His material's only natural

Times Staff Writer

When "Rivers and Tides" begins, it's not clear that its subject, British environmental artist Andy Goldsworthy, will be able to command our attention for 90 minutes. By the time it's over, however, we take our leave with reluctance, even sadness. It has been a kind of privilege to see the world through this man's eyes.

Goldsworthy is celebrated for creating art in the wild using whatever natural materials are at hand, stones and driftwood as well as leaves if it's summer and ice if it's winter. He puts enormous effort into making these pieces look effortless, as if they could have been on site all along.

Because his works are often delicate and always open to the elements, they frequently last a finite amount of time. "The thing that brings a work to life," the artist says, "will cause its death." For most people, these creations are known only through the photographs Goldsworthy takes and turns into popular gift books.

With his emphasis on being in harmony with the natural world, Goldsworthy is an ideal artist for today's urban audience eager for a connection to the wilds. Earnest and completely absorbed by his work, Goldsworthy can sound like a New Age tree-hugger when he rhapsodizes on the intangible energy running through a landscape.

But any doubts about the validity of what he's doing are removed by actually seeing the art in this film, both in process and in a finished form. While on the printed page Goldsworthy's works inevitably tend to flatten out and even appear gimmicky, experiencing them on the big screen -- closer to the way they exist in the landscape -- is to see them come alive in a particularly transfixing way.

There is, for instance, a driftwood igloo which Goldsworthy painstakingly creates at the ocean's edge in Nova Scotia. To watch the tide come in, remove it from its moorings and then gently push it toward collapse is a surprisingly magical experience.

The same is true as we watch Goldsworthy build one of his trademark large stone pine cones, a process that includes him grimacing in frustration as it collapses after considerable work. Seeing the finished product first covered and then uncovered by water as the tide goes in and out, as well as observing a similar structure as it weathers the changes of season at the artist's farm in Penpont, Scotland, is satisfying in an almost indescribable way.

Though we see Goldsworthy travel to several different locations to execute commissions, he quite definitely prefers to be at that farm, where he feels a mystical link to the land that he needs to function creatively. He jokes about being an intuitive artist, but that is really the case, as his projects appear to stem from an uncanny ability to commune with his materials.

German documentarian Thomas Riedelsheimer, who directed, photographed and edited "Rivers and Tides," spent more than a year with Goldsworthy, an intense commitment that has helped the film in a pair of complimentary ways.

For one thing, the artist clearly got so used to having Riedelsheimer around that he treats the filmmaker like a confidant, sharing articulate musings about the nature of his work that are candid and illuminating.

Riedelsheimer also got to experience Goldsworthy's works so intimately that he gained an instinctive knowledge of what the best camera angle for a given piece was and consequently was able to photograph everything with a clear and precise eye for beauty. Intoxicating and meditative by turns, helped by Fred Frith's minimalist score, this film opens a portal into a singular creative mind.


'Rivers and Tides'

MPAA rating: not rated

Times guidelines: It's suitable for all, though may be too meditative for the very young.

Released by Roxie Releasing. Director Thomas Riedelsheimer. Producer Annedore V. Donop. Cinematographer Thomas Riedelsheimer. Editor Thomas Riedelsheimer. Music Fred Frith. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes. Exclusively at the Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A., (310) 478-6379; and Edwards University 6, 4245 Campus Drive, Irvine, (949) 854-8818.

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