There’s Magic in a Wall


LEANING INTO THE WIND: ANDY GOLDSWORTH (PG) 2017 UK 93mins, directed by Thomas Riedelsheimer, with Andy Goldsworthy, Holly Goldsworthy

Near where I grew up in Northern Queensland (I know, boring, boring but one second) there had been an enormous military training camp, soldiers numbering in the thousands I guess, during the Second World War, situated in easy reach of the rainforest, where the infantry could train to fight the Japanese in the jungles of New Guinea and Indonesia. The reason I knew about the training camp was because whenever we drove out to a place where everyone went swimming we drove past miles and miles of abandoned stone fire places, standing among trees, small ant hills, dry grass and many, many black basalt rocks, scattered about. These fireplaces, for open fires, were made from those same basalt rocks. They had chimneys to create a draw and were built, I guess, by men from the colder South. (My sister tells me the fireplaces have all gone; taken to be incorporated in houses; a turn of events much to be lamented.) The fireplaces would have provided a place to cook and, in the short but, at night at least, fairly cold winter, warmth to those in semi-permanent tents contiguous. The tents and the men long gone, all that remained were the stone fireplaces, incongruous, especially to those who had grown up in the area and had never actually seen such a stone fireplace in its usual place in a house.

These fireplaces were effectively a memorial, unexplained, unremarked, to those men who passed through and who never returned; a particularly apt memorial, given that they were built to provide a kind of homely warmth and sustenance before the horrors to come. To a child there was something of the fairy tale about dozens and dozens of lone fireplaces in the bush, a marker of something which had been but was gone. And certainly the training camp was a kind of frontier between normal life and war, an edge on which those men teetered for a time and were then launched forth into the unimaginable.

Andy Goldsworthy is likewise very interested in those frontiers, fences, edges, walls, borders of all kinds which pop up everywhere, in fields, forests, towns, cities, filled with possibility, with momentary or ephemeral potential. And of course, the moment you think of a fence, or wall or border you think of death. It’s inevitable. The natural world is simply a great big place where everything is, sooner or later, turning into something else, where today’s picturesque view is tomorrow’s compost, where a cemetery is the truest of folk art, monumental (in the sense of remembrance rather than enormity) and full of meaning, a final frontier which we must all ultimately confront. Where exactly is that edge, the place of change, of transformation?

By using whatever materials are available, by working with the constant sense of decomposition, of transience, Goldsworthy connects to a sort of simple, common, fairy tale art, folk art in the sense that we can all intuit the meaning without really having to actually explain or put our finger on its significance or purpose. A meandering stone wall is just that, which is fun, but it could be a giant dragon, or a border or marker or frontier.

Goldsworthy, in this film, spends time trying to get inside walls or borders or hedges, sometimes at considerable risk to his person. There’s a kind of magic in a wall, to paraphrase the poet. I guess he knows he can’t sense that magic from without. He has to get right inside. Either climbing along the skeletal, clutching branches of a high hedge, or by building, with notable labour, a long space or deep crevasse, within a stone wall, each stone cut in half and placed directly opposite its complement, a walkway for Orpheus perhaps, or somewhere which needs the composition of entirely new myth altogether.

The film shows Goldsworthy’s method, his melding of folk, fairy tale, science fiction, the simple joys of mud pie making, of play. His art is the opposite of the manufactured, the plastic, the industrial. He makes stone pods for aliens, mausoleums for trees, crypts of tree branches. How does he make something so profound from what seems to be just a boy climbing trees, messing about with diggers and stone cutting?

I like to think he would have found the fireplaces interesting. This film begins with his admiration of a clay floor in a house in Brazil, a house for poor people, as one of the inhabitants remarks. In front of the fireplaces, inside the tents would have been an ant-bed floor, made by pulverising and re-constituting the ant-hills that were everywhere about, which made a very durable, almost polished floor. The ant-bed floors are likewise long gone. Just as the body shapes that Andy Goldsworthy creates by lying on the ground during rain or snow have all disappeared, having crossed that invisible barrier to who knows where.

Paul Corcoran