Film Review: “Leaning into the Wind” — The Giving Tree

Watching this film, one is struck at how it is essentially a collection of moments that, taken together, create a satisfying portrait of a life.

Leaning into the Wind, directed by Thomas Riedelsheimer. Screening at Kendall Square Cinema

A scene from “Leaning into the Wind.”

By Peg Aloi

In the beginning of this documentary, Andy Goldsworthy, the English artist whose sculptures and photographs chronicle his ephemeral and lengthy collaborations with nature, is standing in an old stone farmhouse in Brazil. He gazes at its beams and corners and speaks hesitantly about the people who’ve lived here for centuries. For Goldsworthy, the house is intimately connected with the lives of its residents. This is about ghosts.

A beam of sunlight spills across the floor, and Goldsworthy tosses dust into it, slowly at first, then faster and faster. The beam intensifies, then glows, and the windowless room is illuminated and made holy, by his action and by the sun’s light. The sight is shown on four split screens; as the light fades and the dust dissipates, Goldsworthy’s latest work of art comes to its close. He then examines the handmade clay floor in the local family’s farmhouse, learning about the methods of its creation from an interpreter.

Leaning into the Wind, Goldsworthy’s second collaborative film with Thomas Riedelsheimer, is a continuation of their 1999 documentary Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working with Time. Viewers familiar with that movie will recognize the artist’s distinct themes and methods, here presented alongside Goldsworthy’s thoughtful discussion of his work and the personal events that have shaped it over the last two decades. Marriage, divorce, and five children, ranging in age from four to twenty-seven, figure in his reminiscences. Holly, the young daughter we saw hauling sticks in Rivers and Tides, is now an adult, helping her father create his sculptures, many of which are scattered around the world.

After the light beam creation in Brazil, the film cuts to the assemblage of an installation in San Francisco: a tree trunk, scored with chainsaws and covered with clayey mud, is inserted into a small chapel. Time-lapse photography shows the tree’s coated surface slowly drying up and cracking. The film shifts between displaying Goldsworthy’s more permanent or long-lasting works and his small, momentary bouts of creation. For example, there are the short pieces made during the rain showers: he lies flat on dry pavement just as rain is beginning to fall. When he gets up, a spooky outline remains for a moment as rain falls and dissolves the evidence of his body.

The relationship of body to landscape is a mystery that Goldsworthy has been exploring throughout his entire life. The artist admits that his work generates bewildering contradictions, but he is still “trying to make sense of the world.” In search of answers, he climbs through hedgerows bare of foliage, risking hypothermia. He covers the wet rocks along a riverbed with yellow leaves that appear in the area for only a short period of time. Goldsworthy expounds at length on the presence of color in the landscape: its importance and fragility, how it symbolizes life (a fallen elm tree “comes back to life” after it fell into a bog), the risk that bad weather will eliminate the necessary colors when he is in the middle of multiple projects. Time, opportunity, and loss: these are the constant realities in Goldsworthy’s art.

The relationship of body to landscape is a mystery that artist Andy Goldsworthy has been exploring throughout his entire life.Click To Tweet

The artist often works alone, trekking across hillsides or alongside rocky river beds. On occasion he will collaborate with a crew, sometimes employing huge machinery, sometimes hand tools; at age sixty he is still splitting rocks with hammers and standing on boulders dangling from cranes. He works with animals, too: letting butterflies alight on his face in a jungle in Gabon, or coercing sheep in a meadow in Scotland to walk with muddy feet on a clean white canvas on which sits a round bin of feed. When the bin is removed, a white circle surrounded with smeared mud and hoofprints make a pleasingly graphic image, redolent, literally, of pastoral pleasures.

A scene from “Leaning into the Wind.”

One ongoing work has been the creation of burial chambers made of rock, inspired by the ancient stone graves carved into a hillside in Morecambe, England, home of a university where Goldsworthy studied art. “The human presence here is very strong,” he says of the ancient site; “it’s a great place to learn.” Despite having created a number of these imposing stone sculptures, even Goldsworthy is brought up short when he considers sawing directly into bedrock. He hesitates, and finally admits he can’t do it because it feels wrong. It’s not lost on the viewer that, in creating human burial chambers, Goldsworthy is engaging with elemental issues of mortality and fear. It is as if the land communicates a subtle warning or chastisement. The artist’s humility feels genuine.

In one such chamber in rural France, a small outbuilding made of rocks carefully stacked together, with branches twined together to make a domed ceiling, the full moon rises and shines a white pool of light on Goldsworthy as he stands by silently. Melancholy flute music plays. (Fred Frith’s musical score is outstanding, sensitive and aptly shaped to each moment.) A field of red poppies is then seen, an English symbol of remembrance for the war dead. Alongside a riverbank, Holly Goldsworthy affixes wet poppy petals to her father’s hands; he lets them wash off and float downstream. Such visual transitions, minimal yet profound, communicate Goldsworthy’s internal creative process with an engaging, dynamic simplicity.

Watching this film, one is struck at how it is essentially a collection of moments that, taken together, create a satisfying portrait of a life. The best way to experience Leaning into the Wind would seem to be in much the same way Goldsworthy experiences the nature that inspires him. Be an attentive watcher and listener — devoid of expectation.

When Goldsworthy attempts the work of the title, standing on a steep hillside with green rolling pastures dotted with sheep stretching for miles, he is buffeted by wind and rain, almost falling over. It looks as if he might tumble off the side of the earth. He describes this effort as a “moment I strive and struggle for, a moment of understanding and clarity in a very chaotic situation.” Goldsworthy explains that he believes creating good art is not a mystery, but a moment of clarity — “then it all becomes unclear again.” He concludes that “When you look back on your life, you will find that there will be moments when it felt very clear and beautiful and it made sense.” Goldsworthy invites us along on his order-making mission: to stand on the windy mountain assailed by sharp rain, to climb through the hedgerow, to capture light in a handful of dust, to pay attention to a perfect moment, when the brightest yellow leaves can be glimpsed, and, perhaps, become art.

Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix. She taught film and TV studies for ten years at Emerson College, and currently teaches at SUNY New Paltz. Her reviews also appear regularly online for The Orlando Weekly, Cinemazine, and Diabolique. Her long-running media blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at

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