Andy Goldsworthy is best known for ephemeral works made in a day, for a day, preserved only in photographs. Twigs pinned together to make a curtain or float down a stream; coloured leaves dangled in the air or plastered over a stone; icicles welded sideways on to rock, snowballs melting; seaside pebbles piled high like wimples, only to be swept away when the tide comes in.
But stone - the subject of a new book of Goldsworthy's work from Viking, and three installations enabled by Michael Hue-Williams in London - is permament. A change of direction? Not really, Goldsworthy says, insisting that without the ephemera his ideas would dry up, and anyway, to him, the stone book is about change, because stone is alive, a deeply ingrained witness to time, a focus of energy for its surroundings . . .
Yes, yes, I follow you about colour being raw with energy, but some of your stone mantra is a bit heavy. So let's look at the new work from another angle: your delight in messing about in stone quarries.
Goldsworthy has lived for seven years near a picturesque glen in Dumfriesshire, an hour's drive south from Glasgow; nearby are three quarries, each yielding a different stone. Locharbriggs, which provided the material for the 'Gucci' installation, is a 90-acre quarry producing a sandstone that looks like compacted cocoa powder. This is the stone, some 250 million years old, which built much of pink Glasgow, including the new Burrell gallery and some supermarkets too horrid to mention.
While the quarry churns out even-grained blocks to British Standard specifications, Goldsworthy hops around the blasted hunks looking for blocks in which the grain is uneven - unsuitable for building, ideal for him. Splitting this stuff into pieces for sculpture is hefty work, and the small-framed 38-year-old in a messy boiler-suit does not do it alone: for six years he has worked with a muscular partner, Joe Smith, one of the best dry-stone wallers in the country. If things go well, they can make several arches in a morning.
All the 'Gucci' arches were assembled first in the quarry, then taken apart, the bits numbered and wrapped together on pallets. 'I could build the arches any size,' says Goldsworthy, 'but they have to be to the same proportion. If I went higher without going wider, they'd become unstable. Also, at the moment they don't feel too earthbound. If I built them bigger they might feel weighted to the ground.'
Herd of Arches is the first major work Goldsworthy has made in Locharbriggs red, but he has previously used it for cones and simple carving - splitting it along the grain and paring a hole in the middle. The quarry has also crushed some into coarse sand and bagged it to Bond Street, for Goldsworthy to wet and pat into seven large boulders with holes cut in the centre like the black in an eyeball.
Arches, cones, holes. You could call these Goldsworthy's trademarks, and wonder whether the shapes and textures dictacted by natural materials may not become monotonous after a while. But no two arches are the same. A year ago, Goldsworthy made a series of slate arches, using rejected pieces from the second nearby quarry, now disused. Arches jumped over a stone, out of stone, over a wall, or between two trees. 'Slate arches can be pointed, like two columns coming together and clasping each other,' he says, 'or rounded, as if on a roll'. Some still stand, some he knocks down lest they become dangerous. The most powerful of all is on a desolate hilltop on the Buccleuch estate: a monumental circle through which the prevailing wind tears towards the North Pole.
Goldsworthy has become increasingly passionate about working with stone in its own context. The Bond Street arches are an exception, he says, 'because an arch is a very architectural, human gesture, which resonates when you bring it into the city'.
Whereas red sandstone is soft and gentle, and slate is hard and knifelike, Goldsworthy's third quarry yields whinstone, a brittle, lumpy blue stone that can only be broken, not worked. The two smaller exhibitions opening next week both feature whinstone: in a tiny gallery on Cork Street, one heavy, pointed stone will balance upon another, as if defying gravity; and nearby in Dering Street, 20 large lumps will be displayed with pools of red liquid sitting in natural hollows, the red made by grinding stone found nearby in the river.
Goldsworthy's work is a gift for environmental lobbyists, but he says he would feel uncomfortable if a potential commission had an overtly political feel to it, and does not wish his work to be used. There is one exception, however - a piece made for Greenpeace's headquarters in Islington. His original thought was to make an eight foot hole in the floor of Greenpeace's building - holes have a geological meaning he says, a sense of going back in time. He also liked the idea of water welling up from beneath the building, but Greenpeace, already holed below the water line too often, turned the idea down because it would cost pounds 8,000 to redo the damp-proofing. So Goldsworthy dug up a load of gravelly clay from outside the door, shaped, layered and holed it, leaving it to dry and split five months later.
Whereas Richard Long, a decade older and the best known artist working in this field, travels frequently, walking for days to find wayside stones in the Sierra Nevada or South Korea, Goldsworthy finds himself increasingly drawn back to familiar places, even familiar stones. He speaks lovingly of a certain stone, shaped like the head of a dinosaur or ant-eater, lying darkly beside a shallow stream in the Laumier Sculpture Park in St Louis. First he built a dry wall round it, then he took the wall down and plastered green leaves over the stone. This year he returns, to build a cone beside it. Since having children, Goldsworthy says he has rediscovered the child within himself, and is less prickly about his work being considered mere play. Which makes one wonder how each work begins. With a lot of messing about, he says. But the important thing is to generate rhythm. 'I can't make a good piece by doing something for an hour, then standing back, looking at it, and having a discussion.' Working as a gardener in his teens taught him the discipline of practical and physical labour, doing tedious things 'essential to the flow of the whole'.
On the Harewood estate north of Leeds, they remember Goldsworthy as a wiry little gardener who used to hop over the wall and run off into the woods to make things. Little did they imagine that one day his 'things' would occupy the Gucci emporium. Likewise it's hard to imagine people who walk into this amazing exhibition having the temerity to ask if they can buy something. Eleven sandstone arches, please?
Yes, Goldsworthy's work is for sale, preferably in yen. But he would want to know where you intend to put it: the 'fresh energy from the bedrock' is essential to his arches. You can't plonk Goldsworthy down in the garden, instead of gnomes and herons.
Just as Gucci luggage was imitated all over the world, so there will surely be imitations of Goldsworthy's stone arches and cones. To find stone, first try a local stonemason; but if he's only interested in polished granite for worktops and headstones, tackle a friendly quarry. And here's a tip from the master: 'It's not just finding the right stones for a cone, it's learning how to work with them.'
Goldsworthy can make a six-foot cone in a day, but says it won't stay up long, especially if it's built by the sea or on a cliff-top. It might take him a month to make a permanent eight-foot cone in limestone. You could use pebbles, but they're hell to handle. And if it all falls down, just as you get to the top? Andy Goldsworthy knows the feeling.
Stone - New Work by Andy Goldsworthy, will be published by Viking on 18 April, at pounds 35.
Installations, all from 21 April to 27 May: 'Herd of Arches', at 27 Old Bond Street; 'Hanging Stone', at Michael Hue-Williams, 15 Cork Street; 'Scaur Water Stone', at The Grob Gallery, 4th floor, 20 Dering Street.
Illustrated lectures by Andy Goldsworthy: 18 Apr, Museum of Modern Art, Oxford; 19 Apr, Greenpeace UK, Canonbury Villas, London N1 (071 416 3279)