Storm King “Running” Wall
Some Earth art uses natural materials while still showcasing the artist
In the early 1960s some artists abandoned the wall, the gallery and the museum for altering the landscape outside. That’s what human beings had done to the Earth for millennia—left their mark, indelible or not. This may signal ownership, dominance or an attempt to connect or infuse nature’s power into the human creature. Or it may be a form of creative play, now augmented by machines.
However, a question arises these days about how environmentally aware and conscientious are land or Earth artists? Four major figures and four key works help us assess the evolving role of environmental consciousness in Earth art. Two recent events in Los Angeles prompt me to make such an assessment: the installation of Michael Heizer’s rock, Levitating Mass, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and a complementary retrospective, Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974 at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA). In this, the third in a four-article series, I explore a New York work and attempt to answer that question.
Andy Goldsworthy assembles natural materials found on site to build sensuous fantasies on ground, on water and in air. He embraces the natural world as a creative playground. He uses almost no tools nor a plan for the work before he arrives on site. Both temporary and permanent, his works leave one with a sense of the infinite possibilities for redesigning pieces of the natural world as art objects, and using the Earth as a gallery for imaginative constructions.
More than anything else he is a practitioner of art-trouvé or an art of found natural objects that are not artistic in themselves—a leaf, twigs, branches, a fragment of ice, shards of slate, a boulder. Many Earth artists do this, but Goldsworthy employs these materials, usually in multiples, as a sculptor would use pieces of metal and glass or organic media such as wood, bone, grasses and stone. He makes things of them—dazzling things, which are difficult to name or define.
Many of his constructs are openings, thresholds, arches, spirals, webs, coils or lines of color in a field. Most are not meant to last. Goldsworthy explains how photographs become a key part of his works, their evocation of time and environmental process:
Each work grows, stays, decays—integral parts of a cycle which the photograph shows at its height, marking the moment when the work is most alive. There is an intensity about a work at its peak that I hope is expressed in the image. Process and decay are implicit.
Much of his work then is “most alive” right before it melts, flows off, blows away, crumbles or disintegrates. Photographs capture the peaks, as if static, inanimate objects have living, developmental sequences.
Storm King Wall (1997–1998) seems made to last, though it has neither mortar nor supports beyond the fitted fieldstones themselves. This project evokes not so much ancient stone builders, but rather agricultural borders and dairy walls in use in New England and New York in the 18th and 19th centuries. This heyday of northeastern farming was soon eclipsed by the Erie Canal, built in 1825. New England lost out to transported goods from the midlands, and the walls were eventually left to fall apart. (By the way, the railroads soon made the extensive canals obsolete—a nice point about rapid, multisystem technological change almost two centuries ago.)
Storm King Wall evokes this period of time in our agricultural past. Goldsworthy piled it into shape in 17 days with five men and 250 tons of stones from the Storm King grounds. But this wall does not contain or border or divide anything—it swerves, twists and turns, and nearly surrounds trees, connecting them with serpentine curves. It then stretches out and dives into the water just to emerge and stop on the other side of a small pond. The only things historical about it are the stones themselves and perhaps its seemingly arbitrary length, 2,778 feet, which is just over 42 chains in the old British style of land measurement. (It may be just a coincidence that British Goldsworthy was 42 when he finished it; his father was professor of applied mathematics, and he and his son would have likely known about the traditional use of chains in engineering measurement.)
A key unnoticed element of his work in general is its narrative thrust. Like a child putting together blocks, pegs, felt figures or any kind of multiples in patterned repetitions, Goldsworthy seems to have a subliminal story to tell with each piece. These stories linger in the very structure of the work. Visiting them, you begin to unravel the tale.
One of the narratives of this work evokes a fairy tale wall that wanted to end a life of straight lines and square corners. It tired also of its job of separating and boxing things in. One day it ran free, making wavy patterns on the field and around trees, finally zipping into the water. Sometimes referred to as Running Wall, it may be more of a “run-away” wall than a “running” wall. Goldsworthy has set it and our whole concept of bondaries loose through it.
Few people can describe the wall without resorting to storytelling. It has many names. Another alternative title is “the wall that went for a walk,” giving it agency. Some commentators think it is a devotee of nature, deferring to its higher power:
The wall twists and turns in and out of trees, utilizing their placement to give the wall its interesting shape and putting itself second to the natural landscape of the grounds. It bows to nature once more when it comes to a pond and does not attempt to master it.
Others think it races snake-like, twisting through and sewing the woods together, and then rises up as a water creature:
the seemingly soft wall weaves along the edge of this habitat boundary, peeking in and out and threading disparate patches of the property together.… Upon reaching the bank the wall submerges itself, diving beneath the surface of the water and re-emerging on the far shore. Here it makes a quick turn, creeping up to its full height, before heading in a straight rush up a steep hill and across an open field.
For some the wall is hypnotic, mesmerizing us and pulling the rest of the landcape into itself:
The wall, with its intense discipline, can dizzy you, suck the expanse of the sky and the breadth of the fields into the intense gravity of the fieldstone.
We return to an earlier, animistic form of consciousness with such responses to the wall—one where we see the inanimate object itself as alive and purposeful. Animism predates seeing gods separate from the natural phenomena they represent—the forest itself as alive rather than symbolized by Pan, fauns and tree nymphs. The Wall as an animate creature stirs our imagination, a return to a more primitve or childlike way of seeing and thinking.
There’s an inevitable poetic gloss on a wall like this that many would recognize—Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall” and its ironic refrain, “Good fences make good neighbors.” This poem can leave one puzzled if we accept that refrain as a tested piece of Northeast rural wisdom about keeping the peace between neighbors.
In the poem, Frost explains he’s scheduled to perform a regular spring ritual. His neighbor wants to replace the stones the winter has loosened from the wall separating their properties. We learn Frost finds the wall itself unnecessary since their properties hold not livestock but different species of immobile trees: “My apple trees will never get across /And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.” Nonetheless the neighbor wants to go through with replacing fallen rocks because that’s the way it’s always been done, exposing the unexpressed theme of the poem—the empty reasons we use to keep ourselves apart.
Goldsworthy invites us to give up the notion of his wall as a barrier or enclosure and see it as a playful spirit in stone. It has wide enough gaps to walk through. It invites connection, penetration and the gathering of elements of the landscape into its gentle, open embrace. Goldsworthy’s wall, with its frequent breaks and loops, might have lured Frost and his neighbor to visit each other for a few moments of intimate neighborly talk.
The enhancement the wall brings to the extensive 500-acre Storm King Art Center grounds is surely an aesthetic plus, though one is hard pressed to say that the wall has much to do with drawing attention to or preserving the natural environment or with embodying some environmental principle. It can of course reanimate our delight in natural materials and forms themselves, seeing them as living things, no matter how unnaturally they are composed.
Goldsworthy as artist admires nature, but he primarily engages it to test his talent for complex constructions. He toys with the environment, captivating us with his high-minded play, usually leaving it undisturbed once his project disappears of its own accord.
If occasionally repaired like Frost’s, Goldsworthy’s wall may last for decades or even centuries, though it will tell us less about the natural world, or the enclosed art garden where it resides, than about the imaginative energy of its creator.