In Thomas Riedelsheimer’s documentary Leaning Into the Wind: Andy Goldsworthy, the British sculptor and photographer Andy Goldsworthy crawls across a series of trees, seemingly swimming through branches that would appear unable to support a human body. It’s a sublime image—suggesting an inversion of the sequence in Modern Times in which Charlie Chaplin is swallowed up by a futuristic machine. Chaplin’s image shows a man who’s devoured by modernization, while Riedelsheimer suggests a restoration of the relationship between humankind and the environment. And this is the aim of Goldsworthy’s landscape-based sculptures, which revel in awesome humility, exploring impermanency as a sign of grace and transcendence.
In his art, Goldsworthy utilizes trees, rivers, leaves, stones, and other elements to underscore the power and fragility of environmental processes. He might build a dam around a fallen elm, compartmentalizing the tree in a fashion that directs the viewer’s gaze toward the primordial majesty of its roots and branches, or he may use an elm’s yellow leaves as an organic ink, emphasizing the cracks and splinters the tree suffered during its collapse. These pieces, which we see in Leaning Into the Wind, exist whether or not they’re filmed. But the sequence in which Goldsworthy crawls across branches is dependent on the camera as an instrument of his art. If we couldn’t see Goldsworthy placed in the branches, there would be no artwork, as the artist has turned himself into an impermanent corporeal sculpture.
Though poignant and lovely, Riedelsheimer’s 2001 documentary Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working with Time abounds in earnest, literal-minded recordings of Goldsworthy’s art. At its best, Leaning Into the Wind intimately fuses landscapes and organic sculpture with cinema, achieving a sense of transcendence that suggests the prose of Gary Snyder. At another point in the film, Goldsworthy speaks to the camera with existential uncertainty. Goldsworthy is no longer so confident in his delineations between the natural and the unnatural, implicitly wrestling with what his art means, and whether its touchy-feely sentimentality is out of touch with our increasingly corporatized society. Riedelsheimer joltingly nips the interview before it has reached any kind of conclusion, cutting to a primal shot of Goldsworthy’s hand covered in mud that’s washed away by a waterfall.
In Leaning Into the Wind, Riedelsheimer and Goldsworthy still maintain the procedural elements that are central to Rivers and Tides. We see Goldsworthy in Brazil, marveling over a beautiful hut floor, which is made of clay and cow dung and resembles a fusion between concrete and soft-serve ice cream. Goldsworthy speaks with locals before installing two tree trunks in the ceiling of a building, which he and his crew cover with mud, hair, and other materials. Riedelsheimer shows the branch sculpture evolving over a time lapse, growing more beautiful as its mud skin cracks. This is Goldsworthy’s art in a nutshell, as it celebrates the rapture of deterioration-as-evolution.
Goldsworthy’s art also acknowledges the bittersweet separation between individuals, their environment, and their society, and the pathos that are inherent in an essentially fruitless struggle for reconciliation. To suffer from such yearning is to be more awake and more appreciative of one’s surroundings than most people are. Leaning Into the Wind lingers, time and again, on shots of Goldsworthy laying on streets and leaving an ashen imprint behind him. He wants to be inside the streets and below them, fraternizing with the dirt and stones below civilized structures. This desire is literalized when Goldsworthy’s team bisects an English stone wall, allowing the artist to traverse its muddy depths. Certain images are hokey, but Leaning Into the Wind has a wandering, lonely purity. We feel as if we’ve been allowed to fleetingly swim through Goldsworthy’s psyche.