In a radio interview a few years ago, the British sculptor Andy Goldsworthy talked about the feeling he gets when he’s in the middle of building something and suddenly it falls apart. “Failure is really, really important,” he said. “But failures have to hurt.” The point was that for Goldsworthy, who makes deliberately ephemeral things, building a stone wall knowing it’ll collapse is not at all the same as really hoping it doesn’t.
Being radio, that interview had to do without an illustration, but helpfully the German filmmaker Thomas Riedelsheimer has been making occasional documentary profiles of Goldsworthy in which such moments occur on camera, with the sneak-up force of real epiphanies. In 2001’s Rivers and Tides, it was an orb of stones crumpling into a sodden foundation of beach sand. In Riedelsheimer’s new film, Leaning Into the Wind, it’s an arrangement of yellow elm leaves, adhered just so to riverbed rocks and then blown away by a sudden gust. Here we see how even the most quixotic effort can be easy to relate to. We see the exalted artist’s very human irritation, and feel the utterly deflating release of suspense. Then we see him gather up his materials and start over.
Goldsworthy works by rearranging primordial ingredients, often stone or plant matter, in some declaratively aestheticizing way. The scale of his projects varies, but his methods remain enchantingly direct, easy to imitate: bending twigs into nests, piling rocks into shapely heaps, sorting leaves into adamant stripes, impeding raindrops with his own splayed body. Goldsworthy’s “rain shadows” may be the most innately short-lived of his creative events, but in a way they leave a lasting impression: of a man ready to lie down on the spot for a few seconds whenever it starts raining, somehow without seeming ridiculous or pretentious. This virtue shows up in all the work, come to think of it; what makes Goldsworthy’s greatest pieces great is the arresting humility of their pushback against impermanence.
“I’m still just trying to make sense of the world,” the pleasantly melancholic artist says in Leaning Into the Wind, that emphasis almost an expression of his own surprise. That’s about all we’ll get on the subject of why Rivers and Tides was determined to need a sequel of sorts, except of course for the first film’s subtitle, “Andy Goldsworthy Working With Time.” Any proper chronicle of his process will have to make a habit of simply checking in once in a while. The 16-year reunion with Riedelsheimer affirms Goldsworthy as possibly the most grounded-seeming eccentric artist we could ever hope to meet. Oscillating between commissioned works and daily constitutionals, between countries, and climates, he talks calmly and briefly about the “major upheavals” of his divorce and his first wife’s death, and about how he learned the rudiments of his practice—the gathering and cutting and stacking and building—not from art school but from working on farms.
“You can walk on the path, or you can walk through the hedge,” he also says, and we sense a certain wryness where aphorisms are concerned, which Riedelsheimer underscores visually. All told, Leaning Into the Wind doesn’t require much technical flourish to venerate Goldsworthy as a mild force of nature himself. Even the floatiest tracking shots seem rather utilitarian, craning up over branches as if standing on tiptoes for a better and broader view, say, or crouching close to fixate on a leaf carried along by a stream. In Rivers and Tides, Riedelsheimer’s time-lapse discreetly avoided the expected freneticism of that shopworn technique, instead bringing the artworks’ relative stillness into relief by accelerating a tide coming in or plants growing up around them. In Leaning Into the Wind it conveys the improbable pleasure of watching sod dry.
Riedelsheimer doesn’t much go in for save-the-planet urgency, instead putting stock in the grander eloquence of modesty, curiosity, empathy, and awe. Given the particular interval between his two Goldsworthy films, historically a cauldron of record CO2 emissions, record global temperatures, and seemingly relentless extreme-weather events, the filmmaker likely would be forgiven for stepping his alarmism up a notch. But steadfastness is of the essence here. The new film’s title comes from a work which consists of the artist trudging up a blustery, rain-drenched hill and wedging himself into the gale, intent on a brief suspended moment of poise. He leans in, teeters, gets blown over. Then, true to form, gets back up and goes again.