Best known for his beautiful coffee-table books, Andy Goldsworthy is now making art from blood and human hair. Nature is brutal, he tells Sue Hubbard
In Yorkshire, the landscape reveals a long history of human intervention. What the uninitiated eye of the urban visitor may see as merely picturesque has evolved through years of toil, of working and husbanding the land. Forestry has shaped the woodland, while the hooves of grazing sheep or those corralled for dipping and shearing have sculpted the contours. Drovers' roads and footpaths criss-cross the dales and hills to leave their trace of historic activity.
The latest exhibition by Andy Goldsworthy - the largest and most ambitious ever mounted by Yorkshire Sculpture Park, to mark its 30th anniversary - could be seen as an extension or reflection of this tradition. Goldsworthy is best known for a series of beautiful coffee-table books containing photographs of his ephemeral constructs fashioned from snow, ice, leaves and twigs. The works in this new show, however, are constructed from mud, stone, wood, clay, hair and blood. They underline his profound relationship with the landscape, and speak of the violence of nature, of the cycles of death, putrefaction and renewal, with an uncompromisingly elemental beauty. Goldsworthy is to environmental art what Ted Hughes was to poetry.
I find him, when I visit, high on a platform in one of the sculpture park's underground galleries. As I approach, his first comment is a ty pically earthy "Bollocks" - he and an assistant are in the middle of lifting a heavy wooden pole in order to finish the roof of his yurt-like structure Wood Room.
Goldsworthy is as far removed as you can get from the polished, trendy metropolitan art world. A smallish, wiry man in his fifties, with thick grey hair and a tattoo on his arm, he looks more like a gardener than a powerful creative force. And indeed, although he studied art at Preston Polytechnic in the mid- to late 1970s, he also worked as a farm labourer from the age of 13.
Inside Wood Room, the sensation is of being in a dark womb where the smell of newly cut chestnut is all-pervasive. It forms part of a series of installations that move from darkness to light. On entering the galleries, the viewer has to squeeze past Stacked Oak, a cone-shaped pile made from branches that were felled locally, which have been interlaced so that the piece is held up by its own bulk. Next is Stone Room, filled with 11 Yorkshire sandstone domes (apart from chestnut, all materials for the exhibition were sourced locally). The low, beehive-like forms, constructed with the same method used to build dry stone walls, have had holes cut in the centre to expose dark, circular voids. To stand amid this stony hush is like being in a burial chamber for the ancient dead.
After that comes Clay Room. For this, tonnes of clay were dug from the grounds of the park, then dried, sieved and mixed with human hair and applied to the walls by huge teams of volunteers. The fine filaments of hair, just visible in the cracks, peek out like the secrets of an archaeological dig and bind the mud as it splits to leave an intricate crazed pattern. There is a potent melancholy to the piece that is in complete contrast to the atmosphere of light and air in the final work, Leaf Stalk Room. Here, horse-chestnut leaf stalks gathered from trees around the park have been pinned together with blackthorns to create an ecclesiastical screen, seemingly made of air. The piece is constructed to form a central empty space - a recurring trope that tacitly poses philosophical and theological questions. The twigs seem to float in a weightless evocation of Zen calligraphy.
When Goldsworthy finally climbs off his platform to talk, we meet in the project room. He is charming, but intensely reluctant to engage in any interpretation of his work, which he insists should speak for itself. However, he does say one of the aims of this exhibition was to "reclaim the landscape from the sentimental and the pastoral".
We turn to the "blood drawings" Hare, Blood and Snow, which form a triptych. Goldsworthy tells me that, driving home one night, he hit a hare. Upset, he went back to collect it. "When I skinned it I was surprised by the amount of blood. After all, it's the blood that gives the richness to that traditional dish of jugged hare." Later, he mixed the blood with snow, which he stuffed into the hare's stomach, hanging the animal up so that the melting liquid dripped from its mouth and nostrils on to sheets of paper.
Conceptually and visually, this is a compelling work, a modern-day version of 17th-century Dutch vanitas paintings, which remind viewers of man's mortality. When I suggest that the piece resonates with religious references - blood, death and renewal - he does not demur.
The cycles and uses of a working landscape are reflected in the Sheep Paintings, some of which were made in Dumfriesshire, where Goldsworthy lives. The pieces look like classic minimalist works, although they were made entirely with hoof prints and sheep droppings, the animals moving across the surface of the spread canvas to reach a central salt lick which, on its removal, created a clear circular void.
"A good piece of work has intense clarity and truth and somehow makes sense of why you are here," says Goldsworthy. "You must never lose sight of that. The work is a journey, a reflection about your life and its connections. I think of Matisse in old age, with his brush on a stick, and Rembrandt's late self-portraits."
Goldsworthy's work has its roots in "land art", the genre which began in 1960s America in an attempt to challenge the supremacy of museums and galleries, as well as the prevailing hegemony of abstract expressionism. It was a riposte by exponents such as Robert Smithson and Nancy Holt to the anodyne decorum of the gallery and the growing commodification of art.
Goldsworthy has made a number of pieces in the grounds of the park that feel as if they are hardly "art" at all. In the centre of a newly constructed stone sheep pen is another enclosure containing a huge flat wedge of sandstone. Visitors are encouraged to lie on the block in the rain to create "rainshadows" - transitory imprints of the human form - which are then photographed. As with the new commission Hanging Trees, a triptych of walled enclosures created from the original ha-ha in the park's landscaped gardens, in which three felled oaks stripped of their bark hang suspended like the bleached bones of skeletons, these works suggest burial chambers and the relationship of the human body to the landscape. Archaeology, local history and the work ethic are all implied in these powerful, yet surprisingly modest, interventions.
For some years now British landscape artists such as Goldsworthy, David Nash and Richard Long have been looked down upon by many in the art establishment. They have been regarded, despite their wide appeal and international success, as latter-day 1960s renegades, too metaphysical, too intense, too lyrical and unapologetically moral. This is an age that is more comfortable with cynicism than with the stench of dung and death. Yet never has there been a time when these artists' work was more resonant, as the planet warms and old landscapes are destroyed. There is something inspirational in Goldsworthy's devotion to the skills of handling wood and stone, to the crafts of stonewalling and forestry that are rapidly dying out in rural life. He deals with the big questions: those of mortality, memory, history and our place in the fast-disappearing natural world.
Andy Goldsworthy is at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park from 31 March 2007 until 6 January 2008