Interview with Andy Goldsworthy

Last week, British sculptor Andy Goldsworthy was on The Scripps Research Institute campus to install his work "Oak Cairn, "commissioned in memory of immunologist William O. Wiegle (1927-2001). News&Views caught up with Goldsworthy on the third day of the four-day process of installing the piece.

News&Views: How do you decide which piece of wood goes where?

Andy Goldsworthy: I want the pieces to knit together, to lie well on previous branches, and to tie into the middle of the structure. I'm using the shapes of the branches, the nature of the branches, to build the sculpture's curvature.

N&V: I noticed that you placed that large log in the middle. Do you like it there?

Goldsworthy: Yes, I do. There's something very strong about that—and a little bit threatening. It leads to the questions, "How is that held together?" and "Will it collapse if I touch it?" In fact, the sculpture is very strong. I can easily walk up it.

N&V: You built this sculpture once before for last summer's exhibit in the Museum of Contemporary Art in La Jolla. Was the sculpture different then?

Goldsworthy: I am trying to make this one better. This morning someone brought a photograph of the piece when it was in the Museum of Contemporary Art. The sculpture here is so much stronger visually—so much better, it's unbelievable. One of the reasons for repeating a work is to improve on it, so you can extract more energy out of it. At the point where I can't make improvements, I don't make another one.

N&V: This is part of a series of cairns you have built in different parts of the country, right?

Goldsworthy: Yes. The things I've been able to do with that form because of what I've done previously have been extraordinary for me. So, it's not mere repetition. It is a journey that a particular form and idea takes. I think this form may have reached the end. Creating the piece here after working on the East Coast brought me to a feeling of conclusion. I haven't felt the urge to make another cairn. Not to say I won't. But for the moment I feel it has reached a plateau and I really have no need to make that form again.

N&V: In what direction did your cairns evolve?

Goldsworthy: The shape. If you look at the photograph of this one compared to the one in the museum, this shape has much more light about it. The base, particularly, is very rounded. It's not perfect—getting it perfect is almost impossible—but it sits beautifully. The shape makes it very proud. It's quite happy. It has a real sense of liking being here. The one in the museum was squat by comparison and didn't have the same contact with the ground. Being in the museum, I made it hit the ceiling and feel compressed by that space. Whereas this one has been liberated into the outdoors. And that fell to the form.

N&V: Your sculpture seems to be part of the cycle of nature. The tree started with seeds scattered to the winds. The tree grew. And its limbs fell to the ground. You picked up the branches in Scotland, arranged for them to be flown here, and put them on the ground again. Is the cycle now complete?

Goldsworthy: That cycle is important. The way I make a piece is very close to the process of growth. The sculpture grows in the place. It is not fabricated elsewhere. It is not made into components that are fabricated elsewhere. As you've seen, building it is a process of growth—log by log, piece by piece, cell by cell. To say that the cycle has reached its finish is perhaps wrong. Maybe it is in as finished a state as the tree was. Eventually, despite all the efforts at preservation, there will come a point when it decays—as with everything, including the buildings surrounding here. I don't know how long this will take. But for this moment—for a long while—it will hang in that space.

N&V: Can you compare what you do with what the scientists here do?

Goldsworthy: It was fascinating talking with Art Olson [Scripps Research professor of Molecular Biology]. I asked him why scientists had to make models of molecules. His answer was that you have to have it in your hand to understand it. I think that the engagement of the hand and the mind is still needed in this age of technology. The parallel for me is I desperately need to touch my work. It's the rationale behind the art. I don't understand if I don't touch it. It can't be done as something distant on a computer screen.

N&V: Yet conceptualizing the piece is a different type of process...

Goldsworthy: I try to create the atmosphere, the space for the hands-on work. This is difficult. You never know quite how the art is going to marry with the site. This particular site, which I found, is a difficult place to make a work. There is a lot going on, a lot of activity. It calls for a piece that feels like it belongs there, but which is also self-contained. This site is interesting because of the connection between the two buildings, which implies a journey and activity between the two. The ancient form of the cairn is about a journey, the marking of a passage. In addition, this is a social space, a place where people will congregate. I will probably organize seating in the area. I'm very, very pleased with how the arrangement of the site worked.

N&V: What is your next project after this?

Goldsworthy: I'm going to Tennessee to look at a quarry for a project at the National Gallery in Washington, where I've been asked to make a proposal. I want to see the stone where the National Gallery building came from as a possible starting point for the exhibition. Then, next Friday, I get back to Scotland. I'll collect stones from a beach for a roof garden installation at the Metropolitan Museum, which will be a marriage of Scottish stone and American wood.




Andy Goldsworhty makes sculptures closely in tune with nature. Photo by Jason S. Bardi.