Andy Goldsworthy Investigates the History of the Presidio of San Francisco

Sculpture Nature

August 19, 2016

 Andy Goldsworthy, Earth Wall, 2014; Photo © Matthew Harrison Tedford

Andy Goldsworthy, Earth Wall, 2014; Photo © Matthew Harrison Tedford

People often think of forests as wholly natural places. In this “wilderness” we sometimes see the world as we imagine it before humans made their mark—and maybe what it will look like after we’re done making marks. But many, if not all, forests are products of hundreds or thousands of years of management, policy, and cultivation. Some practices can alter the density of forests or affect which plants and animals thrive there. Some forests, as is the case with Historic Forest at the Presidio of San Francisco, are even completely invented.

That forest was constructed in the 1880s on land that was once a Spanish, then Mexican, and then American military installment. Now a U.S. National Recreation Area, the Presidio boasts four site-specific works by environmental artist Andy Goldsworthy that engage with the history of the base and forest.

Three of these works were created in partnership with the FOR-SITE Foundation between 2008 and 2013. Tree Fall (2013) occupies the interior of a historic building that originally housed gunpowder. Goldsworthy coated a felled eucalyptus tree from elsewhere in the park with local clay and installed the tree in the dome of the powder house. The clay the surrounds the tree and covers the dome ceiling is cracked like a dry lakebed under a scorching sun. Eucalyptus is a distinctive constituent of the 300-acre Presidio Forest, but it is also one of California’s most notorious invasive species, brought to the state by Australians during the Gold Rush. The clay references another invasion of the landscape—that of the Spanish military, who occupied the site in 1776, displacing Ohlone people from the grassy scrubland hills. The first buildings the Spanish constructed were made of adobe, which was likely composed of the same clay Goldsworthy used in Tree Fall.

Because 100 000 trees of the forest were planted within only a couple of decades, the trees have aged together. Many trees, especially Monterey cypress and pine, have started to die off together. Spire (2008) is a 100-foot-tall totem dedicated to and comprised of thirty-seven aged cypress trees. The wooden obelisk tapers to a point that can be seen through the canopy from a nearby road. With an eye towards the future of the forest, Goldsworthy planted several young cypresses, which will grow to engulf Spire.

When the Army began constructing the forest, in some places they planted rows of cypress trees amongst the eucalyptus. This created conditions that were not conducive to the cypresses, and they soon died out. In one place, the tree-less gap looks like a purposeful clearing of the forest for a wide trail. Goldsworthy used this opening as the canvas for Wood Line (2011), a 1 200-foot line of eucalyptus branches snaking through the forest. It is interesting that Goldsworthy chose eucalyptus rather than cypress to mark this place. Instead of calling attention to what failed here, he seems to be recognizing that which could have thrived. The sculpture itself, however, will not thrive; it will eventually decompose, leaving the canvas blank once again.

On the other end of the park sits the Presidio Officers’ Club, one of the oldest buildings in the Presidio. When the U.S. occupied the site in the 1840s, they built upon the existing structure. Further renovations took place in the 1880s, 1930s, and 1970s. In 2011, the Presidio Trust began a rehabilitation project to preserve historical features of the club and meet contemporary building standards. This excavation revealed centuries-old adobe walls buried behind layers of more modern ones. The Officers’ Club reopened in 2014 as a museum, and Goldsworthy returned to create Earth Wall. The artist built a six-foot-wide half-sphere from curved eucalyptus branches and then buried it in an outdoor earthen wall at the Officers’ Club. Referencing the building’s renovation as well as other ongoing archeological digs at the park, Goldsworthy partially excavated the half-sphere, exposing it to viewers while keeping it embedded in the wall.

Throughout the Presidio, and in his practice in general, Goldsworthy uses natural resources as his raw material. Without the appropriate historical context, these works could be seen as simply homages to nature—to wilderness, even. But these works are acts of social science. There is no separation between the natural and the human.