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November 27, 2013

Much to love about walls

Robert Frost starts his poem “Mending Wall” with this observation: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” 

Which is true. But the forces of nature, and the occasional desecrations by humans aside, there is much to love about a wall. Walls are useful, both for practical, aesthetic, and psychological reasons. Wall building, both visible and invisible, is integral to getting through time, both as individuals and members of social groups. 

I started having these thoughts while watching “Rivers and Tides,” a documentary film about the work of British artist Andy Goldsworthy. It was one of many films shown as part of Otsego 2000’s recent Glimmerglass Film Days program, a marvelous weekend of films and related activities whose focus was our relationship with the earth and our obligations regarding its health and sustainability.

In 2011 I attended my 50th high school reunion at the Storm King School, a small private boarding school just up the road a few miles from the Storm King Art Center. Several of my classmates and I decided to skip the afternoon’s scheduled events. Instead we headed for the art center where we spent several hours wandering about swapping reminiscences while admiring the sculptures that dot its spacious grounds. It was there that I first encountered Andy Goldsworthy’s stonewall. I remember being mesmerized by its sinewy vitality, by the extent to which it expressed motion in stillness. It meanders so seemingly effortlessly up and down hills, through water, and around trees and other obstacles that it meets as if they to were part and parcel of its journey through time and space. 

There is a Greek notion, the Ekphrastic Principle, that refers to the ability of things to be still and in motion at the same time. Goldsworthy’s wall expresses that same quality. It moves and is stationary. It is animate and inanimate. It is solid and fluid – and there is nothing contradictory or ironic about that. Watching the film’s presentation of the wall transported me back to that day in 2011 when I followed its rhythmic contours, ran my hands across its textured surfaces, and let it draw me along without caring at all where it might lead me. If an artwork can do that it has achieved something very profound.

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