Q&A with Andy Goldsworthy

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A Yorkshire farm was where, from the age of 13, British artist Andy Goldsworthy first learned his trade: how to use a shovel, skin a hare, build a dry-stone wall. And it is to the grounds of the 500-acre Yorkshire Sculpture Park, near Wakefield, where he first worked in 1983, that Goldsworthy now makes a fitting return for the largest ever exhibition of his work. Running until Jan. 6, 2008, the show features major new works and a photographic review of many of the ephemeral works in nature for which Goldsworthy has become famous over the last 30 years. Among the new outdoor pieces are dry-stone wall enclosures that cradle giant fallen oaks, while inside there are rooms of stone, wood and clay. In another gallery all but a snaking ribbon of picture window has been covered in cow dung. In front of a curtain he made by pinning together 10,000 horse chestnut leaf stalks, Goldsworthy, 50, spoke to TIME's Michael Brunton about his inspiration and his homecoming.

TIME: Much of your work has been fragile, made in the wild outdoors and only preserved in photographs. Is your work here meant to be a more permanent statement about this place?
Goldsworthy: The social nature of the landscape is something that has become increasingly important to me. But the ephemeral work is still very, very important. I can't not make it. That's how I get a lot of the ideas for the larger works. Here in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park is an opportunity, with a gallery and the outdoors, to make work that people can see, lay on, touch and engage in without photography as a medium. But a building no matter how beautiful is a dead space compared to the outside, and it takes whereas the ephemeral work gives. Well, I've given and now I want something back.

Is it frustrating to have to rely on photography often to display your works rather than showing the real thing?
It's a very appropriate way to describe some of the works. In the neutral space of a gallery, the light doesn't change, [the works] are just held in suspension when really they need to go from darkness into the light. The sun needs to penetrate and catch the bronze in just such a way at just such a moment. Photographs can show us that.

You've made sculptures that deal with people and their landscapes all over the world. What does this homecoming mean to you?
My art came out of the British landscape which is heavily worked by people, so that's important to my work. The East Coast of America is also quite interesting for similar but different reasons. Once there were stone walls that ran through fields there, and now there are secondary woods; you can feel the presence of the farmer in the past. When you come back to this country and you see the fields still intact, you think we're not that far off it becoming woodland again. I'm not into the idea of a nostalgic preservation of the British landscape. I think change has always been part of of it. But it's very interesting to have the sense of the future presented to you in a different country and come back and see the vulnerability of this thing you take so for granted.

You obviously need help with the larger exhibits, but do you still enjoy getting your hands dirty?
Oh, I love it! The process of it is the attraction. I need to touch, I need to make. That's what provokes the next work. After working on this installation here, I've got a whole other exhibition now in my head.

What are the specific themes and inspirations for this exhibition?
It's specifically to do with the worked landscape and the ways of looking at it. Here [in what was once a country estate] is a very privileged viewpoint, the landscape as seen from a distance. My viewpoint has always been from the other side. That was the driving force in the outside work. But there were also the connections between the inside and the outside. It's not a contradiction for an artist who's committed to working outside to work inside. I live inside, I should work inside occasionally. When I do, I hope that it's a way of finding the nature of the building. Nature is not just trees and fields.

And how does farming inform your work?
I lived near Leeds and worked from the age of 13 on a farm right where the suburbs began — and that was very important. I was always going to be an artist, since I was a kid, but the impact that farming had was tremendous. It's a very sculptural activity. Not just dry stone walls but stacking bales — big minimalist sculptures, beautiful and enormous. Plowing a field is drawing lines on the land, painting the fields — it's incredibly visual. And the dead animals. When you're a farm kid you see death all the time. When you see spring lambs hopping around the fields and then go round the back of the farm, there's a pile of dead lambs every year — that's the way it is. Dogs attacking sheep, raw brutal experiences and they've always remained in what I do. It's such an important part of the landscape; it's green and verdant because of it. So that's why I put cow sh-- on the window, to make you aware of it while you're looking [out]. Right in front of your face is the stuff you choose to ignore.