Either an artistic environmentalist or an environmental artist, Cheshire native Andy Goldsworthy has spent the better part of his life using natural resources (and almost nothing else) to create site-specific works that are built to fall apart. He wraps icicles around shrubs like ribbons, and leaves before they melt. He lies on the ground at the first hint of rain in order to leave a dry silhouette amidst the drops. Some of his projects disappear in seconds — he’s known to wrap flower petals around his hands so tight that they look like engorged flesh, and then dip his hands into a stream to watch the petals shed off and float away. Others will surely outlive him — he’s fascinated by rock walls, and will carve trenches between them in order to foster the sensation of being inside the earth — but on a long enough timeline, even those more enduring pieces will be reclaimed by nature.
Given the ephemeral spirit of this work, the act of documenting it becomes a crucial component of his art; if a tree falls in a forest, and no one is there to shoot video of Andy Goldsworthy cutting its wood into a swirling installation that will soon be dismantled by the changing seasons, did it ever really matter? Goldsworthy may be a bit of an eccentric, but he’s not an idiot, and so he’s always been sure to document his endeavors before they dissolve or evaporate or wash away. In 2001, he solicited some professional assistance, collaborating with filmmaker Thomas Riedelsheimer on the surprisingly popular “Rivers and Tides,” a minor art-house sensation that has now begat a stand-alone sequel.
Picking up where he left off, Riedelsheimer “Leaning Into the Wind” is another soothing, vérité portrait of the artist at work, the largely non-narrative documentary flowing behind Goldsworthy like a breeze at his back. Newcomers don’t need to worry, as a beguiling sense of dislocation is part of the film’s meditative charm. Set to an active, ambient score by Fred Frith and carried downstream by Goldsworthy’s soft British drone (the guy looks like Ian Holm and sounds like a hypnotherapist), the film appears less interested in celebrating its subject’s work than it does in lulling viewers into a state of contemplative submission.
As seemingly unstructured as “Rivers and Tides,” and even less interested in sharing any clues as to where in the world Goldsworthy may be at a given time (or what he might be doing there), Riedelsheimer’s follow-up is as much of an extension of the art as it is a means of preserving it. To watch “Leaning Into the Wind” is to reckon directly with impermanence and the sanctuary of finding beauty amidst natural indifference.
Light on personal details and on-screen graphics, it’s entirely possible that someone could watch the movie, enjoy it, and still not be able to recall Goldsworthy’s name — he mentions in passing that he divorced his first wife before her death, and we see that his current partner (and his daughter) occasionally join him on site, but trees are his greatest collaborators, and Riedelsheimer knows better than to disrespect that dynamic by complicating it with human drama. Goldsworthy confesses that he’s “Still trying to make sense of the world,” and this film, in asking us to try and make sense of his work, attempts to provoke the same exquisite curiosity.
If anything, “Leaning Into the Wind” is too effective at piquing our interest, as Riedelsheimer’s opaque approach invites a number of questions that it doesn’t seem the least bit interested in addressing, let alone answering. Chief among them: If Goldsworthy’s art is defined by its transience, does “immortalizing” his pieces on film (or raw digital video, as the case is here) defeat their purpose or somehow detract from their purity? Does reveling in the effort behind these fleeting installations disrupt the intended effortlessness of their presentation? Do the ends justify the means, or is this a case of an artist having his cake and eating it too?
Of course, the answer to that last question could be “both” or “neither,” but the amorphous form of Riedelsheimer’s film achieves a certain anti-intellectual inertia that promotes feeling over thought. That’s a perfectly valid choice, of course, but there’s such a severe schism between the nature of Goldsworthy’s work and the means required to capture it that any viewers who don’t fall under the documentary’s trance-like spell will find themselves walled off from all this wonder, too removed from the movie to appreciate Goldsworthy’s bond with the earth.
Regardless, “Leaning Into the Wind” will inspire anyone who sees it to look for the beauty in every gust, to admire how nature constantly rearranges itself, and us along with it. Even at its most self-conflicted, this is a fascinating reminder that some art wasn’t made to be owned.
“Leaning Into The Wind” premiered at the 2017 San Francisco International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.