While Andy Goldsworthy’s work has a general theme of transience running through its core, it is perhaps best summarised in his use of ice within sculpture. Though almost everything the artist does has a brief lifespan as a finished object, there are few that seem so precarious as the ice works, specifically his various ice arches. For this article, the ice arch in question is to be the one produced in Cumbria in 1982, one of the best that is captured in the photography of his many momentary visions. The process for Goldsworthy in general seems quite simple on paper though clearly incredibly difficult in reality; that of wandering into a landscape and looking for raw materials to use in the creation of some sort of ritualistic building. The ice sculpture mixes the preciousness of Goldsworthy’s similarly constructed arches made of stone with a definitive period of finishing time, brought with both the time needed for each individual slat of sculpture to melt and form with one another and the subsequent time with which the piece invariably melts overall.
In Goldsworthy’s diary, he recalls how fleeting his initial (and perhaps most beautiful) sculpture was, made even more evocative by the sun’s rays shining through it. He writes that “In the afternoon went back – down where made arch out of ice – larger arch – very beautiful – sun hitting it – but only for short while – made it in white shadow of wood.” (1982). There’s a melancholy to this description that earnestly belies Goldsworthy’s quiet frustration at the fleeting nature of his work. But there’s also a subtle, textural element to his description, one that reflects upon the strangeness of working with water but in a solid form. He calls it the “white shadow of wood”; something that is not as rigid or as pliable as the various parts of a tree but something that feels almost like a ghost-image of a living thing. It may be possible to read Goldsworthy’s role in this instance as a summoner of some quiet spirit that must always inevitably fall back into the other side of the living; the constantly commutable substance, dripping down into an invisible, macro underworld beyond.
Of course, Goldsworthy is famous for many moments of discussion involving the transience of his work and specifically how that transience reflects the likeness between his sculptures and natural life cycles. He is on record stating that “Movement, change, light, growth, and decay are the life-blood of nature, the energies that I try to tap through my work.” (1988) and there is no better summation of the ice sculpture available than by Goldsworthy himself in this regard. For the process of decay in this work is explicitly built in, almost toyed with by the artist as he attempts to build his bridge to nowhere and. This isn’t simply because the arch’s actual design automatically seems so precious but because it clearly defies Goldsworthy’s building of it from the off; where the material, like in so many of his works, actively resists the process which the artist is putting it through.
In his diary, Goldsworthy writes of returning to the arch the next day and is almost jubilantly surprised at its clinging onto existence. It is at this point where he removed the stone supports from underneath, allowing the arch to stand for itself:
Overnight – wind – overcast went to arch – early – still there!!
But melting quickly.
Lifted out supports – very
– A melting
ice arch. (1982)
It’s difficult to suggest what specifically the artist is referring to as beautiful here but, from the framing of the diary, it appears to be the slow destruction of the arch more than anything else; at least in the context of its initial success in being able to stand on its own. Perhaps the artist would have been less joyous at its impending melting if the arch had simply collapsed once the support stones had been removed. He did, after all, have four attempts at making this particular arch though whether the other three succeeded with the same feeling for the artist is impossible to know. But there’s little doubting the artist’s own excitement at the standing monument; standing against all probability inherent in the very genetics of the work and the material. Goldsworthy has written of a desire to get beneath his materials in both a physical and metaphysical way. He writes that “As with all my work, whether it’s a leaf on a rock or ice on a rock, I’m trying to get beneath the surface appearance of things.” The ice arch is the epitome of this in that inevitability hangs over it, at both a design and a material level, meaning that the very act of making it instantly questions more than just the appearance of the ice itself. Like so much of his work, there’s a temptation to read much about life into its natural decay but the ice arch seems more about going against the flow simply for the sake of one fleeting, brilliant moment.
Glimmering light through solid water,
Drips slowly onto cold grass.
I long to walk under and over the arch,
But fear of its translucence,
Not its falling,
Sharp shards soon fade into the dusk,
Behind a black forest of a winter.
The melting of dusks and dawns,
Away like the ground before,
The stone after,
The water now.
The stone – white shadow-wood – melts together.
Equally stuck, equally as fleeting.
I want to capture that moment before the dawn,
But fear that my bones are lost,