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Up on the Roof

by Val Castronovo

Stone Houses, Andy Goldsworthy’s new installation at the Met, takes a commanding view

Don’t call British sculptor Andy Goldsworthy an ecological artist. He rejects the label, explaining that his art is “not a vehicle for preaching. These are things that I feel, that are real to me. I put my fingers in the stuff of nature.” This time, the 48-year-old English-born artist who lives in Dumfriesshire, Scotland, has put his fingers in the stuff of nature — specifically, wood and stones — and put them on top of Manhattan’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. His creation, two wooden beehive-like structures (“domes”) that shelter two piles of rocks (“spires”), was assembled on site in six days and marks the first time an artist has constructed a work especially for display on the Roof Garden.

Dubbed Stone Houses (May 4-October 31, 2004), this arresting installation derives its inspiration from Central Park and the New York skyline. It’s meant to echo the two natural elements in the park that can be spied from the Roof — wood and stones — but also to mirror the city’s architecture and to “work as a counterpoint to the spectacular view from the Roof Garden ... by looking internally rather than externally, and inviting the viewer to look into the landscape rather than at it.”

In other words, Goldsworthy wants you to look inside his constructions, not away from them. Forget the panoramic views. He likes what he calls “interior views” and the notion of “something concealed in such an open place.” And not to worry. “It’s all right to touch the wood,” he told viewers at a slide presentation the day before the exhibition opened to the public. “That’s the point of the sculpture. Touch it and lean in.”

It’s a heady feeling, touching the art. Leaning in, one sees an elegant, thirteen-and-a-half-foot-high balanced column of granite stones that hail from the beaches of Glenluce in Luce Bay, Scotland. Some weigh as much as one-and-a-half tons, some as little as two ounces. The stack is tapered, rising to a delicate point and forming a kind of New Age spire. Goldsworthy “likes the sense of precariousness” represented by the columns, though the stones fit neatly into one another and are in no danger of toppling. The spires rest on beds of gravel that were made from the paving stones on the Roof.

Step away and the view changes. The beehive, an octagonal dome crafted from log-cabin-style split rails, comes into focus. It’s huge (eighteen-feet-high, twenty-four-feet-wide) and “commands the space” in the artist’s words, quite an achievement when one considers the space measures 10,000 square feet. The split rails, northern white cedar from the woods of New England, are meant to evoke agriculture, an important association for the artist who worked as a farmer near Leeds when he was a boy.

“You’ve got a bit of Scotland coming to New York and being embraced by American wood,” says Goldsworthy about his materials. He relishes the cross-cultural connection; it’s a theme that runs through his works. But he’s equally interested in exploring “the connections between things” and thinking outside the box. An example: he conceives the stone in Stone Houses as “the more fragile partner — protected by the [guardian wood rails] — just as trees often hold together and protect the landscape in which they grow.”

Such paradoxes inform the work of this plein air sculptor who uses the natural landscape as his canvas and the natural world for his materials, much of them ephemera — leaves, snow, icicles, powder, sand, flowers, berries and the like. He’s fascinated by the concepts of time and change, growth and decay, the mysteries of nature. And he will go to great lengths to test his ideas. In 2000 he executed a Millennium project, Midsummer Snowballs. He used refrigerated trucks to convey 13 one-ton snowballs from Scotland to London, placed them in the middle of the city, and waited for them to melt. At their core, they each disclosed something different — heather, feathers, flowers, pine cones and other natural boons.

Not all his works are ephemeral of course, but the ones that are have been preserved in photographs and published in eight books by Harry N. Abrams so they can achieve a permanence of sorts and be shared with the public. The project at the The Met is of sturdier stuff, but the stuff of nature all the same. He’s still making the myriad connections between his latest opus and its surroundings. Realizing this the morning Stone Houses was previewed, he admitted to his audience “It’s hard to know what I’ve made.”


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