Sunday, May 3, 2009


Son K once spent a gorgeous summer day here in Maine building and rebuilding a stone “dam” in a river, and I suspected that half the thrill was directing the water, and being in control of it, and the other half was the visual aspect, the ability to change stone size, shape and color in any way that gave him pleasure. It was simply heavenly to watch him so absorbed, so focused on his task all afternoon in this quiet, undisturbed place we’d found. I also remembered, briefly, the joy and wonder I felt as a kid doing the same kinds of things.

If your kids love playing in nature, collecting stones, playing in sand, exploring creeks and tidal pools, they’ll probably love Rivers and Tides. It’s a mesmerizing documentary about an artist who uses the natural world as his creative tools, and it quietly stirs the viewer’s own memories and feelings related to the tactile exploration of nature and our inexplicable desire to rearrange it.

Andy Goldsworthy is a noted Scottish artist who uses items such as stones, driftwood, water, bracken, and lily pads to create art that is often ephemeral and fleeting. He is sometimes working with nature, and sometimes against it, almost always racing with an incoming tide, an ice-melting sun, or some other natural force, which he incorporates into the piece. His work is lovely, and like the web of a spider, is often concentric or patterned, and seems to have some complex blueprint underlying that we can’t see. At first, the idea that some of his creations should have such a short life is hard to take, but eventually it becomes obvious that the complete cycle, or life, of the piece is the work. “The real work is the change,” Goldsworthy notes, and you see that the way an incoming tide changes a driftwood formation, or the way that sun and shadow changes a sculpture of bracken is integral to the work, it becomes an even bigger part of the work.

Of course, watching a piece come tumbling down as he’s still building it, due to wind or water or some other force of nature, is heartbreaking, but Goldsworthy seems pretty impervious at this point. He’ll just quietly start again, light and weather willing. His work can be as detailed as carefully placing a brilliant white rope of wool atop a long, rambling stonewall in the Scottish countryside, or it can be as fleeting as throwing snow into the air. It’s a great reminder (or lesson) that art can be many, many things, and created in many ways.

There is a hypnotic, restful quality to the film, and I’d suspect that kids on the younger end of the age spectrum will be quite engaged, as would kids just past the tweener stage, especially creative, thoughtful teens. (Watching our own tweener son in his changing viewing habits, I’m finding this stage a bit difficult; at this age, they beg for PG-13 movies, they want more action, more adult themes, and documentaries are sometimes the most difficult genre to get them to agree to.) K wasn’t home when I watched this, so I can’t give you his take, but I’m not completely convinced he would have given it a chance. I might hold on to the disc and give it a try.

It’s such a magical film. I’d be interested to hear about your own family experience if you’ve seen Rivers and Tides.

(Oh, and here’s the parental caveat: at about 50 minutes in, when the POV has changed from the woods to sheep country, there is a very abrupt mood changer: a sheep is running in a circle and a man, rather brusquely, snares it with some contraption and he grabs it and wrangles is to the ground. Before you can say “little lambs eat ivy,” it seems the man has pulled a baby from the mother’s womb, in all its graphic glory. The hardest part for me was when the mama sheep got up and stumbled around, it nearly (or may have) stepped on the little guy -- I was horrified.)

Here is a trailer, where Goldsworthy expounds, brilliantly, on the ephemeral aspect of his work. Unfortunately, they cut off the very end of his point: listen carefully, and then add these words after he ends with “shock” (I happened to make note of this while watching): [He scratches his chin.] Reluctantly, but as if a light bulb went off in his head, he admits, “I can’t explain that.”

There are a lot of videos featuring Goldsworthy's work on YouTube if you have a few minutes to search around ... you’ll see some really superb stuff.

Rather than link to another here (it’s so hard to decide!), here’s something cool I stumbled on that has nothing to do with Rivers and Tides:

The Singing, Ringing Tree:

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