Cutting Edge

In July 2015 the British sculptor and land artist Andy Goldsworthy flew to Copenhagen to rebuild a sculpture that had been sited in the garden of the British Ambassador’s Residence. Andrew Parratt of the Government Art Collection oversaw the project and, along with the Ambassador, Embassy staff, their neighbours and a documentary filmmaker watched as the sculpture, with its distinctive teardrop shape, asserted itself in the grounds.

Andy Goldsworthy rebuilding Slate Cone at the British Embassy in Copenhagen

© Jared Schiller

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I first met Andy Goldsworthy on a very cold spring day in 2015 at a hilltop quarry on Kirkby Moor, a place of desolate beauty at the southern edge of the Lake District. He was there to choose stone to rebuild Slate Cone, an early sculpture he first created in 1987 by skip raiding London roof tiles. The next time I saw him was late summer in the garden of the British Embassy in Copenhagen. He was surrounded by nearly nine tonnes of palletised slate – some pieces large enough to make billiard tables – and holding a circular saw. Over a cup of tea he told me a favourite quote from Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man, ‘The hand is the cutting edge of the mind’.

Over the next nine days Goldsworthy worked tirelessly – I have rarely seen anyone work so hard to a single end. Each of the large slate pieces was individually manipulated, cut and hammered, the artist roughly dressing external edges to release the ‘energy and violence’ of the stone. At the end of each day he left physically drained and grey with slate dust.

While Slate Cone is from a series of cairns produced by Goldsworthy early in his career, it is unusual in that most of these cairns are site specific, often created at remote sites from local stone. He talks of them as ‘way markers’. In contrast, our cairn was first made in the white cube environment of a London art gallery and rebuilt the following year at the British Ambassador’s Residence in Copenhagen. The need to rebuild it in 2015 was an unlikely outcome of austerity due to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office selling the old suburban site and moving the Residence into the city centre Embassy site.

Looking at the evolution of form over the three iterations of Slate Cone is interesting. The earliest build at the Fabian Carlsson gallery has a pear shape and noticeable irregularities in its surface. This is typical of Goldsworthy’s cairns, the earliest being produced at speed in rural Cumbria and Wales entirely by eye. When it came to rebuilding the cairn for the first time in Copenhagen in 1988, Goldsworthy talks today of the ‘pressure and fear’ he felt in this unfamiliar environment, at one point recounting how the then Ambassador called out from an upper window to say the cairn was off-centre. Misjudging how much stone would be lost when rebuilding the Cone in Denmark (a country with no naturally occurring slate) the artist lost nerve towards the top of the cairn giving it a truncated feel. In addition to being shorter than the original, the 1988 build also has a distinctive skirt of slate around the base. This was not Goldsworthy’s original intention, but an improvised response to the bulky concrete foundation insisted upon at the time. When agreeing to rebuild Slate Cone after nearly thirty years, the urge to rectify the compromises of 1988 was a major incentive.

The 2015 build of Slate Cone does not replicate either of the first two cairns but has distinctive qualities of its own. The size of the quarried stone gives the final form a texture more reminiscent of drystone wall technique than the pencil width striations of roofing slate used previously. Goldsworthy has, however kept many of the original London tiles which appear as fizzing interpolations between the larger stones. It is also more symmetrical, with Goldsworthy regularly referring to his schematic drawing and using a suspended plumb bob to carefully guide upward growth. He confided that using this less improvisational method was a response to revisiting the cairn form in recent years. The 2015 Cone also stands a good couple of feet taller than the previous Copenhagen cairn, and most significantly, the skirt of stone has gone giving the appearance of it resting lightly on the grass. He did not seem too disappointed by my description of it as a stony teardrop.

Part of the challenge of working for the Government Art Collection is finding opportunities to place art in working buildings that encourage chance encounters for their many thousands of visitors. Britain’s artistic culture is respected internationally and the works of art displayed in Embassies worldwide make a material contribution to cultural diplomacy. This can happen in unexpected ways. It was noticeable how over the course of what was inevitably a rather dusty and noisy project, a growing fascination developed not only among Embassy staff but also residents of the tower block overlooking the garden, who increasingly craned out of their windows to watch the act of creation.

The GAC-commissioned film Andy Goldsworthy rebuilding Slate Cone at the British Embassy in Copenhagen has been selected for the Craft Council film festival Real to Reel and was premiered at Picturehouse Central on 5th May 2016