I live in a city where the idea of perception eats at your bones. The endless chatter about group think and buzzwords barely drowns out the sound of gnawing. I’m as much of a policy junkie as the next Washingtonian, but I know it’s an atmosphere that requires an antidote. Something to restore the marrow. Usually, I get out of the city for a hike, but a few weeks ago, discouraged by the heat index, I wandered over to the National Gallery of Art’s East Building to see Andy Goldsworthy’s installation, Roof.
If you’re not familiar, Andy Goldsworthy uses found natural objects and tools to create sculpture in which “process and decay are implicit.” Ice melts, leaves disperse, reeds fall apart, feathers blow away. Roof is one of his rare permanent installations. If you like slow, beautiful films, I suggest you check out Rivers and Tides, a wonderfully-scored 2001 film that documents his process. Goldsworthy’s work quite rightly ignites the old “what is art?” debate, but no matter where you fall, there’s something interesting about his obsessive drive to lay hands on nature. Perhaps it’s an amplification of what many of us feel: the need to connect with our environment.
Yet, Goldsworthy’s connection is more clear-eyed than the one we might imagine for ourselves. In a 2007 interview, he said, “I find some of my new works disturbing. Just as I find nature as a whole disturbing. The landscape is often perceived as pastoral, pretty, beautiful – something to be enjoyed as a backdrop to your weekend before going back to the nitty-gritty of urban life. But anybody who works the land knows it’s not like that. Nature can be harsh – difficult and brutal, as well as beautiful. You couldn’t walk five minutes from here without coming across something that is dead or decaying.” He’s right, of course. After all, comfortable intellectuals, not settlers, were the first to romanticize the American wilderness. The latter were too busy trying to survive.
What do we really mean when we say we want to (re)connect with nature? Do we only appreciate it when we have a choice (my retreat to a museum in the face of 100 degree weather a case in point)? Surely, we want all the beauty without the brutality, a contract on uniquely human terms. Do these questions even matter when we’re daily reducing our environment with unbelievable ferocity? Maybe not on an immediately practical level, but we could benefit from an honest examination of our emotional and philosophical relationship with nature as we move toward a more sustainable society.
In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard wrote, “I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck.” I chase that feeling. That spectacular ringing. I get it nearly always from nature, but sometimes feel echoes in art and science. As I post more blogs, I’d like to share topics concerning all three and perhaps start some discussions about how their connections influence our relationship with our environment.
It seems an impossibly diffuse target. But there it is.
Pleased to meet you.