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Wrong place, wrong time for a frozen sculpture



By Jeff Huebner

British artist Andy Goldsworthy was probably the only soul in town to dread this winter's warmer weather. A sculptor known for his ephemeral works, Goldsworthy came to Chicago in early February for a five-day residency at the Museum of Contemporary Art, where he planned to create a series of site-specific pieces in the sculpture garden using a mixture of stones and ice.

He needed several nights of subfreezing temperatures to construct at least two cairns, or stone markers, which would protrude from a wall. The rocks--three tons gathered from near the Fox River in Plano--would be cemented together using ice as the only adherent. Photographs would capture their gravity-defying placement as well as their eventual collapse as temperatures rose and the ice melted. A record of the project--the first to be commissioned specifically for the sculpture garden--would become part of the MCA's permanent collection.

Cold weather had been predicted for the early part of February. But this being an El Ni–o winter, a cold snap might drop temperatures to the mid-20s, not too frigid but perhaps cold enough for Goldsworthy to complete some work before sunrise. Even if a cairn held together for only a few hours, Goldsworthy would take his misfortune in stride--he's accustomed to working with nature on nature's terms. "I am an artist who is working with change," he says. "I try to work with what is happening." Nature's variability is an important aspect of his work; if nature doesn't cooperate, that can become part of the project, too.

Goldsworthy relishes working in the cold; he's done projects in Alaska and Canada's Northwest Territories. In 1989's Touching North, he created a kind of "Icehenge" at the North Pole, building circles with snow bricks at the four points of the compass. So he admits to being a little frustrated by this winter. "It's been very odd," he says. "Chicago is supposed to be predictably cold. True to form, that turned out not to be, and I like that."


Since the mid-1970s, Goldsworthy, now 41, has worked directly with natural materials in the open air. Like such artists as Michael Heizer and Robert Smithson, Goldsworthy's medium is the earth itself. But his association with those artists ends there. Rather than trying to dominate or alter nature--to leave a mark on the landscape--Goldsworthy respects nature and seeks to collaborate with it by making delicate, elegant, and mostly fleeting pieces using objects culled from the site. His hands are often his only tools.

Snow, ice, and stones are among his favorite media, but he's also worked with leaves, sticks, flowers, feathers, pebbles, grass, clay, and sand. He's "spit welded" icicles together and then wrapped them around a tree trunk; river stones have been plastered with bright red and yellow leaves; and broken branches have been reassembled with frozen water. By playing with our expectations of nature's symmetry, he seeks to subtly reveal patterns, allowing us to better grasp the natural world. "My interest is not to improve on or enhance nature," he says. "I feel a deep need to work with it instinctively, to touch it, to feel it, to understand it. The reason I do art is to understand the land. A lot of the work is taking the effort out."

A native of Yorkshire, Goldsworthy says he rarely leaves his two-acre plot in the Dumfries region of Scotland, where he's lived for 12 years; he's created many of his sculptures there and in the neighboring countryside of Cumbria, England. But in the last decade, he's journeyed to remote locations around the globe--from the Australian outback to Japanese forests--to create installations sponsored by museums and galleries.

Few of Goldsworthy's interventions, however, were designed to last: change and decay are at the philosophical core of his work. What he makes usually melts, blows away, or dissolves in the rain or rising tide; what was drawn from the earth will once again merge into the landscape. "The way something decays is as important to me as the way it's made," he says, calling his art a "celebration of the transience of nature." Few people have actually seen his works in person, except for those who discovered them by accident or heard about them through word of mouth.

Of course, documentation is an integral element of Goldsworthy's art, so he's perhaps best known for his photographs, which have been widely exhibited and collected in several slick coffee-table books. To capture his work on film, Goldsworthy says he waits for just the right interplay of sunlight, temperature, and atmosphere--the moment at which his sculptures achieve their greatest intensity. "If something collapses before it's done," he says, "I feel a great sense of loss."

Goldsworthy has previously worked in the Chicago region. In August 1991 the Arts Club commissioned him to create and document a series of works in the Michigan dunes (using sand) and in a wooded lot near West Dundee (using sticks, rocks, and leaves). The artworks and the resulting exhibit, "Sand Leaves," were his first in the U.S. (In 1995, the San Jose Museum of Art gave him his first solo show in an American museum; it had photos as well as indoor installations--including a wall of clay that eventually became parched and cracked yet remains standing there to this day.)

In recent years, Goldsworthy has moved toward creating permanent stone pieces in both the U.S. and Europe. "My permanent works come out of a strong feeling for a place," he says. Currently, he's working with professional "wallers" on two long-term projects: a serpentine stone enclosure in upstate New York and 100 Sheepfolds, the largest public artwork ever to be commissioned in Great Britain. That project, which will be completed in the year 2000, involves the rebuilding and alteration of derelict sheep pens; he says it's meant to draw on the history of farming in rural Cumbria.

In 1992 Goldsworthy returned to Chicago to construct another permanent work on the grounds of Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House near Plano (the steel-and-glass house was built on stilts due to regular flooding from the Fox River). Employing a crew of stoneworkers, Goldsworthy used an earthmover to create a towering cairn of boulders to mark the height of a devastating 1954 flood; in the last five years, the differing water levels have naturally carved lines along the cairn. Its location was largely a secret until recently, when the house was opened to the public.


Every night between February 5 and 8, Goldsworthy would write the same line in his diary: "Not cold enough." Knowing that daytime temperatures were too warm to complete his project, he waited until the middle of the night, hoping that they would have fallen. And every night he would wake up at 3 AM in his room on the 23rd floor of the Hotel Intercontinental. "I can't tell how cold it is from looking out the window," he said, "so I have to turn on the TV and look at weather forecasts."

He then went to the MCA, accompanied by three assistants. After passing through a surprisingly rigorous security check, he was allowed to enter the garden and gather his stones, which were to be immersed in a bucket of water that had been left outside. One by one he would try to freeze the stones to the wall and then to each other. He knew that even if he was successful the cairn might not last through the morning. He had completed a similar project on a quarry face in Yorkshire several years ago during an unusual cold spell; the cairn resembled a lateral pyramid, and it lasted, miraculously, for three days. Goldsworthy showed a slide of the work during a Sunday lecture at the MCA--it elicited an audible ooh from the crowd, and the artist had to explain that the slide wasn't being being projected sideways.

For three days, I waited as well, waking up at 5 AM to get status reports; if it looked like the project would get off the ground, I planned to get to the museum before daybreak to witness its creation. Unfortunately, the temperature never dipped below 30 degrees.

But Goldsworthy tried to keep busy. He attempted to craft several pieces out of sand from the beach near Olive Park, though he says the sand was too cold and there were too many people around. While signing books after his Sunday lecture, Goldsworthy leaned over and whispered in my ear: he planned to build something else the following morning, the day he was to leave. The museum would be closed, but I could come and watch.


At 8:30 Monday morning, February 9, with half of the sky in sunlight and the other half in fog, Goldsworthy begins building his Waiting Cairn at the foot of the stairway to the sculpture garden. The work will remain in place until the next extended cold spell. When that happens, either later this month or next winter, he'll fly back to Chicago to complete the installation.

"It was going to be a great piece, but its absence also became interesting to me," Goldsworthy says. "It failed for all the right reasons, and that makes it an interesting piece. It's not like I gave up."

He says that wherever he travels he likes to make stone cairns "as markers of my journeys." But this one's different: not only does it mark an unfinished journey--the Plan B in lieu of his postponed Plan A--it has a higher public profile because it's a commissioned installation on the grounds of a museum. "I don't think I've ever been in a situation quite like this," says Goldsworthy. "It's a forced element of chance."

A small group of people watch Goldsworthy, who's not used to an audience. His assistants for the MCA project--a man and a woman who are art librarians in Minneapolis and a woman who's an arts educator in Chicago--stand around a wheelbarrow, scrubbing dirt from stones the size of softballs. The Minnesotans are big fans of Goldsworthy; they jumped at the chance to spend what one of them calls a "sleepless vacation" in Chicago. A Nashville-based radio reporter says she would have arrived here a day earlier if she hadn't been stuck in a snowstorm down south. "Snow!" someone says.

The cairn is nearly done by 10:30 AM. It's about three feet high and cone shaped. The stones, says Goldsworthy, weigh about half a ton; two and a half tons remain in storage. He explains that this cairn will be disassembled and frozen to the wall at some future date; the longer the cold snap, the more protruding cairns he'll be able to build. "I was trying to make sure all the stones would get on the wall," he says.

Goldsworthy is concerned that museumgoers might view Waiting Cairn as the record of a failure--something announced and left undone--rather than as an intermediary step. "What we're announcing here is something that may have happened," he says.

Goldsworthy plans to do yet another project in Chicago, one to coincide with the turn of the century. He'll return in the winter of 1999 to collect snow (that is, if there is any) and keep it frozen. Then, in the summer of 2000, he'll place snowballs--which will contain the seeds of plants once native to the region--at sites around the city. When the snowballs melt, the seeds will disperse. "It's like an antidote to the millennium," he says. "It's about those things that pass through that moment." He says he liked the idea of exploring the notions of "time and change rather than the idea of throwing a big party and wiping the slate clean." But first, like us, he'll have to wait.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Andy Goldsworthy photo uncredited.

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