Hebel, Grace and the Art of Andy Goldsworthy: Part 1, Beauty in the Midst of Death

During the spring my bible class at church was studying the book of Ecclesiastes. A key theme in the book is that life is hebel. Life is fleeting, like a breath.

Because life is hebel our attempts to extract "gain," "advantage" or "profit" from life--to treat life capitalistically we might say--are revealed to be "vain," even "meaningless." Rather than "chasing the wind" in this way the recommendation from Ecclesiastes is resting into the simple gifts of the day. Food, drink, relationships and good work.
Ecclesiastes 9.7-10a
Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long ago approved what you do. Let your garments always be white; do not let oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your fleeting life that are given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might.
In addition to these themes of enjoying simple, daily pleasures Ecclesiastes also encourages us to strive for a "fit" between ourselves and the created order. We are to match ourselves to the rhythms of Creation. "For everything a season."

As I reflected on these themes I kept coming back to some old posts I wrote about the art of Andy Goldsworthy. My feeling is that the art of Andy Goldsworthy is a wonderful metaphor for all these themes in Ecclesiastes, how to live life given that it is hebel and how to humbly "fit" ourselves to the rhythms of creation.

So what I'd like to do is rework those three old posts making connections with Ecclesiastes.

A large part of Goldsworthy's art, and what he is most notable for, is simply wandering out into the natural world and using natural materials--stones, thorns, leaves, flowers, branches, ice--to create a piece of art. Sometimes the artwork is a structure or sculpture. Often the art is a pattern, a bit of order imposed upon the randomness of nature. For example:

An arrangement of autumn leaves:

Whimsical threads of color:

Ice sculptures:

What is amazing about Goldsworthy's work is that he uses no tools and brings no materials with him into nature. To make an ice sculpture he just collects icicles or cracks up the ice on a pond and, using the heat from his hands, melts the ice where he wants the ice to connect. Soon the cold air refreezes the ice and the joint is formed.

If Goldsworthy creates a string of flower pedals he will use thorn and vine as his needle and thread. If he wants color he will smash up and grind rocks to get pigment. All the materials he uses are lying around him and, as a consequence, each piece of artwork is tied to its physical location (space) and season of the year (time). Some of the simplest art Goldsworthy does, practically childlike in quality, is lying on the ground as a light rain or snow begins. After a few moments he'll get up, leaving his outline behind:

Again, this is artwork and pattern that, to use Goldsworthy's word, "collaborates" with nature.

Obviously, this art is fragile and temporary. To preserve it Goldsworthy has to take pictures. And that is one of the most poignant aspects of his artform. Goldsworthy steps into the natural world, creates something, steps out, and then allows natural forces--time, wind, rain, sun, tide--to slowly erase his creation.

To experience more of Goldworthy's art and methods watch the documentary about him entitled Rivers and Tides. As of this writing Rivers and Tides can be streamed on Netflix and the whole film can be viewed on Youtube.

To conclude this introductory post, I hope you can see some connections between Goldsworthy's art the theme of hebel in Ecclesiastes and the refrain to live into the moment.

Goldsworthy's creations are radically transitory. The art is itself hebel, it makes no claim that it will last beyond the moment. The sun will melt, the wind will blow, the tide will roll in. As Ecclesiastes says, "The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong...but time and chance happen to them all.

In light of the ideas of Ernest Becker, the art of Andy Goldsworthy is not an immortality project trying to deny or outlast death. Death is woven into the very fabric of the art. 

And yet, even in the midst of death, the art brings beauty, grace and enchantment. 

And this, it seems to me, is a metaphor for how to live your life.

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5 thoughts on “Hebel, Grace and the Art of Andy Goldsworthy: Part 1, Beauty in the Midst of Death”

  1. I LOVE Goldsworthy, and when I was an art teacher I would show Rivers and Tides to my students every year. They got really into it, and one year a couple of my student even spent a weekend in the woods "Goldsworthying" and brought back pictures to show the rest of us. Warmed my little teacher heart.

  2. We are also fans of Goldsworthy and are lucky enough to have some great examples on our doorstep (relatively speaking). Becker's final line from The Denial of Death has always stayed with me - The most that any one can seem to do is to fashion something - an object or ourselves - and drop it into the confusion, make an offering of it, so to speak, to the life force.

    I was interested in the phrasing of your post's title - the phrase "in the midst of" has been echoing round my head a lot in recent months. I find this a really helpful idea in considering the way in which we discover meaning in Becker's confusion. Not AFTER we've endured the confusion, or DESPITE the confusion, or as a ying to confusion's yang, but in the midst of confusion, meaning is to be found.

    Hebel is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for beauty.

    So also, faith worth the name arises precisely in the midst of doubt, life in the midst of death, and so on. Some of these thoughts arose from your posts on enchantment. I arrived at the idea that the Christian should be living a life of enchanted disenchantment - and for a while this seemed to create a tension, until I arrived at this phrase, "in the midst of".

    Helping me get there, by the way, was an excellent discourse in Chapter 5 of Disabled Church, Disabled Society by John Gillibrand - recommended reading for ET readers.

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  4. 'In light of the ideas of Ernest Becker, the art of Andy Goldsworthy is not an immortality project trying to deny or outlast death.'

    Is this true? Because he does preserve the pieces in photographs. So even though there is an acknowledgment of death, there is also a 'conquering' of death through the preservation of the pieces or else we would not be able to enjoy them. Aren't photographs themselves a sort of immortality project?

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