manifest the artist’s personal inventiveness, not the site’s inherent functions. This formal control accounts for Goldsworthy’s acclaim as a master of anthropocentric beauty.

Soul of a Tree provides a compelling example of Goldsworthy’s formal independence. It consists of a curvilinear icicle that spirals around the trunk of a tree with a ballerina’s grace and elegance. To accomplish this implausible shape, Goldsworthy exploited the normal interactions between water and temperature that produce icicles, but he defied the forming influence of gravity. Instead of allowing the drips to accumulate, he intentionally melted the tips of straight stalks of ice and prodded them into the slim serpentine spiral as ice adhered to ice when the tips refroze. Through this meticulous process, a spiral was formed around the trunk of a tree, creating a gorgeous apparition that could never exist without human intervention.  Although spirals factor prominently in nature’s vocabulary of forms, they are never configured in this manner.   In other works Goldsworthy applies his aesthetic sorcery to petals, grass, and leaves to create elegant multi-colored geometries. Or he may stack stones in precarious and determinate alignments that wind, erosion, or flowing water could never have created.

Goldsworthy’s artistic process is imbued with drama. First he accomplishes a virtuosic feat of manipulation by arranging unstable elements in precarious patterns within ever-shifting environs. Icicles defy gravity. Fallen leaves assume an unattainably tidy form. Stones perform acrobatic feats of balance. Then there is the urgent race-against-time to capture each achievement in a photograph. The constructions must last just long enough to pose for the artist’s camera. Within seconds after the shutter is snapped, the materials typically collapse, shrivel, scatter, melt, or tumble, reverting to their status as ordinary leaves, ice, and rocks. It is Goldsworthy’s ordering efforts that make them intelligible as works of art, however briefly, until they are reclaimed by forces more persistent and powerful. That is why Goldsworthy says he creates “as if trying to hold on to some kind of stability against a backdrop that was really in turmoil.”  That turmoil is the dynamism of life. It is the flux of weather. It is the course of evolution.  

Photographs are essential to Goldsworthy’s project. He envisions the camera angle while he is originating the form, anticipating a work’s appearance as a static, two-dimensional construct even as he handles three-dimensional objects in four-dimensional time. These ‘picture perfect’ images appear in lavishly illustrated coffee table books that are widely distributed. The artist comments, “Each work grows, stays, decays – integral parts of a cycle which the photograph shows at its height, marking the moment when the work is most alive. There is intensity about a work at its peak that I hope is expressed in the image.” 

Browsing through books of Goldsworthy’s acclaimed photographs reveal that he is a master of anthropocentric beauty. To create these photographs Goldsworthy tames the wildness out of leaves, ice, and stones to form mathematically precise abstractions like a spiral, circle, or line. The hordes who delight in a Goldsworthy photograph confirm culturally entrenched anthropocentric preferences: tidiness, not nature’s messiness; unity, not nature’s diversity; simplicity, not nature’s multiplicity; clarity, not nature’s complexity; appearance, not nature’s functions. Goldsworthy confirms, “My art is unmistakably the work of a person. I would not want it otherwise.” 
From an environmental perspective, the allure of Goldsworthy’s refinements aligns with the belief that nature is a resource to be manipulated by humans for humans. It is this assumption which can lead humans to generate the ‘unbeautiful’ conditions that currently beset the planet. Goldsworthy has developed another body of work that conveys eco centric beauty consistent with the dynamic forces that maintain the vitality of ecosystems.
Midsummer Snowballs (2000) embodies these divided loyalties. The exhibition officially opened on June 21, the longest day of the year. However, the sculptures were formed six months earlier because they required winter cold for forming and summer heat for melting. The sculptures took the form of thirteen snowballs that weighed between one and two tons each. They survived the vagaries of weather between their formation and their debut in a huge cold storage locker at Galloway Frozen Foods.

The snowballs assumed their eco centric roles after they were transported by truck from the site of their creation in rural Scotland to the site of their display in urban London. In the pre-dawn hours on Midsummer’s eve, Goldsworthy and a team of assistants scurried behind the truck and a forklift to distribute the frozen sculptures around the one square mile of London’s financial district. Thus far, the work is anthropocentric.

The sculptures shift into an eco centric mode when the snowballs began to interact with the materials, conditions, and forces in their midst. Goldsworthy prepared for the artwork’s second act by completing the distribution process before dawn. His deadline was determined by a desire to heighten the drama of the commuters’ encounters with the previous winter’s snow melting under the summer sun.  He calculated that by their lunchtime breaks, enough snow would melt to reveal the bits of sheep’s wool, crow feathers, chestnut seeds, ash seeds, Scots pine cones, elderberries, barley, metal, barbed wire, branches, chalk, pebbles and cow hair that he had inserted as he formed the balls months before. By the evening commute home, these fragments would begin to drop. Gradually more would fall. The first items to fall lay in a pools of melting ice, but after three to five days all that remained were bits of solid matter fallen in disarray on the sidewalks.

During the forming half of the creative process in Scotland, Goldsworthy enacted his feat-oriented, race-against-time art process. He explains, “There is always a sense of working against time and temperature. I feel such a sense of relief when the often dripping snowballs are put into the cold store and start freezing.”  However, he relinquished his control during the melting half in London. That is when Goldsworthy yielded ‘carving’ responsibilities to such uncontrollable conditions as temperature, shadow pattern, cloud cover, and wind. He also exposed the sculptures to the public’s whims and impulses. In this manner Snowballs allowed the dynamic components of the site to factor into his artwork. He confirms this eco centric perspective by commenting, “Time, change and fluidity in all things, not just snow, is the subject of the snowball project.” 

Snowballs unites two divergent systems. One is comprised of commuters preoccupied with affairs of finance, whose schedules are detailed by employer/employee contracts, and whose activities are conducted indoors in mechanically-controlled conditions. The other system consists of non-human conditions commuters easily neglect — the phase changes of water, temperature, season, wind, and sun made evident by the sculptures’ melting, collapsing, sloughing, and evaporating. Goldsworthy explains, “I am interested in the dialogue between two time flows. A snowball melting amongst the river of people that flow through a city…This is the audience the snowballs are aimed at and whose daily rhythms are in counterpoint to those of the snowball.”   The audience makes these expanded connections because, instead of admiring photographic records of situations that had occurred in the past in a distant location, Midsummer Snowballs enables people to make actual eco centric connections with invisible forces and systems that exist in their midst.

The materials packed in to snowballs offer compelling cultural narratives. Goldsworthy explains the crumpled barbed wire in one snowball, “Both city and countryside are defined by boundaries and fences, which seem threatening from the outside yet secure from within. The barbed wire snowball will become protected as the wire is revealed during the melt. The weaker and more vulnerable the snowball becomes, the stronger its defenses will be. Then, inevitably, the snow will be gone, leaving a pile of barbed wire without a purpose – just as I found it, rotting in coils at the edge of a field.” 

Another snowball integrates to Smithfield Market where meat has been sold since the 12th century. It contains long, red hair from highland cows. Goldsworthy comments that this snowball “will show something of the animal not usually seen – a reminder that these bits of meat are life. This is not a vegetarian stance, but a recognition of the animal, the land upon which it grew and the farmer who reared it.” 

Other snowballs contain seeds that are released as the snow melts. Goldsworthy notes that urban seeding “could be seen as a hopeless attempt at growth in a built-up environment. For me it is an expression of nature’s tenacious ability to re-colonize a city – to find cracks and openings into which a plant can throw down a root.”
Thus, while Soul of a Tree offers an experience that is exclusively visual and recognizably beautiful, Midsummer Snowballs celebrates the entirety of ecosystem functions that may not conform to visual beauty, but they are examples of transformations that are ecologically  ‘beautiful’ because they are vital to maintaining ecosystem functions. Such beauty is not invented. It is discovered. In sum:

 Anthropocentric  beauty privileges appearance, serves humans, manages materials and conditions. Eco centric beauty considers the welfare of all forms of life, enhances ecosystem functions, and involves responsive interactions. As such, dynamic processes cease to be seen as obstacles to overcome, resources to consume, or conditions to control.

FOOTNOTES:   Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, Film Review, “Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working with Time,”
  Joanna Pitman, “Andy Goldsworthy at YSP,” (March 26, 2007).
  Arthur Lubow, “35 Who Made a Difference: Andy Goldsworthy,” Smithsonian Magazine, (November 2005).
  Stefan Beyst, “Andy Goldsworthy: The Beauty of Creation” (June 2002).
  Becky Mengel Freund, “Andy Goldsworthy,” Web Design for Raymond Walters College,
 “Mother nature’s son,” Telegraph Magazine, December 5, 2004.
  “What is Art? What is an Artist?” Department of Art History, Sweet Briar College
  Richard Mabey, “Andy Goldsworthy’s Ecological Art,” The Guardian Unlimited, March 31, 2007,,,2046697,00.html.

  Andy Goldsworthy talks to Conrad Bodman, Curator at the Barbican Centre in London. This interview was produced by the Barbican to mark Goldsworthy’s ‘Snowballs in Summer’ project. Copyright Andy Goldsworthy 2000.