Snowballs and clay walls spell danger in the air

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The Independent Online



Barbican Centre, London

Students of the British temper will have a field day at "Time", the Barbican's show of new and recent work by the Earth artist, Andy Goldsworthy. Goldsworthy, should memory fail, is the one who does Japanesey things in woodlands: think of lines of red maple leaves submerged in rock-pools, or dry-stone walls meandering through beech groves. The average Goldsworthy is pretty, photogenic - indeed, being made of fugitive things like leaves and snow, his work exists largely in the form of photographic records - and, by the standards of Earth art, delicate. While Goldsworthy's nemesis, Richard Long, makes titanic, Robert-Smithson-sized pieces that require the (occasionally literal) moving of mountains, Goldsworthy himself goes for the small-scale and intimate. His work is painterly rather than conceptual, more RA than ICA. And Goldsworthy's thanks for all this? He is dismissed by the sniffier end of the contemporary art world as the one who isn't Richard Long; an artist whose work is that most dreadful of things: accessible.

Which is unfair for two reasons. First, the judgement is based on that peculiarly British snobbery that equates popularity with populism. During the mid-1980s, Goldsworthy was everywhere. His particular brand of Earth art struck a chord with New Age thinking, an association that has done him no favours in the hard-bitten world of contemporary art. (As evidence of this, note that while Tate Modern has apotheosised Richard Long to greatness by showing him alongside Monet, the new gallery does not contain a single work by Goldsworthy. If aromatherapists and ramblers and geography teachers like Andy Goldsworthy, then Sir Nicholas Serota was bound not to.)

More to the point, dismissing Goldsworthy as an easy artist is simply too easy a thing to do. The problem with a work like Maple Leaf Lines (1987) - the aforementioned piece of pond art - is that it looks like a pretty photograph. Which it is, even if its intended point is more profound than that. Like all of Goldsworthy's art, it is a memento mori; both an artwork in its own right and a reminder that the original it depicts no longer exists. Nonetheless, it is all too easy to see Maple Leaf Lines as an Athena poster waiting to happen; a misunderstanding that may account for the fact that there are no photographs in the Barbican's new show.

Instead, there is a video called Midsummer Snowballs, which records the demise of four large balls of snow transported by Goldsworthy from Scotland to London last summer. Opting for moving images hasn't solved the artist's problem with photography, though. While the snowballs themselves were deeply moving - dying gods from Frazer's Golden Bough, melting in the unnatural hell of London - putting them on video reduces them to bit-players in a docudrama. The trouble is that Goldsworthy isn't really a film-maker. His snowballs may drip away on celluloid with the slowness of drying paint, but the work's stasis is not ironic or conceptual or even, one suspects, intended. Andy Warhol he is not.

Just to make the point, the show also contains the ghost of an actual snowball, the last in a series of 14 called Snowballs in Summer. This particular spectre takes the form of a residue of powdered stone, ground up by Goldsworthy from fields near his house, mixed in with the snow and left by its melting as a ferrous slick on the Barbican's floor. It is an extraordinary image, part Rothko, part Lascaux: unlike Goldsworthy's photographs and videos, there is no divorce between the initial object and its record. Rather the opposite. The thing we see on the gallery floor is palpably the final stage in a continuous narrative, the culmination of a process. That is also easy to say, except that in this case it happens to be true: when you look at Goldsworthy's ferrous ghost, you actually do sense metamorphosis, geology at work.

It is a feeling that is particularly strong as you stand in front of London Wall, a 25-metre sheet of clay specially commissioned for this show. How did a parched earth field come to be hanging vertically? What is it doing in EC2? There is a feeling of djinns at work here, of something seeping up through the Barbican's walls that pre-dates ferro-concrete and cities and art and laughs at them all. Danger is in the air, not least because Goldsworthy's clay is patently beyond his control. As London Wall ages, so its fissures will grow: already, its craquelure looks unstable, as though a piece might fall off and, heaven forfend, kill a passing art critic. (The Barbican's exhibitions director makes an unkind suggestion about Brian Sewell that wild horses would not drive me to repeat here.) And yes, it is - that word again - beautiful: geology rendered painterly, sedimentation by way of Wallpaper* magazine. Which is different from saying that it is pretty, and certainly from saying that it is shallow. Goldsworthy's art may be nice to look at, but it is also deadly.

Andy Goldsworthy - 'Time': Barbican Centre, EC2 (020 7638 8891), to 29 October