Andy Goldsworthy: Nature, Metaphor and Humanity


I recently had the opportunity to view a screening of a documentary on the nature artist, Andy Goldsworthy, entitled Rivers and Tides. Goldsworthy has developed a unique form of art, which involves going into nature, using the natural materials around him and then creating an artwork, which complements or accents the natural surroundings. Due to the nature of such work, his artworks are often temporary, taken back into nature by wind or water. The actual work of art, then, is not only found in his structure of the natural material, but also in the process by which he makes it and in the photographs and film used to preserve it. He spends all morning, for example, building a wooden round structure, resembling a beaver dam, on the shore of a lake (shown in photo above). At the top of the wooden structure, there is his signature hole, representing eternity or infinity. When the tide comes in, the structure slowly moves away from its original location, breaks free from its foundation and is gradually carried out into the water. The beauty of the art is found not only in the way it is created, but also in the way it is broken down as it returns to nature.


Another example, which I found particularly beautiful, was where he placed brightly colored leaves according to a particular pattern in a small pool at the side of a creek (similar to the photo on the right). The vibrancy and brilliance of the colors were astonishing; it was almost as if the water was on fire! And yet, all the colors were from the surrounding trees, simply arranged in a striking way. Again, this work was only temporary, for when the creek rose, the leaves were carried away.

I will admit, however, that at the beginning of the documentary, I was skeptical of the value of Goldsworthy’s work because I felt uncomfortable with its temporality. With some of his pieces only lasting a few hours or less, I wondered if their value and impact would be diminished. Others, who have encountered Goldsworthy, most likely have posed similar objections. Yet, after reflecting on the power of his art, I realized that all art, and all of humanity, for that matter, is as temporary as the leaves being taken away down the stream. The prophet Isaiah reminds us of this:

All people are like grass, and all human faithfulness is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall, 
because the breath of the Lord blows on them. Surely the people are grass. The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever.[1]

Robert Wood eloquently remarks on this fleeting characteristic of humanity as represented in Andy Goldsworthy’s work in Nature, Artforms and the World Around Us: “ . . . it brings to mind the way in which every form that we introduce into Nature eventually succumbs to its processes as do we who emerged out of Nature. [Goldsworthy’s] work makes a powerful case for the metaphoric use of Nature.”[2] Many other metaphors, in addition to the temporality of humanity, speak to us from Goldsworthy’s profound use of nature.

What is it about Goldsworthy’s nature-art that attracts us and allows us to explore such metaphors? The attraction of his projects, in my opinion, does not lie in his reliance on the natural environment or in his human skill at creating art, though both of these are important and attractive elements of his work. The source for such profound beauty is in his wedding of the natural and the human. Although they are inspired by natural forms and processes, his artworks are not nature look-alikes; each of them is uniquely human in their design and execution. On one hand, his artwork shows the stark contrast between wild, untamed nature and rational humanity, but, on the other hand, it also displays connections and similarities between them through elements of temporality and unpredictability.

Kant speaks of the power of this type of aesthetic contrast towards the end of the first book of the Critique of Judgment. He gives an example of how a pepper garden in itself is not so amusing, but if one were to stumble upon a pepper garden in the middle of a forest, it would be much more attractive. For, he states, “wild beauty, apparently irregular, only pleases as a variation from the regular beauty of which one has seen enough.” [3]. He argues that the variation between wild beauty and regular beauty is what is attractive to us and draws us in. This variety is necessary for aesthetic experience, according to Kant, because it allows us to have free play between our imagination and our understanding.

Goldsworthy’s art certainly does allow our imagination and understanding the freedom to explore new metaphors, and, I would argue, through such exploration, we can be brought to meditate on even deeper metaphysical and spiritual reflections. If you can spare the time, I would encourage you to view the documentary, Rivers and Tides, and allow yourself further meditation on the metaphors between nature and humanity. I welcome comments on Goldsworthy’s work here as well.

  1. [1] Isaiah 40:6-8 (Quoted again in 1 Peter 1:24-25).
  2. [2] Robert Wood, Nature, Artforms and the World Around Us, Forthcoming, Quote at End of Ch.1.
  3. [3] Kant, Critique of Judgment in Philosophies of Art & Beauty: Selected Readings in Aesthetics from Plato to Heidegger, eds. Albert Hofstadter and Richard Kuhns (Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1976), 307.