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At the deCordova, unearthing a connection with the ‘beautiful and frightening’ flow of water

Andy Goldsworthy’s ‘Watershed’ highlights the human need to control nature — and how futile that is

Andy Goldsworthy worked on his "Watershed" installation at the DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum last summer.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

LINCOLN — Andy Goldsworthy is lying in the road, waiting for the rain to begin. A moment before, a dark cloud teased above with its thick black billows, only to be chased by fractures of blue: a sprinkle, then nothing. After 10 or more minutes of corpse-like stillness, Goldsworthy sits up, silty earth dusting his silver hair.

“People can drive around me, so long as they don’t run me over,” he calls to a nearby assistant, who had been warding off traffic at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, trying to keep his boss intact. Slight and rangy, Goldsworthy draws to his feet and dusts off. Too much protection, he shrugs, would ruin the moment. “It’s safer than lots of roads I’ve laid down in,” Goldsworthy says. Over some four decades, the slight, soft-spoken Scottish artist has made a career of using whatever’s at hand to make quietly profound work about the ever-changing world. (Lying in the road was meant to produce one of his “rain shadows,” the dry imprint of his body outlined by the rainfall. Alas, not to be.)


You might know him from “Rivers and Tides,” the 2001 documentary where a stoic Goldsworthy trekked into the Scottish countryside with his rucksack and built large sculptures out of wood, stone, or leaves, only to see them swallowed by the sea or scattered by breeze. Last year, “Leaning Into the Wind,” its long-tail documentary follow-up, helped debunk the impression “Rivers and Tides” left of a woodsy naif. It revealed Goldsworthy to be as enamored of permanence as he was the ephemeral.

Which brings us here, to the deCordova, a hilly spread of woods sprinkled with sculptural commissions and topped by a boxy brick art museum. It’s a sticky day in late June, and “Watershed,” Goldsworthy’s new permanent work, is well in progress. Art aside for the moment, much of the recent activity here had to do with drainage. A parking lot at the building’s rear had begun, worryingly, to pool with every rain. To fix it, the museum replaced an old culvert with a pipe and spillway buried under the very road where Goldsworthy lay prone. If the project worked as hoped, water would run underground to be caught by a drain pipe and spill harmlessly down the hillside toward Flint’s Pond, where the museum looms above with a regal presence.


Infrastructure worries are rarely the stuff of art, but Goldsworthy’s practice — integrated as it is with the earth, air, and sea — is a rare thing “When I come to a place," he says, “I like to try to get under the skin of it." Simple environmental mechanics — like, say, a storm drain — are “fascinating,” Goldsworthy says. “They’re like portals.” Satisfied that the weather wasn’t about to cooperate, the artist tramps down the hillside, through the brush. The sharp whine of a stone saw fills the air. Tucked just below the roadway, a granite hut was taking shape. Inside, the mouth of the drain pipe was encircled in arcs of shorn granite. Hard stone benches framed the pipe’s mouth, an invitation to observe. It felt like a shrine to prosaic process — diverting water from the parking lot, made precious and cared-for.

Andy Goldsworthy worked on his "Watershed" installation at the DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum last summer. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

That might be what Goldsworthy had in mind with “Watershed" (which openEd to the public Nov. 9 after various delays in construction and engineering). Though there’s more to it than that. “If it rains heavily,” he says, “I can imagine people will come running here for shelter. And as they sit here, it will start to flow. There can really be a tremendous amount of water. That would make what they thought was a refuge into a very scary place.”


Which makes “Watershed” less a shrine than an ominous reveal, pulling back the curtain on an overworked planet. “We don’t think about what happens to the water going down the drain — the sheer force of it, and the enormity of the amount of water," Goldsworthy says. "We don’t acknowledge it at all, and it’s a beautiful and frightening thing.”

“Watershed,” in fact, works almost as an alarm, exhuming in your mind the deep layers of earth that conceal the machinery of modern life. Sewers and subways, great conduits of wire, water, and gas — everything underfoot that makes our everyday seem so fluid.

Across an unnervingly short span, we’ve learned to move mountains, divert rivers, drain lakes, and create new ones. All of it lets us think we’re in control. Goldsworthy’s work, to me, has always been about letting go — accepting that for all our hallmarks of progress, we’re both temporary and vulnerable.

That’s never been more true than now, with the entire planet on a knife’s edge of climate disaster. (We in New England might be particularly sensitive to angry waters, with sea levels rising and a recent king tide reminding us just how vulnerable we are.) But Goldsworthy doesn’t see his work as a scold. “The day I go out to make a work to illustrate an issue is the day it’s over for me," he says. Instead, his work steers us back to a connection with nature that we’ve spent centuries trying to weaken.


“What my work is an expression of, I think, is that we are nature. I think part of the problem arises when we see ourselves apart from that. But it’s our food, our clothes, our air, our bodies. It’s uzz," Goldsworthy says in his Scottish burr, jabbing a thumb at his chest. Just then, a patter on the roof — the rain, its tease over, returning. Goldsworthy scrambles up the hillside, back to the road. He lies down as the drops start to fall.


At the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, 51 Sandy Pond Road, Lincoln. 781-259-8355, www.decordova.org

Andy Goldsworthy's completed "Watershed" at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum.

Murray Whyte can be reached at murray.whyte@globe.com. Follow him @TheMurrayWhyte.