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Between Building and Bedrock: Andy Goldsworthy's "Stone Sea"

Photography by Louise Cameron, courtesy of the Saint Louis Art Museum

Noted British artist Andy Goldsworthy is best known for his ephemeral work: A starburst of icicles, glued together with saliva; a boulder wrapped in poppy petals; a spiral made of polished leaves, tacked to the forest floor with thorns. He sculpts in nature, using materials at hand—twigs, stones, iris leaves, snow. Then he photographs his work, leaving it to be disassembled by weather and time.

“Whilst I love and feed off those things that collapse very quickly and change—that is like the nourishment for my work as an artist—that doesn’t mean that a work like this isn’t about change also,” he says of Stone Sea, a series of 25 arches, each 10 feet tall and made with 13,000 pounds of Missouri limestone, which he finished installing in the sunken courtyard between the Saint Louis Art Museum’s main building and its new East Wing this past November. “I’ve always been interested in seeing stone as something that’s not something static or dead, but something moving,” he says. “The arch has the form that articulated that. Whilst we think of stone as just lying there, calm and quiet, St. Louis is on a fault line. I think that this idea that the stone is somehow behaved and lying there is not entirely true.”

And so Stone Sea alludes not just to the limestone deposits under St. Louis, but also to the prehistoric ocean that covered the Midwest millions of years ago. Goldsworthy worked as many arches as possible into the space, to evoke the movement of waves. He originally wanted to use limestone excavated during construction of the museum’s underground parking lot, but it proved to be too fractured. So stone was cut and brought in from a quarry operated by Earthworks in Perryville, 70 miles outside the city. (It’s been around since the 1900s, at one time supplying much of the stone for St. Louis’ buildings.)

The sculpture’s appearance changes profoundly as one’s viewing angle changes. Inside, it’s cool and echoey, with the feeling of a Southwestern red-rock wash. At ground level, behind glass on the new East Wing concourse, it suggests a dense series of mysterious passageways. And from the south entrance, or from the windows of the newly installed Ancient America gallery, the oceanic effect is in full play. The work has a strong presence and will serve as a crucial connector between the old Cass Gilbert building and David Chipperfield’s modern expansion, explains Tricia Paik, the museum’s assistant curator of modern and contemporary art. “He really was drawn to this space, which most artists would not want to work with,” she says. “It’s below ground. Usually sculptors like vistas—which he likes, too, but he also likes these challenging spaces that are confined and are open to the natural elements.”

She adds that Goldsworthy’s been working with the arch form since 1982, and that this piece is not an allusion to Eero Saarinen’s Arch. In fact, Goldsworthy began thinking about arches vis-à-vis the geology of the Midwest while building an arch on the campus of Wichita State University in 2004. He was actually surprised, upon arriving in St. Louis, to see arches on billboards and taxis. (Yes, he’s been up in the Gateway Arch—he liked it.) Stone Sea has a completely different sensibility: It speaks more to out-of-time cycles of nature, as opposed to 20th-century Modernism, and is made to be raw and changeable, rather than stoic and incorruptible.

“This is sawn,” Goldsworthy says, touching one of the segments of limestone. “There’s a guillotine that chops the stone, so it’s a very raw process. What I wanted was to articulate each stone so that the arch would have a spinal quality. And this stone is animals, so it has similar quality to bone in all sorts of ways.” Eventually, the tops will go green in the rain, especially on the shady side. “It makes connections to geology, but put in this context, it makes references to architecture, too,” Goldsworthy says. “So it is somewhere between architecture and geology, because the stone is partly between building and bedrock.”

This brings up an important point: The engineering is mathematically precise. Each stone is stacked and balanced, but not mortared, though the base stones are bolted to the ground to prevent sideways slippage. The arches were vetted for safety, since people will be allowed inside the sculpture on a limited basis. “We had to do a test in the quarry and try to pull one down,” Goldsworthy says. “And it passed.” But the feeling of weight, and of tension, is definitely present.

“Where I come from in Scotland, I have so many memories of wandering around ruins and castles and crypts, and the light in them,” Goldsworthy says. “I have a lot of memories of my own childhood being evoked. I think there is an element of threat here, as well as beauty.”

Stone Sea will be viewable beginning June 29, when the Saint Louis Art Museum opens its new East Wing to the public. For more information, go to slam.org; for more with Goldsworthy, go to stlmag.com.

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