Public Media Arts Hub

Why sculptor Andy Goldsworthy is tearing down walls — and then rebuilding them


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: Finally tonight: Walls, of course, are all around us, but how often do we stop and think about what they represent?

Well, that's exactly what British sculptor Andy Goldsworthy is doing in his latest project in Kansas City.

Jeffrey Brown has the story for Canvas, our ongoing series on art and culture.

Jeffrey Brown: As the sun came up on this early morning on the grounds of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, workers took apart stones from one end of a wall, piled them in small wheelbarrows and carried them a short distance, where they were added to the wall's other end.

It's an unusual project that began last March, and will run through November in five stages, to build a section of wall 100 yards long with 100 tons of rock, then tear it down and rebuild it section by section over time, essentially creating a wall that will walk across the landscape and eventually into the museum itself.

Its creator, 63-year-old British artist Andy Goldsworthy, told me he's always wanted to build a walking wall.

Andy Goldsworthy: I proposed it two or three times. No one got it. What? You're going to...

Jeffrey Brown: Well...

Andy Goldsworthy: It's a challenge. No, it's a challenge.

Jeffrey Brown: Well, it's not only a challenge, but it's a little crazy in a way, right? You're going to move...

Andy Goldsworthy: I think it's really sensible. Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: Thinking, seeing, even experiencing differently, it's what Goldsworthy has been doing for decades. He was first known for creating sculptures in the landscape using natural materials he came upon, leaves, branches, fallen trees, stones.

It was art, but not the kind for a gallery or home. These were of and remained in place. And they were, by nature, ephemeral, changing, fading, eventually dying through weather and time.

You were making things that are going to disappear. You didn't care?

Andy Goldsworthy: No, no, I care.

Jeffrey Brown: You do care.

Andy Goldsworthy: No, I care. No, last doesn't mean anything if you don't care.

Essentially, art for me is a way of trying to understand the world that I'm living in and my relationship with it. And things that change, things that go, even when they go, how they decay, how they change, as this is changing.

Jeffrey Brown: Over time, the scale has grown as his work has been commissioned around the world: nine stacked slate domes at Washington's National Gallery, large cairns in several locations, this one near his home in Scotland, and a nearly 3,000-foot-long wall that winds its way through the woods at the Storm King Art Center in New York's Hudson Valley.

In Kansas City, the material, limestone, came from the nearby Flint Hills, the inspiration from the local landscape, the stone walls marking boundaries all around the city and surrounding prairie. But the idea here is to make the stone move.

Andy Goldsworthy: It's about the movement of stone.

Jeffrey Brown: What does that mean, the movement in stone? That's not how we think of it, usually.

Andy Goldsworthy: Well, I think that's exactly it. You know, rather than seeing stone as a static thing, here, for example, we're standing in a place where there have been walls come out of the ground rebuilt and built again. This is what we do.

Jeffrey Brown: Structures on structures on structures.

Andy Goldsworthy: Structures. But it's not just structures. It's ideas on ideas.

Jeffrey Brown: And the people putting those ideas in action.

Goldsworthy enlisted a group of locals to augment his own team. All followed the British tradition of a break for tea. Edd Smith and Jason Wilton are experienced craftsmen whose task was to keep the wall moving at a pace of 10 to 12 yards a day. No hammers or machinery and no binding mortar, just stones fit together piece by piece, with big flat ones to level it on the top at four-feet-high, measured the old-fashioned way.

We use the age-old method of...

Man: Top ribs.

Man: So, we don't have to use the tape measure all day.

Jeffrey Brown: Fife Gibson has known Goldsworthy since he was a child, even carrying stones as an eight-year-old.

You have come a long way.

Fife Gibson: Well, a long way distance-wise, but still just carrying stones.

Fife Gibson: I never thought I would be building a wall across a four-lane busy road.

Jeffrey Brown: Indeed, in phase two of the project, the wall crossed and blocked for three weeks a normally busy street, forcing commuters to find alternate routes.

There were a few angry shouts, Goldsworthy said, but most drivers, runners, and walkers seemed to enjoy the change of scenery.

Andy Goldsworthy: A lot of the people come in and go, really, oh, this is kind of nice.

Jeffrey Brown: Well, it's nice for you, but people might not be so happy on their daily commute. Right?

Andy Goldsworthy: Absolutely. I know. I know. They will get their road back. There's plenty of time for that. I thought one man said that.

We can always have traffic. How often can we get a wall on the -- crossing the road, you know?

Jeffrey Brown: A bit of Kansas City kindness and understanding, which is what's been required of the museum itself.

The Nelson-Atkins is one of the nation's leading art museums with an extensive outdoor sculpture collection that includes its now iconic shuttlecocks. But director of design Steve Waterman said it's never faced a challenge like this.

Steve Waterman: When you work at a museum, you get a lot of things in the mail or on a delivery truck, and then objects come in crates. You take them out of the crates and you put them on the walls.

Jeffrey Brown: They're already finished, and it's your job just to...

Steve Waterman: It's already done. You have just got to make it look good once it gets here.

And with Andy Goldsworthy, I would say it was the absolute opposite of that. I mean, every night, I go home and think, I don't know whether to think this is art or this is life.

Jeffrey Brown: A bit of both, no doubt. And add to the mix a bit of politics, in an age where building a wall has a new meaning.

Andy Goldsworthy: This work has taken me into uncomfortable territory. And that is a great thing for an artist to be put into. It was conceived as an idea pre-Trump, pre the wall, that is happening now.

This wall, in some way, has got nothing to do with that and everything to do with it. And how it will resolve itself, I'm not entirely sure, but it's indelibly written into the making of this.

Jeffrey Brown: For now, there were many challenges ahead, including how to get his wall to squeeze through a narrow passageway, walk down a staircase, wind its way through park-like grounds, and make its way, finally, into the museum.

If all goes to plan, by the end of November, a permanent piece of wall will stand half outside and half in, a walking wall, built, taken apart, rebuilt stone by stone.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown at the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Missouri.

Judy Woodruff: Never seen anything like it.

Goldsworthy and his team will be back in Kansas City on September 9 to build the next stage of the walking wall.

Support Canvas

Sustain our coverage of culture, arts and literature.

Send Us Your Ideas
Let us know what you'd like to see on ArtsCanvas. Your thoughts and opinions matter.