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Albion’s Hidden Numina
Andy Goldsworthy

3,213 words

Andy Goldsworthy, Ice Ball [1]

Andy Goldsworthy, Ice Ball

The English sculptor Andy Goldsworthy is a practitioner of Land art, a practice that seeks to create art from natural materials and settings. Other practitioners of Land art include Richard Long, Robert Smithson, and David Nash. Whilst there is this common element of setting art in (or creating it from) the landscape, there is also a particularly striking quality to Andy Goldsworthy’s work that sets him apart from other Land artists. In short, this particular quality of his work might be termed sacred or numinous. For this reason he is both lauded as a contemporary shaman and derided as a twee pastoralist. Neither extremity really reveals much about Goldsworthy’s art. 

Initially influenced by Performance and Conceptual artists such as Joseph Beuys and Yves Klein, he soon began working outdoors at Morecambe Bay, finding the confines of the art school studio space too claustrophobic. “I remember the first day on the beach, it really didn’t matter what I made – I was outside and I was beginning to learn . . . the beach is a great teacher about time – the tides took away a day’s work, imposed deadlines.”[1] In essence, this brief statement more or less sums up Goldsworthy’s continuing attitude to his work. His creations are usually ephemeral pieces constructed from natural materials found in situ. The vast majority of work he creates is in an outdoor, natural setting rather than in a gallery space. These pieces are often only seen (and are photographed) by Goldsworthy himself.

Richard Long, South Bank Circle, 1991 [2]

Richard Long, South Bank Circle, 1991

Goldsworthy works with a variety of materials including (but not restricted to) wood, stone, clay, leaves, snow, rain, petals, thorns, spit, ice, moss, sand, stalks, and dust. With this unusual “sculptural palette” he creates pieces that are visually striking and clearly put together in a painstaking fashion. Indeed, the evident amount of work and effort that goes in to a typical Goldsworthy piece is something that sets him apart from most other Land artists (and indeed, most other artists). This is not necessarily to suggest that other artists do not expend a great deal of effort in their work but simply to point out that the industry that goes in to Goldsworthy’s art is visually very obvious. Indeed, one of the delights of looking at his artwork is marveling at the intricate way that it is put together and at how precariously balanced it often seems. A few examples might be fruitful here.

In 1995 Goldsworthy constructed an ice sculpture made from icicles spiraling around a tree. As with many of his artworks this piece has a long, descriptive title:

goldsworthyIcicles1_op_592x600 [3]The coldest I have ever known in Britain
able to work and freeze icicles as never before
started early
worked all day
reconstructed icicles
around a tree
finished late afternoon
catching the sunlight


It was made by collecting icicles and partially melting one end of each to allow it to refreeze to another. In this way Goldsworthy is able to create a form that would not occur naturally in nature but that is not egregiously out of place in nature. It is a typical Goldsworthy sculpture because it is immediately appealing to a viewer whether or not they have an understanding of art history and theory. It communicates a clear sense of its form and intention in a direct and aesthetically appealing way. Like all of his best sculptures this piece has been pushed to the limits of its possible form. You can see that if one more piece of ice was added the whole thing would collapse. But its form seems to emerge organically from the material that is used to build it. There is no sense that this is a typical Conceptual artist introducing a disjunctive object to the environment in order to provoke shock or confusion. Goldsworthy’s works do provoke a certain sense of aesthetic shock but it is exactly the sort of shock experienced when waking to find that the view from one’s window has been covered in snow during the night; it is surprising and invigorating. It is entirely different to the sort of aesthetic shock caused by visiting an art gallery only to discover an unmade bed: a boring and mundane pseudo-shock. The icicle sculpture is a human artefact but it retains a formal memory of its material source in nature.

Goldsworthy 2 [4]

Goldsworthy has built a vast number of cairns out of stone, snow, ice, wood, and other materials. His cairns are conical or pear-shaped constructions, partly suggestive of standing stones, partly of gravestones or memorials and partly of the cairns that you often find when fell walking (piles of stones acting as a discreet signpost). They might also suggest a fertile woman. The cairns operate as some sort of marker, whether of direction, passing time, birth-life-death, or something else. Goldsworthy says of these objects: “The cones are built solid for both practical and aesthetic reasons. The form is an expression of the fullness, vigor, heavy ripeness and power of nature generated from a center deep inside – the seed becoming a tree and the unfolding of a flower. This feeling of endless layers of growth and internal depth would be lost if the cone were hollow. A concentration of energy is achieved when materials are drawn tightly together.”[2]

334992403_wgqFG-L [5]

He has also built a number of wooden houses that operate as shelters. These are a similar dimension to the cairns and are also conical. But these houses are hollow and contain stones or icicles viewable through a hole or a slit in the front. The shape of these houses and the presence of the hole again suggests a pregnant woman sheltering new life in her belly. There is no sense that these pieces are directly representational but neither are they pure abstractions. Similarly, they are not directly symbolic; they admit a range of symbolic interpretations (if you wish to apply them), but they are not reducible to any in particular. This is wholly characteristic of Goldsworthy’s art – it is elegantly poised above facile labels.

andy-goldsworthy-1 [6]

Goldsworthy also frequently creates art from leaves or petals. Some pieces consist of him wrapping a rock in leaves or petals of a particular color. Others are made from a string of leaves stitched together with thorns or flower stalks. Still others consist of leaves laid out to form particular colored patterns. The rock covered in poppy petals is notable for the vivid red coloration that is accentuated by the surrounding greys. And the more you look at it the more you notice that the greys are not just a plane of monochrome dullness. There is a busy matrix of blues, greens, slate, and white making up the surface of the stones. The bright red helps to bring all of this out by contrast and juxtaposition. Goldsworthy is not just presenting a pretty object, he is compelling you to look more closely at what was already there.

rock poppy petals [7]

Andy Goldsworthy, Rock Poppy Petals

There is nothing in this piece that does not occur spontaneously in nature; there is nothing artificial in this sense. Yet the photograph has something of the oil painter’s palette about it. It’s the sort of vivid red that one might associate with Renaissance painters. And this again gets to the heart of Andy Goldsworthy’s artistic praxis. His work organizes and shepherds natural objects in such a way that they become somehow reborn as art objects. It should be emphasized that this is done entirely without hubris. He does not arrogantly present unadorned objects and say, “this is now an art object because I, an artist, say it is.” Instead, he facilitates the emergence of extraordinary forms from their immediate context. He seems to make clearer that which was already there implicitly.

Andy Goldsworthy, Touching north, North Pole (1989) [8]

Andy Goldsworthy, Touching North, North Pole (1989)

The attitude that anything can become an art object if it is declared to be so is of course a mantra of Conceptual artists. Ever since Duchamp exhibited a urinal in 1917 there has been a continuous lineage of Conceptual artists who present already existing objects in a gallery context and magically transubstantiate them into art. Think of Jeff Koons’ basketballs in glass cases, for example, or Damien Hirst’s animal carcasses. These are not objects that have been created or crafted by the artist in the way that Michelangelo created his statue of David. Instead, these objects are presented relatively unadorned and as existing objects in the world. They are not created in order to represent or mimic “scenes” in the world, in the way that landscape painting or figurative sculpture does. The point of Conceptual art is to draw attention to the object as commodity and so, in some rather pretentious fashion, alert the viewer to the ideological structures that are embedded therein.

jeff-koons-basketballs [9]

This point concerning the ideological role of the Conceptual artist can be clarified with reference to another Land artist, one who is always considered in the same breath as Andy Goldsworthy: Richard Long. Long creates many art works that are superficially similar to Goldsworthy’s. Frequently they take the form of circles, sometimes a circle of stones laid out in the desert, or perhaps a large circle of logs lying on a gallery floor. Long is also known for his walks. He walks particular routes at particular times then “exhibits” them as statements on gallery walls and in his books. For example:




All of his walks contain some such carefully chosen elements. In the one quoted above the high tide at the start point links in with the lunar eclipse at the end, and the number of miles walked corresponds to the leap year in which it took place, and so on. There is a semi-ritualistic element to these walks and this is echoed in the circular monuments that perhaps evoke stone circles. His works all point towards such neo-pagan concepts but they are finally undone by the primacy given to the fine art context of his work. Any notions of spirituality or ritual are organized within a prior conception of the art work as such, and this tends to devalue any power that they might otherwise provoke. Long’s own views on the role and function of the artist are crucial to understanding this point: “Anything an artist makes, is art . . . [but] not everyone is an artist.”[3] This statement emphasizes Long’s view that the artefacts and concepts involved in his artworks are rendered valid through the magical intervention of the artist who acts as a sort of priest and is fundamentally distinct from other types of people. For you and I, a stone would simply remain a stone no matter what delusions we might harbor to the contrary. But for an artist a stone becomes an artwork if he declares it to be so. This is the underlying mechanism of all Conceptual art.

Andy Goldsworthy [10]

Andy Goldsworthy

Such an attitude is a perfect inversion of Coomaraswamy’s famous maxim, “the artist is not a special kind of man, every man is a special kind of artist.” For Traditionalists like Commaraswamy, each individual in a society has a particular vocation and the pursuit of that vocation is what is meant by genuine art. He explains that, for Plato, the term “artist,” “includes not only poets, painters and musicians, but also archers, weavers, embroiderers, potters, carpenters, sculptors, farmers, doctors, hunters, and above all those whose art is government.”[4] In this way of viewing things there is no space whatsoever for the type of artist that Long describes, one for whom the artist is a very special kind of man. Such an artist is merely a bourgeois luxury, a producer of inutile objects d’art.

goldworth-ice-twigs-1999 [11]

Andy Goldsworthy, Ice Twigs, 1999

The great irony, of course, is that Conceptual artists generally produce work that at best provides a confused, ambivalent, and vague critique of commodity culture; but they are absolute experts at marketing their own works as massively expensive commodities. To a man, they are professional, if uncultured, merchants selling faux-rebellion at a very high price indeed. When looked at in this way, the work of Long and other Land artists seems to be merely an extension of the gallery into nature (or vice versa).

Turning back to Andy Goldsworthy, and remembering his early grounding in Conceptual art, it is valid to ask whether his works actually achieve anything different from these other artists. Are his carefully balanced constructions of natural objects fundamentally different from the silly provocations of other Conceptual artists? I think that they are and that the reason for this is at least partly to do with the fact that his art is travelling away from the assumptions of contemporary fine art practice and is seeking towards the numinous.

goldsworthy-ice_ball_2 [12]

Andy Goldsworthy, Ice Ball

When using the word numinous I am not simply referring to a vague spiritual sensibility, or a postmodern reinterpretation of religion. What I am interested in is the particular sense in which the numinous was described by the theologian Rudolf Otto. In his book, The Idea of the Holy, Otto uses the term numinous to describe a religion at its early, most vibrant, stage of life. This is when there is a direct engagement with the “wholly other,” that presence which lies behind the forms of nature. As a religion persists through time it gradually loses some of this vitality and becomes ossified in moral codes and arcane ritual. But the direct experience of the numinous is felt as a terrifying, overwhelming encounter with something that arises through nature but which exists prior to nature. The numinous, then, is not the same as nature worship, but it may be coexistent with it. The important point is that it is expressive of something additional to the natural world, something beyond our limited understanding. This is what gives it its awe-full character.

When considered in these terms it would seem quite wrongheaded to assign these qualities to Goldsworthy’s artworks. As we have already noted, his work is harmonious and readily comprehensible even (or perhaps especially) by someone who knows nothing about contemporary art practice. It certainly doesn’t provoke terror and awe. What then might it have to do with the numinous?

goldsworthy-1 [13]

The answer to this question, I think, lies in the fact that Goldsworthy’s art is so often concerned with revealing what is latent within the landscape. Whether it’s the extraordinary forms made from ice, the cairns hinting towards fecundity or the rocks wrapped in the vivid colors of nature, Goldsworthy always seems to be seeking to communicate something of a hidden presence or form that lies behind the natural world. Instead of thinking of these forms in terms of Platonic ideas I think that the particular ways that Goldsworthy constructs his artworks seem to hint at a seeking towards the numinous. It may be relevant to note that Goldsworthy does in fact sometimes refer to his own work in terms of shock. As William Malpas notes, rather dismissively, in his book on Goldsworthy, “Only someone with an exquisitely, breathlessly delicate sensitivity could be shocked by a little pool of water turning red, or shocked when a stone falls off a cliff.”[5] Perhaps it is indicative of over-sensitivity or perhaps instead it might indicate that Goldsworthy is trying to see behind the material phenomena themselves and to intuit something deeper and hidden within nature.

ag_03576 [14]

In the wonderful documentary Rivers and Tides, Goldsworthy describes working with bracken. He talks of its toxicity, its toughness and sharpness and says, “I think we misread the landscape when we think of it as being pastoral or pretty. There is a darker side to that.” He goes on to note that the roots of the bracken look charred, as though they have been burned by a heat that lies latent within the cold ground: “I think at this time when spring is beginning that it doesn’t begin on the surface, it begins below, so this idea of finding evidence of that heat within the ground, in a way is my way of understanding what is going on at the moment. And even though these are stalks from last year’s plants and will not grow again this year they are still connected to that root system underneath the ground and the idea that what happened last year is being repeated this year and it’s going to come through this.”[6] The artwork that he makes with the bracken has the blackened roots positioned to make a black circle, another simple yet strikingly bold form that seems to be expressive of the creative synergy between man and nature.

gold5a [15]

This sense of looking for hidden processes and articulating them through surprising forms is wholly typical of Goldsworthy’s entire artistic praxis. All of his work, in one way or another, is concerned with teasing out an intimation of something that lies latent in the landscape. I have termed this a seeking toward the numinous but it is unlikely that Goldsworthy would recognize such highfalutin talk. Nevertheless, it is notable that so much of his work does want to achieve a sense of articulation through the forms of nature; neither figurative representation nor intellectual abstraction but somehow a listening for the forgotten voice of the numinous landscape.

land-art-Andy-Goldsworthy-01 [16]

This type of reading is exactly the sort of thing that makes art theorists suspicious of Andy Goldsworthy. With so much mystical mumbo jumbo and talk of “sanctifying” the land, the theorist can only see the suppression of ideology and a bourgeois urge to palliate the masses. The purpose of art (they contend) is to reveal the ideological structures hidden by notions of landscape and to alert the art consumer to the way that power relations operate in late capitalism. Hence, one critic is able to refer to Goldsworthy’s art as “twee arrangements of twigs and stones.”[7] By looking at nature with a profound intensity of vision, Goldsworthy is, for these critics, obfuscating a politicized landscape with pseudo-mystical gestures.

IMGP2662 [17]

The question is whether Goldsworthy’s urge to see deeper results in an intensification of reality or a turning away from it. And, broadly speaking, the way that you choose to think about this issue in relation to Goldsworthy’s art will apply more generally to all other forms of cultural production. What it all boils down to is this: ultimately, is there anything more than matter? Is there a deeper voice that speaks through nature? The answer you give to these questions will not only color the landscape that you see, it will determine which sort of landscape you are capable of seeing.


1. Andy Goldsworthy, Time (London: Thames & Hudson, 2008), 180.

2. Andy Goldsworthy, Stone (London: Viking, 1994), 37.

3. Quoted in William Malpas, The Art of Andy Goldsworthy (Worcestershire: Crescent Moon Publishing, 1998), 33.

4. Ananda Coomaraswamy, The Door in the Sky (Chichester: Princeton University Press, 1997), 116.

5. Malpas, op. cit., 106.

6. Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working With Time, 2001, DVD, Artificial Eye.

7. Jonathan Jones, “Something Nasty in the Woods,” The Guardian, 4 March, 2000.