Plenty of us climb through hedges, but Andy Goldsworthy does it the hard way, from one end to the other. In one scene in “Leaning Into the Wind — Andy Goldsworthy,” a new documentary by Thomas Riedelsheimer, there’s what the British might politely call a bustle in a hedgerow along a busy urban street, and suddenly the artist emerges from the foliage, gray-haired and blinking, having crawled along the block through leaf and branch.
No one seems to take notice. They probably realize it’s just Andy Goldsworthy.
Over the course of a 40-year career, Goldsworthy has become celebrated around the world for the evanescent artworks he creates out of stone and water, leaf and ice. Some last until the day warms up and are memorialized only in photographs. Others, like the low stone wall that serpentines through the trees, under a river, and up a slope at Storm King in New York state, will be around long enough to baffle the aliens after we’re gone.
Back in 2001, Riedelsheimer, a German filmmaker with an interest in the arts, brought Goldsworthy to filmgoers’ attention with “Rivers and Tides,” in which the British-born sculptor waxed thoughtful on his philosophies of life and spent long minutes creating his works, icicle by icicle, branch by branch, only to watch them be swept away.
It’s a lovely film and it stands on its own, so why have another go 16 years later? Because artists change, age, and go through distinct periods, and because Goldsworthy, at 61, appears to be going through a period in which he seems to want to physically merge with his art.
Thus the hedge-climbing, a bit of performance art so buried in nature the camera sometimes can’t even capture it. Riedelsheimer does film another tree-walk, along a skeletal line of branches in the countryside, Goldsworthy picking his way along their tops in horizontal silhouette. And one of the artist’s long-established gambits — in which he lies down at the start of a light rain and reveals, upon getting up, a perfect human negative in dry pavement or gravel — seems to have become a late-life obsession.
Utilizing an angular soundtrack from British avant-rocker Fred Frith (with an assist from the deaf Scottish percussionist Evelyn Glennie, herself the subject of a wonderful Riedelsheimer film, 2004’s “Touch the Sound”), “Leaning Into the Wind” hopscotches around the globe, visiting commissioned projects in Gabon, New Hampshire, the South of France, and San Francisco. The film loops continually back to Goldsworthy’s home base in Dumfriesshire, Scotland, and, in particular, to a narrow riverway surrounded by a copse of trees.
The site is his fountain of youth, and he repairs there to make art — aligning bright yellow elm leaves around cracks in fallen trees until they resemble found lightning bolts — and to disappear into the landscape. “Huge dramas occur in here,” he says.
There’s a lot of Goldsworthy talking in the film, in dreamily earthy abstractions that occasionally part to reveal a knottier man than he lets on. A passing reference to a past divorce and a past death is balanced by the appearance of the artist’s daughter Holly, seen in childhood videos and in her current 20s, her father’s assistant in the field and (although the movie doesn’t mention it) an artist in her own right. She’s his literal handmaiden, helping him coat his hands with red poppy leaves until they resemble bloody gloves and then letting a waterfall wash them away in seconds.
As with the simpler and stronger “Rivers and Tides,” there are moments where you may want to stop the film to assure yourself you’re seeing what you’re seeing, so disordering to the senses are Goldsworthy’s re-orderings of nature. A stone wall in New Hampshire is split perfectly down the middle — a wall for keeping people in rather than out. A bucket of cattle-feed set atop a white tarp in a country field results in an almost perfect Zen circle, created not by man but by sheep. A sunspot on a cabin floor becomes a sculpture in light with the addition of a handful of dust.
By the final scenes, Goldsworthy is pushing himself against a gale-force wind on a rocky slope, waving his arms and trying to sculpt the air itself. Or is the air sculpting him? The film leaves the artist hanging and the matter up to us.
Leaning Into the Wind — Andy Goldsworthy
Directed by Thomas Riedelsheimer. Starring Andy Goldsworthy, Holly Goldsworthy. At Kendall Square. 93 minutes. PG (brief language).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.