Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working with Time is a 2001 documentary about an artist who makes “sculptures” out of, among other things, leaves, rocks, sand, sticks, roots, and skeins of sheep’s wool, many of which fall in upon themselves, or melt, or are borne away on the incoming tide.
In the opening scene it’s 4 a.m., somewhere on the coast of Nova Scotia, and Goldsworthy is hard at work. He bites off pieces of icicle; shapes them with the heat from his lips and tongue and hands; and connects them, barely breathing, until he’s formed a spiral–a spiral of ice!–to glorify the rays of the rising sun that will melt it. And in turn the sun glorifies the sculpture, brings it alive, completes the process of creation–“I didn’t realize it would shine through on both sides!” exclaims Goldsworthy, who is willing to let the vagaries of wind, rain and air both bring his works to fruition and destroy them.
Watching a cairn he’s painstakingly constructed on a beach gradually submerge itself beneath the encroaching waves, he seems on the verge of tears–not because his work is going to go for “nothing,” but from a sense of awe. “The work has been given to the sea as a gift, and the sea has taken the gift and made more of it than I could have ever hoped or dreamed,” he says as the topmost stone disappears beneath the ocean. “And there’s something to think about there when it comes to the shocks and upheavals of our own lives…”
Goldsworthy lives in Penpont, Scotland and, as the camera pans to expanses of green grass, and cobblestoned streets, and the spire of a weathered old church, he notes that you have to live in a place a long time, longer than four or five years, to get the feel of it. “You have to see the children waiting at the bus stop grow up and have their own children,” he explains.
I first saw Rivers and Tides the year it came out. I was living in Koreatown at the time, and re-watching the film recently, I harked back to that apartment where I ended up staying 18 years, and how one day on the sidewalk I’d seen that cute little second-grader who used to help me with the groceries, except he was all grown up now, with a shaved head and tattoos, and he was holding hands with a teenaged girl who looked like she was about to give birth any minute.
“You have to see people being born and people dying,” Goldsworthy continued, and I thought of another old neighbor from K’town, Oscar, and the day the ambulance had come and taken his partner Michael, who had AIDS, through the courtyard in a gurney, and how when Michael was at Queen of Angels I called him and in his delirium he said, “Thank God at least we have our health!,” and how he was gone two days later.
I thought about the morning 16 years ago when my mother called from New Hampshire to say that my father wasn’t going to make it; and the afternoon 15 years ago when the doctor from Good Sam called to tell me that the biopsy had come back malignant, and the day a couple of years later when I’d gone out to the graffittied alley, gotten in my car, and driven down to the Central Courthouse to file the proof of service showing I’d served my ex-husband Tim by certified mail, because he’d moved back east again, with divorce papers.
I thought about how for long stretches life can seem to be nothing but shocks and upheavals. I thought about how the whole eighteen years I lived in that beautiful apartment I complained about the noise–the Korean kids next door, the produce trucks blaring “Turkey in the Straw”–and how I’d looked out the window to the courtyard one afternoon soon after watching the movie, and the scales had fallen from my eyes, and I’d saw the pink camellias, and the gold hibiscus, and the ficus trees with their leaves the yellow-green of new lettuce, and realized for the first time in a long time: I live in Paradise.
That was fourteen years ago. In 2010 I moved to Silver Lake. 2015 was a vagabond year. Two weeks ago I moved into a new place, in Pasadena.
One morning last week as dawn broke, I gazed out my kitchen window and thought how, like the sun shattering through a spiral of ice that will melt–and in time emerge in some other form–we are broken apart and put together again whether we want to be or not, with or without our cooperation, whether we live in a secluded Nova Scotia bay or the middle of Los Angeles.
And ever since, I’ve been thinking of the last frame of Rivers and Tides, when Goldsworthy flings a handful of loose snow into the air and, sculpted by the wind, it gathers itself, for one aching second, into a shape you can hardly see, then is gone.