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Research: Andy Goldsworthy & Olafur Eliasson

The project is at a point where I’m keen to get under the skin of some high-profile land/environmental artists, particularly those whose work has affected me significantly. I want to look deeper than their art as I want to understand their philosophy, how they think, and how they relate their ideas to an audience. I’ve chosen Andy Goldsworthy and Olafur Eliasson as I’ve been profoundly inspired by experiencing their work first hand.

Andy Goldsworthy

Much has been written about the legendary Andy Goldsworthy and I’ve studied his work several times as research for my own work. I watched the film Leaning into the Wind when it was released in 2018 and witnessed a man with a bold animal instinct for interrupting nature. One reviewer stated that it was the kind of film she’d like to see again when she’s dying and I think that perfectly summarises what Goldsworthy’s work does to me – it’s meditative and melancholy but ephemeral and enduring at the same time. There is a sense of pagan hope in how he reconnects us with the earth, with what is around us now, and most importantly with what we have lost the ability to see.

Branching out: why artist Andy Goldsworthy is leaving his comfort zone | Art  and design | The Guardian
Leaning into the Wind by Andy Goldsworthy, 2017

I’m not sure that he likes to wear the badge of ‘environmental artist’ but rather he creates art from the environment. He uses no tools other than natural objects and all his work slowly fades back into nature from where it was born. There is something meditative in watching Goldsworthy work, which I experienced when watching the film below. He often stands silent and motionless in a wild place to absorb himself in the elements and by simply being in a place, he can create the work. I really enjoy how he interrupts the landscape with minimal intervention and often in the most bizarre ways such as the hedge walk he did in the trailer below.

The quote below resonates with my own passion for working in a landscape. I also feel tension when I work against the elements and yes, this can be stressful and frustrating but I believe that I have to let natural forces play a part in forming land art otherwise, in my mind it is not truly embedded in the landscape. With my own project, I would not be satisfied if I ‘helicoptered’ in a piece of work into a landscape and it sat there looking awkward. Personally, I want the environment to push back against my work as I feel that movement or visible influence creates the tension that Goldsworthy is eluding to below.

“A tension develops between what I want and what is emerging. This tension is important to the feeling of the piece.”

― Andy Goldsworthy, Passage

Goldsworthy delves deeper into the fear he feels when making his work below. I’ve talked about the excitement I feel about unpredictable outcomes before (referencing Jeremy Deller) and I can see that Goldsworthy is embracing unpredictability in a similar way here. It is very true that you can conjure up amazing ideas in your mind that would stand a good chance of realisation in the safety of a gallery. However, when you take that same idea into an unpredictable social or wild place, all manner of new tangents can emerge. Some of these uncontrolled effects will enhance the piece and others will not. I have watched Goldsworthy spend hours constructing a stone structure only to have the wind blow it down before he completes it. He lowers his head, curses, and simply builds it again. I feel this journey of frustration is a part of why I seek out unpredictability in my work in the landscape as if the outcome was a straight path then I could not name any barriers I’d pushed through and I’d have no sense of the hand of nature playing its part.

This ‘fear’ was apparent when initially the paddles did not turn at the start of the live event on the river. I sat and thought about why this was the case and realised that the river depth had changed and new eddies had formed, so I needed to relocate the installation. This was a minor problem but it gave me a deeper understanding of what I was working with, specifically that the river was in constant flux. This generated another, deeper question that I asked myself “What exactly is the River Erewash?” I thought, it is not the water, as that moves on by constantly so is it the course the water follows? The gravity inspired groove through the landscape is what the river really is – and this vision was certainly inspired by Goldsworthy and how he might have grounded his own work on my River Erewash.

“Fear always accompanies the making of art, generated by the shock of seeing an idea taking its form. A sculpture in the mind is safe and secure – the actual work rarely behaves as intended.”

― Andy Goldsworthy, Passage
C O 2 * [art + sustainability]: Andy Goldsworthy: the true work is the  change
Elm Leaves by Andy Goldsworthy, 1994

Olafur Eliasson

I went to the Tate Modern in 2019 to see a major exhibition of Olafur Eliasson’s work and found it profound and moving. His work was typically awakening about the state of our planet and brought to my attention some of today’s most urgent issues. Eliasson has a unique skill in playing with perception, through reflection, inversion, altered images, and shifting colours. He gets the viewer to think about how they perceive nature and the elements and questions whether human eyes can see the entire layers of beauty that lie around us. I completely connect with this approach to environmental awareness as I’m a firm advocate of the power of ‘doom and bloom’ rather than the ‘doom and gloom’ approach of traditional environmental activism.

Eliasson’s work is less about the art gallery and more about the artwork – so is more democratic, particularly as his work includes the time and surroundings of the environment where it is placed. Also, the audience is allowed to participate in the work that he creates; a viewer experiences the work and situates it in their own life and understanding of the world. The work has performativity that’s directly rooted in the world. Eliasson shows his audiences the wonder of the world around them in the hope that they will then go off into that world and be more inquisitive and caring. I think he’s very successful in doing that.

In an interview, Eliasson makes an interesting point about beauty as he believes that as well as the immediate aesthetic appeal, beauty can also apply to the relationship between individuals and objects or between objects, which cannot be reduced merely to the visual but might also have touch or some musical quality. This reminds me of the moment that I recorded my own work in the river and the audio captured the sounds of nature combined with that of the paddles slapping the water. Both had an aesthetic quality to them and the combination was mesmerising but the deeper impact was that it sparked a consideration of the aesthetics of natural versus man-made sounds. Why are some sounds considered pleasant and others less so? Could man-made sound be fine-tuned to be more aesthetically pleasing? Could the sounds of nature be intertwined with those of machinery? This is a slight tangent to my project but Eliasson’s comment has opened up a whole new direction of future investigation.

The Weather Project at Tate Modern in 2003 showed Eliasson at his grandest as he created representations of the sun and sky in the huge expanse of the Turbine Hall. A fine mist permeated the space and this combined to form cloud structures throughout the day before dissipating across the space. What I take from this extraordinary piece is how complex engineering and cutting edge science have been hidden behind the simplest of outcomes. The images below show the impact on the audience, they sat, contemplated life, prayed for world peace or were just spellbound by the beauty of the experience.

My own water-based project has the engineered backbone (if not the scale and budget) and the intention is to let the simplicity of nature control the outcome. Like Eliasson, I’m driven to infuse my audience with a sense of wonder, to capture their minds for longer than a fleeting second and hopefully change how they think about the world. I think that the most simplistic outcomes have the best opportunity of achieving this as complexity pervades our world and showing yet more complexity will only repel. Looking at the work of Eliasson once again is a good reminder to keep my work on the path towards simplicity.

The quote below by Eliasson is thoughtful and I recognise the difference between how a landscape is experienced with others or alone. I can recite many times when I’ve been alone in a landscape and have felt lost, insignificant and very vulnerable compared to when being in a group. I preferred to have my own work in an isolated location as I like the idea of it being stumbled across by accident rather than being at a popular hot spot. There is a significant difference in mental impact in intentional and unintentional bringing together of viewer and art. For example, turning a street corner in a strange city and seeing a shocking piece of street art can be chilling and extremely memorable compared to seeing the same thing in a gallery where the viewer is more mentally prepared.

“When you’re in a landscape you use other people to measure with as they give you a sense of visibility, distance, time and depth. But when you’re on your own it’s just different.”

― Olafur Eliasson

In summary, both Goldsworthy and Eliasson have influenced my work in different ways. I embrace how Goldsworthy works only with natural materials outside of the gallery walls but I also enjoy how Eliasson tinkers with physics to expose simplistic aesthetic beauty. I believe my strategy has been to combine the ideas of both these major artists to reveal a tension between the natural and man-made and ask hard questions about man’s influence on the landscape of the Erewash Valley.

2 thoughts on “Research: Andy Goldsworthy & Olafur Eliasson”

  1. I enjoyed seeing your artwork and would like to know a little more about it. I am currently starting my final year of a fine art degree at Bangor University in North Wales and share your enthusiasm for the work of Olafur Eliasson and Andy Goldsworthy. I wonder if you would share your thoughts with me about capturing the tension between the natural and the man-made? I am interested in audience perception and in capturing the unexpected ‘other’ in my art.
    Kind regards,
    Penny Davies

  2. Hi Penny, many thanks for your comments, they are very much appreciated. This was the final project for my BA which is now sadly finished as I loved every part of it. The project was based on the temporary interruption of a local river and I explored how the language we use to describe that natural landscape differs depending on how physically and emotionally close we are to it.

    The tension between the natural and man-made is something that has interested me throughout my BA and much of my work has involved clashing these two together. As you say, it’s the excitement of revealing something totally unexpected or generating a new epiphany about our place in the world. I guess I enjoy playing the part of a scientist (I have a science background!), adding the ingredients and letting things interact on their own accord. I’ve also experimented with converting analogue information to digital data (and the reverse) which has created equally fascinating outcomes.

    I’ve thought a great deal about environmental art that uses natural and man-made materials and how they impact an audience differently. There are some superb examples of environmental art out there that employ only natural materials. They show the wonder of nature but don’t really have a call to action as I see it. I feel that including a man-made element adds tension, a reality check and a day to day familiarity that just might strike more of a chord. From a behavioural perspective, a piece that is plainly weird and more open-ended will be more memorable and may just change the way an audience thinks about their impact on the world.

    I enjoy creating an awkward juxtaposition in my work, be that through humour or otherwise, and I find I can do this best through a blend of natural and man-made materials. I guess the challenge is whether an audience will ‘get’ what I am trying to do, appreciate the gap that I’ve left for them to fill in and have a positive experience. Some people appreciate aesthetic beauty the most but others like to be challenged so I do create works that are just nice to look at, occasionally 😉

    Thank again and good luck with your studies.

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