catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 4, Num 4 :: 2005.02.25 — 2005.03.10


Ephemeral art

  • Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working with Time directed by Thomas Riedelsheimer
  • Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Works from the Weston Collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario
  • Running Fence a film by David Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin & Albert Maysles

There is an important difference between ?recognising? and ?seeing? according to the Russian novelist, Victor Shklovsky. Shklovsky claims in his essay Art as Technique that we do not experience the familiar, ?we do not see it, we recognise it.? He goes on to argue that ?habitualization devours works, clothes, furniture, one?s wife and the fear of war… And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony.?

When I first began to consider doing a comparative review of the work of Andy Goldsworthy and the work of Christo and his spouse and work-partner Jeanne-Claude, I was tempted by the idea of a clean, simple, reductive dualism. I responded strongly to the ?natural? approach to landscape of Andy Goldsworthy, who works almost entirely in outdoor settings, using only materials which he finds in his location—stones, leaves, streams, driftwood, trees, ice, bracken, thorns. He works intuitively, not always knowing what he plans to do on a given day. His work consists of small-scale engagements with the world around him as he finds it, only occasionally employing the help of one or more assistants.

I was initially much less enamoured of the work of Christo, most well-known to the general public as ?the guy who wraps things.? His aesthetic struck me as arrogant—a we?re-going-to-do-this-because-we-can approach to art-making that I assumed to be part of the culmination of the ironic impulse in twentieth-century culture. Christo and Jeanne-Claude?s projects frequently span decades in their journey from conception to completion, if they are ever completed at all. The pair have realized nineteen of their epic-scale projects in forty-four years of collaboration, including their most recent, The Gates, Project for Central Park, New York City, which unfurled 7500 panels of saffron fabric from 16-foot-tall gateways erected over 23 miles of walkway in Central Park on Saturday, February 19.

I need to be clear that I have not experienced any of the work of either Andy Goldsworthy or Christo and Jeanne-Claude first-hand. This review is based on their work as I have encountered it through the documentary films Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working with Time directed by Thomas Riedelsheimer (2002); Running Fence directed by David Maysles (1978); and the Weston collection of working drawings by Christo, currently on display at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) in Toronto.

Rivers and Tides is an exquisitely-shot documentary that follows Goldsworthy over the course of a year as he works on commissions in Nova Scotia, France, and New York; as well as projects close to his home in Penpont, Scotland. We get an inside glimpse of his process as he struggles to create works that capture elements of ?growth, time, change, and the idea of flow in nature? in order to reveal, as he says, ?something that was always there, but that you?ve been blind to.? His works frequently incorporate water in some way, whether they are made from ice, or laid on the surface of a pool or stream—as with a stunning collage of leaves arranged so that the color changes gradually from deep green to bright yellow to brilliant red; or they are constructed so that they will be carried away or dismantled by a river or an incoming tide on the seashore. Goldsworthy considers rivers and the sea to be his two greatest influences, and refers at one point to a work as a ?gift to the sea.?

There is a significant element of chance and improvisation in Goldsworthy?s work that often leads to discoveries that seem joyfully effortless in their beauty. A serpentine ice sculpture constructed so that it seems to wind through a slab of rock catches the light of the rising sun equally on both sides, illuminating all of the ice at once so that it glows against the dark shadows of the rock?s surface to spectacular effect. Soon the sun?s warmth begins to melt the ice, leading Goldsworthy to observe that often ?the very thing that brings the work to life is the thing that will cause its death.? It is this sense of things coming full circle, from life to death and back to life again in the seasonal cycle that Goldsworthy finds most fulfilling in his work. The image of a circle figures prominently in much of his work, and is one of what he calls the ?obsessive forms? to which he continually returns.

Christo?s work also exists in a powerful relationship with the landscapes it encounters, urban and rural. If we think of Goldsworthy?s process as approaching a landscape from the inside, by getting his hands dirty and exploring in the moment, Christo?s approach is much more external. His projects require years of planning and the use of ?maps, photography, technical drawings, diagrams, and other things? to develop a strategy for realizing projects like wrapping an enormous public edifice, such as the Reichstag, the German parliament building in Berlin, entirely in silver fabric.

Fabric has always been at the centre of Christo?s vision. He began, as some of his working drawings and collages attest, by wrapping ordinary household objects like telephones in fabric and tying them with twine. He gradually progressed to transforming interior environments—museums and storefront windows—eventually moving to engage outdoor environments on a larger and larger scale. Some of the couple?s projects have included wrapping one million square feet of sea coast in Sydney, Australia with fabric and ropes in 1969; hanging a bright orange curtain, 1375 ft wide by 195 feet high across an entire valley near Rifle, Colorado in 1972; constructing a 28 mile long fence, 18 feet high, along hilltops in Sonoma and Marin Counties, California in 1976; surrounding eleven islands with hot pink fabric in Biscayne Bay, Miami, Florida in 1983; entirely wrapping the Pont Neuf, a bridge, in Paris in 1985; simultaneously erecting 3100 yellow and blue umbrellas in valleys in California and Japan in 1991; and wrapping the Reichstag in 1995.

The obvious question is ?why?? The answer, at least partially, is ?because they can.? Christo and Jeanne-Claude have always protected their artistic freedom by funding all of their projects themselves through the sale of the working drawings and collages used in the preparation for their work. But while there is a decidedly whimsical side to their art, particularly in the playfulness of the ?umbrellas? project, there is more going on here than meets the impatient eye. Ben Portis, assistant curator at the AGO writes in his programme essay that

The first ?Christo? works, household items wrapped and tied with twine, c. 1958-63, can be appreciated as sculptural extensions and inversions of the basic art of drawing, canny detours from the customary object-to-eye-to-hand path of artistic observation and representation. His was a totally unexpected proposition with respect to the relationship between figure and ground, one of the central and most contested aesthetic issues of the time.

One of the ?obsessive forms? in Christo?s work to which he returns over and over is the curtain. Valley Curtain, Running Fence,Wrapped Reichstag and other projects can all be seen as variations on the idea of hanging a curtain across, over, or in a landscape that people have become accustomed to looking at every day. I received the greatest insight into Christo?s work, not from anything in the exhibit devoted to him, but in another part of the gallery; from an obscure sixteenth century portrait of Henry VIII copied from a mural by Hans Holbein the younger. It was not the portrait itself that I found significant, but the silk curtain that was mounted on a small rod so that it could slide in front of the portrait and hide it from view. A plaque mounted next to the curtain provided this explanation.

Sixteenth century England, unlike Europe, had almost no history of portrait painting. Household inventories of the period reveal that portraits were rare and thus sometimes covered by a silk curtain that both protected them from dust and drew attention to them.

By protecting their paintings with such curtains, it is possible that these portrait owners kept the experience of their art fresh. Pulling back the curtain made observing the painting a ritual that kept it from blending into the rest of the household environment that they saw every day until they stopped seeing it at all. It seems to me that part of the vision in Christo and Jeanne-Claude?s work is to dust off some of the landscapes that we may have become accustomed to seeing in a certain way and help us to see them afresh. Their fascination with curtains has something to do with the ability of fabric to hide the customary and revise our relationship with surface elements. By paradoxically hiding the details of architectural form, they hope to reveal elements of essential shape that we may not have considered.

Their dreamlike feats of engineering—ethereal and ephemeral—succeeded in complicating for me the simplistic nature/culture dualism I had initially approached their work with. The white fabric of Running Fence beautifully captured the light of the setting sun on overgrazed ranchland; the eleven ?spoil islands? in Biscayne Bay—which are not themselves a ?natural feature? of the Florida landscape but ?man-made residuals of the navigational dredging of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway in the 1920s? — were absolutely transformed by the giant floating, hot pink skirts and captured something essential about Miami in the 1980s. The artists themselves see their use of fabric as connecting them to a long tradition. The following statement is from their project description for the Reichstag:

Throughout the history of art, the use of fabric has been a fascination for artists. From the most ancient times to the present, fabric, forming folds, pleats and draperies, is a significant part of paintings, frescoes, reliefs and sculptures made of wood, stone and bronze. The use of fabric on the Reichstag follows the classical tradition. Fabric, like clothing or skin, is fragile, it translates the unique qualities of impermanence. For a period of two weeks, the richness of the silvery fabric, shaped by the blue ropes created a sumptuous flow of vertical folds highlighting the features and proportions of the imposing structure, revealing the essence of the Reichstag.

The documentary film Running Fence is a straight-forward description of the process of hanging 240 000 square yards of heavy, woven white nylon fabric from a steel cable between 2050 steel poles erected over 28 miles of Sonoma and Marin County hilltop ranchland, and stretching 1000 yards into the Pacific Ocean before disappearing beneath the surface of the water. It is a powerful account of the challenges involved in realizing a work of art on this scale. As Christo says,

Real life experience—engineering problems, dealing with construction workers, the blueprints, the permission from the governments, the highway department—all these things give me what I can never imagine. What happens in the real world changes my original idea and the drawings themselves. This is what I like.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude appear generous in their engagement with the communities affected by their project, and they quickly gain our sympathy as we see them working to overcome many barriers to its realization. Gradually they win over the locals as members of the community begin to get excited about the project. One woman defends Christo at a public hearing by making a connection between the ephemerality of his fence, which will stand for only fourteen days before being disassembled, and her cooking. She acknowledges that while often meals are simply thrown together, occasionally they are more than that. ?I go to a lot of work to prepare a meal that I think is art. It?s a masterpiece. And it gets eaten up.? Christo acknowledges his dependence on the community to help him realize the project by affirming that ?everybody here is part of my work.? What seems at first glance to be Christo imposing his vision on a landscape and a community becomes an invitation to imagine, or re-imagine, what is possible. The film captures a spirit of co-operation between the artists and the ranchers, city councilors, work-crews, and a sympathetic judge who all collaborate to create not only a transformed landscape, but also a transformed sense of community. The film leaves one with a distinct impression of the work as a gift.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude have lived in New York since 1964 and have long planned to mount one of their works there. This year sees the unfurling of their hometown project. It is fascinating to see the relationship between this newest work and works like Valley Curtain and Running Fence. Portis describes how their plans for a New York City project evolved over time.

Their first ideas were to wrap buildings in Lower Manhattan or Times Square… Yet all of these efforts were unfulfilled. It took the distance of working in the American West to see the city for its people and their constant movement.

The democratic experience of creating those earlier works seems to have born fruit in this project. Their vision has shifted focus from the epic scale to something more personal. What I find most beautiful in the images I have seen of the Gateways project is the fact that it consists of 7500 units that can be experienced on a one-on-one basis. People are able to relate to an individual curtain and what it hides and reveals for them, while maintaining an awareness that they are also participating in a larger event.

What I appreciate most about these artists is that they exhibit an awareness that, as Goldsworthy says, ?total control can be the death of work.? They constantly risk the possibility that their efforts will come to nothing, or almost nothing. We watch Goldsworthy struggling to assemble a complicated rock sculpture before the tide arrives. Several times he makes significant progress, only to watch it collapse. An intricate assembly of bracken stems, pinned together with thorns, falls apart in a breeze just as it is near completion. We see Christo shouting orders to his crew like a field-marshal as they race to complete their fence before a possible court injunction orders them to stop, battling fabric billowing in the wind. Similarly,
?on August 11, 1972, 28 hours after the completion of the Valley Curtain, a gale estimated in excess of 60 miles per hour made it necessary to start the removal.?

The beautiful contrast of the bright orange curtain against a deep blue sky and the green, grey, and brown slope of the valley convinces me that the effort was worth it.

Goldsworthy and Christo and Jeanne-Claude have more in common than I had initially thought. Their work is ephemeral, only rarely do they create work that is intended to last more than a few weeks, or, occasionally in Goldsworthy?s case, a few minutes. There is even a striking similarity between Running Fence and a long stone wall Goldsworthy erected in New York State. Both offer us a vision of what lies beneath our simplistic prejudices. As Goldsworthy says, ?We misread the landscape when we think of it as pastoral or pretty. It has a darker side.? He illustrates this point by covering a stone fence with a line of sheep?s wool, demonstrating that beneath the soft exterior of sheep, there lies the hard, sharp, political realities of the Highland clearances and the treeless, overgrazed landscape of his native land.

These artists share a desire to help us see the world around us in a new way, instead of merely ?recognising? what we think we already know is there. I find that their work has quickly become a part of my imaginative landscape and the way I think about what is possible, from the very small to the very large.

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