Rivers and Tides review

:. Director: Thomas Riedelsheimer
:. Genre: Documentary
Running Time: 1:00
Year: 2001
Country: Germany


This documentary, winner of The Golden Gate Award at the 2002 San Francisco Film Festival, follows artist Andy Goldsworthy for about a year, capturing on film the process of his creative genius. Most of the time Goldsworthy's work requires documentation by photographic imagery, since his art is, by nature, of nature itself, and therefore often subject to immediate decay. But now motion picture photography has documented Goldsworthy's art, and it does so in such a way as to enlighten us in understanding the nature of the artist as well.

If you have not heard of Goldsworthy and his work, you may not understand what I'm saying about decay. In that case, think of sand sculptures fashioned at low tide on the beach. Think of ice sculptures at bar mitzvahs. Think of Mt. Rushmore, even. Now, imagine such sculptures as not representing castle turrets or Stars of David, or dead presidents, but somehow evoking the nature of sand, or of ice, or of stone itself. That is the first challenge, imagining what to do with nature. Then, you might spend 12 hours or many, many more making the sculpture, having it fall apart and redoing it over and over again until it is what you want. And then step back and watch nature do what nature does: either slowly or quickly, nature will (naturally) wipe your work out altogether.

That is the process. To be able to watch as Goldsworthy makes his art is a rare privilege brought to us by director Riedelsheimer. I wouldn't be surprised if audiences on the whole sit through this film with their mouths literally hanging open in awe. Not only are his works ephemeral and for that reason alone, impressive and admirable, they are also often extremely difficult to construct. An example might be the suspending of numerous small horse-chestnut twigs in the air, connected by threadlike smaller twigs and forming a huge, spider-web sort of curtain. Or, another example would be the construction of a beehive-shaped rock cairn using heavy chunks of rock of different sizes and shapes.

Imagine this: walking through the woods in autumn, your path full of fallen branches and leaves of different colors and sizes. Suddenly on the trail is what appears to be a huge snake colored the exact hues of the fallen leaves around you. You get closer and see that the "snake" is really a collection of branches laid end to end and wrapped in leaves so carefully chosen that the colors subtly flow from red to orange to yellow to green along the branches. This is an example of Andy Goldsworthy's art, and to the unprepared, it can feel like an incredible "natural" practical joke. That nature can be used this way is shocking, and you are moved to laugh, or to cry, when viewing what has been made. You get the feeling that the artist, a mature man, is basically a child making his own sense of the world, and in a somewhat compulsive nature he creates his offerings and shares it with the rest of us. He does what he must, a human beaver making an endless variety of dams, only the dams in this case are not utilitarian but serve human aesthetic needs.

Goldsworthy works in the geographical location of his materials, using time and space as his assistants. He's used rock, slate, sand, clay, leaves, wood, trees, branches, ice, snow, water and air. Whatever the earth provides, he finds an artistic use. He works mostly outdoors, no matter what the weather. He works daily, and when he finishes one project he simply begins another. He doesn't seem to plan ahead but he waits until he is where the material is and then somehow he knows what he wants to do. He uses no tools but those of nature.

The documentary follows him to four different countries, at home in Scotland and making art for commissions (and for himself, presumably) in the USA, Canada and France. There is a minimum of time spent on biography, but it was not totally surprising to discover that Goldsworthy didn't seem to fit in as a typical art school student. In fact, this man's understanding and acceptance of himself seems to be is at the core of his artistry. The documentary-making process succeeds so completely in conveying the art and artist, that Riedelsheimer in this project illustrates the parallel process: the flexibility and professional challenges demanded of him in the making of this film were akin to the Goldsworthy-art process itself. Somehow the film is able to convey what is so often ineffable about the artistic process.

Goldsworthy uses nature, enhances it with human creativity, finding "nature's soul" and his own in the process. Riedelsheimer has managed to assist us in grasping what this is all about, without any narration other than Goldsworthy himself talking into the camera. There are few other voices heard, few other human beings in the film. One startling sequence takes us to his home in Scotland, where for a few minutes we're in his kitchen with his wife and kids. It is a shock to go indoors for that brief segment, and we know what it must feel like to Goldsworthy to transport himself back and forth between the natural world and the inside-human-civilization world most of us live within.

"I wouldn't call it a documentary in the accepted sense," Riedelsheimer has said, "because I find the term misleading. I would simply call it a film. It is meant to work on a sensual level, maybe have the feel of a meditation, but that word still doesn't quite capture the mood for me." Clearly, words are not enough for most of us when it comes to elucidating certain experiences, and that is why this movie is important.

  Carol Saturansky

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