Why Andy Goldsworthy Needs to Be in a Tree

And why he may add more sculpture to the Presidio.

In Rivers and Tides — the 2001 documentary about Andy Goldsworthy that is one of the most acclaimed theatrical releases ever made about a visual artist — Goldsworthy is shown making a precarious sculpture from a pile of sticks as he sits right next to a tree. “When I make a work,” he says in the film, “I often take it to the very edge of its very collapse, and that’s a very beautiful balance.”

That balance is a Goldsworthy trademark — which is why San Francisco is lucky to have Goldsworthy’s more permanent sculptures here. Year after year, thousands of people enjoy Goldsworthy’s work in the Presidio, including Wood Line, a 1,200-foot-long piece made of eucalyptus branches that thousands of people have walked on and across since 2011. Goldsworthy, who is based in Scotland, recently returned to San Francisco to open a new exhibit at Haines Gallery, Andy Goldsworthy: Drawing Water Standing Still,” which runs through July 29. He also attended a screening of the follow-up to Rivers and Tides, Leaning Into the Wind, which was sponsored by the FOR-SITE Foundation. (The foundation’s Founding Executive Director, Cheryl Haines — who runs Haines Gallery — is a good friend.)  

In an exclusive interview with SF Weekly, Goldsworthy says he may add to his sculptural work in the Presidio, explained why San Francisco is such an important place for him, and why hanging out in a tree — and eating floral petals — is such a vital act.

You’ve been to San Francisco so many times for exhibits and to do original sculpture. Has San Francisco itself become an influence on your work?  
All the places that I work inform me and create things that are particular to that place. But they inevitably become part of a whole dialogue that occurs between materials, places, weather, and countries, and at times they can show up in huge contrasts, and at other times they it shows connections. Both can be really, really interesting. I’ve been to San Francisco maybe 15 times. It’s a lot. It’s a very particular relationship I have with San Francisco and the Bay Area because of the number of times I’ve come here. It probably represents the biggest concentration of my time, energy, and work outside of Scotland.

Why is there such a connection here?
I never make a point of going anywhere. The only point I make is to stay home if I can. I only go where I’m invited. I will never seek out a place or a trip. Fortunately, I don’t have to. The reason I keep coming here is because of Cheryl. We have this long-term relationship of working together. And there’s the people of San Francisco. The Wood Line in the Presidio is the most socially active sculpture I’ve ever made. Just the way people walk it, visit it. I’ve been repairing the erosion of the line this week, so I’ve been there seeing this happening. It’s another reason I’ve been asked to come back so many times.

At the de Young Museum, people can sit on the work you’ve done. In the Presidio, they can walk on it. Why is it important for people to have a physical or visceral connection to your work?
I don’t see people as audience but as participants in the work. And people are as much as part of the Presidio as the trees, the sand, the soil, and the sky — they’re bound up in that. That’s why I’m particularly attracted to a place like that. There’s a certain flow of human energy in that place that the Wood Line is tapped into. And that gives the work energy. And the patina of time on the work can be quite extraordinary, so the feet that step on or along the line have etched and underscored the work. So it’s become a far deeper surface and work. They’ve added richness to it — in a very physical but at the same time a spiritual way, in the sense of a spirit of people being there.

When you were at the Wood Line, did people say, “Oh, look — there’s Andy Goldsworthy.” Because of your films — Rivers and Tides, and Leaning Into the Wind — there’s a greater likelihood that people will recognize you.
Well, this one guy came up to me really quite angrily — or, rather, worried and concerned — that it was being chopped up and taken away. It was quite nice to have someone defending my sculpture from me. Even today, I was looking around to possible new places that I might be working. What’s happened is that I made the three or four works, but the walk between has started to become a work in its own right. And that line that people make between works is a work that I’d like to strengthen. So I’m looking at spaces between where I might make more works. It’s beautiful to think of them as a connected group of one single work rather than four or five single works. If I can raise it to that level, it’d be fascinating to do that. So I was walking today looking at places. And there were lots of kids climbing over things. And they recognized me. It’s not like I’m a great big deal.

The first day I walked up the hill to work on the Spire, I knew that the Presidio was a place that people felt very strongly about, and very protective about, and that having art in there might be very contentious, and I might create a very difficult atmosphere to work in. So you brace yourself as an artist for the often difficult public reaction art gets. So it is quite surprising when it’s so embraced in that way. But you can never go into a place and say, “What do people want?” That would produce a work that would have no soul, no meaning. You can’t make it that way. You’ve got to go with your vision and what you feel is going to be right and you have to be prepared to take the flack.

But in this case it’s been very rewarding because they’ve been made, especially the Spire, with this idea of change, and that over time it will disappear. And there is a sculpture that’s stuck right at the top of the hill, shouting for attention, which is very unusual for me, in such a possibly contentious place. And I suspect some people will be wanting the trees chopped down so they can see the Spire all the time. It’s going to be interesting how it works out over time.

Your art wrestles with the ephemeral and permanence. The two films about you are a permanent record of your work. Do you wrestle with being on film because its permanence?
Film is definitely a challenge — just being filmed. But I began to think of it as three films, with one film not yet make and maybe never made. So it does become about change. Photographs are very brutal when you look back. We’ve just been looking back at photos here, of an installation that I did in the 1990s, and they’re not easy on you. While it is there on film, it also defines the changes that have occurred during that time, between the two films and possibly a third. That would be a really quite interesting expression of change. Who knows?

Leaning Into the Wind shows you up in a tree, just standing there amid the branches, as cars drive by on the adjoining roadway. Your new Haines Gallery exhibit has three videos of your tree climbing. What’s it like to be in a tree perfectly still? 
I set the camera up, and I picked the tree, and I composed the shot with the road. It’s the tree, the sky, and the road. So it’s those components. It’s also a very calm day. It’s a very gray day. So it’s a “time stopped” kind of day. There are three works, and all are here (at Haines Gallery). I stand in a tree for about 10 minutes. And I stay perfectly still. But when I’m standing there — trees never stay still, even though it’s a calm day. I found a point where I can sustain, but there’s always a pressure point so it starts tilting a bit, and I have to correct it, and all my pressure will inevitably go to one foot. And it’s actually really painful to stand there for that length of time. And it’s really difficult to stand still in a tree. You’re leaning into a branch, and the branch slowly begins to give, and you think you’re going to fall, and then after 10 minutes, I have to [do it] very slowly again, because I’m very disorientated.

Why stand in a tree? I don’t know. Well, because the body is an object, is material to be worked with. This is why my hands, my feet — they’re not only the things that feed the mind, they’re … I don’t know if you know Jacob Bronowsky. He was a scientist who did a wonderful documentary where he said in there that the hand is the cutting edge of the mind. That’s coming from a scientist. And that’s why we need to touch. And that’s why we need to engage with the world — and that feeling. And then the mouth. The moment you put petals in your mouth, they instantaneously no longer become pretty. They become dangerous. And they become noxious. And bitter. And then you know the real beauty of a flower. That’s why the sensation of touch, and the sensation of taste and smell, of being there, standing still, of moving, is so important to understanding the world around me. It can’t be experienced simply at a distance.


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