The sense of dislocation at the beginning of Rivers and Tides works indispensably well for those viewers (like me) ignorant of Andy Goldsworthy’s art. The documentarist Thomas Riedelsheimer waits a while before identifying his footage of rock-strewn beaches and gray-shaded skies as Penpont, Scotland. Up until then, I had the sensation that we might be observing a Pacific Northwest landscape; certainly, on initial exposure, Goldsworthy, who sculpts ephemeral designs in or around bodies of water, seems a lot like the standard issue Port Townsend artiste: quirky, earthy, precious, and grizzled. In time, however, I grew to admire this gentle Scot and to savor his disintegrating, tumbling delicacies.
The sculptor’s projects include ornate icicle carvings (to be melted by the sun); water’s edge stone stacks (to be swept into the sea as high tide advances); and thin reeds hung as pickup sticks from a bare tree (to be blown asunder at the first forceful gale). Why does he devote painstaking craft to art that disappears so swiftly? In the film’s most emotionally direct scene, Goldsworthy tries to articulate the reasons, and he can’t. He freezes mid-analogy, the truth he strives for won’t be sculpted from the unconscious into words, and it’s the most painfully human moment that Riedelsheimer captures.
Some of the juxtapositions in Rivers and Tides are sublime. In one sequence, Goldsworthy tunes out his four young children as they scamper excitedly about the breakfast table (his blankness might be mistaken for wondering how all those kids got there), then we follow him on a walking tour through the village as he gathers flowers from neighbors’ gardens, filling us in on local lore as he goes. A quick cut or two later, we see his intention realized, and it is a finely wrought miracle of water imagery: yellow bouquets nestle within boulder depressions as torrential white waves cascade around the daunting dark rocks. The rushing, swirling, raging river’s co-existence with the garlanded immutable stone awakens a sense of primordial dreaminess, one that might sum up the soul of the man. Goldsworthy speaks of feeling “depleted” by contact with most people, yet his collaborations with nature nourish and sustain even as the works yield to their next place in the cycle—death—that awaits us all. – NPT
April 12, 2003