Building the ‘Walking Wall’ at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
In the next few weeks, Kansas City is going to get a real-world lesson in the effectiveness of walls.
There’s some accidental resonance involved, certainly. Regardless, artist Andy Goldsworthy is well aware that Kansas City’s latest large-scale art installation can be viewed as an allegory on the current U.S. political climate concerning the country’s southern border.
“Imagine: This idea that I’ve had for quite a while — and I’ve had a long history of walls — has really little to do with that and everything to do with that,” Goldsworthy said. “And this is the year it’s being made. Isn’t that incredible?”
Goldsworthy is a 62-year-old sculptor and native of Britain who currently lives in Scotland. He’s known throughout the art world as a sculptor, environmentalist and photographer who uses natural materials to create works that reflect on nature. He’s created impossible stone cairns, bridges over stone walls, and fiery portraits of fallen leaves.
Visitors walking, jogging or biking by the east side of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in recent weeks may have seen the first phase of Goldsworthy’s latest: the meandering stone “Walking Wall.”
Even though it may look finished, it’s not. Come May 12, that wall will be disassembled from the east end and be reassembled on the work’s west end, as the work “walks” across Rockhill Road and into the museum.
This, of course, will necessitate the closing of Rockhill for several weeks as the exhibit makes the road impassable.
One can almost hear the griping hordes of drivers already. Art in the road? What’s next: Communism?
Then again, inexhaustible and meandering detours are just a part of KC life. Just ask anyone who’s tried to get on to westbound Interstate 70 from downtown KC in the last, oh, two years.
Regardless, the road closure is just one of the bits Goldsworthy finds fascinating about his latest project.
“Walking Wall” not only has roots in his native country and his current home of Scotland, but it also takes inspiration from similar agrarian walls found in urban Kansas City and the wildness of the Kansas prairie — all of which circle back to the old country.
“I was struck by the number of what were agricultural walls in the middle of the city,” Goldsworthy said, gesturing to the neighborhoods surrounding the Nelson. “These are not garden walls around here. These are agricultural walls. The idea of connecting into that network of walls was an attraction.”
But it was the rugged stone walls in the Flint Hills (often called rock fences by the natives) that the artist found most fascinating. Some of the limestone he used came from quarries near Alma, Norton Creek and Marion in Kansas.
In all their complexities — from craftsmanship to symbolism to the tensions they created — the Flint Hills walls come closest in resembling the British dry stone walls.
“The Flint Hills walls weren’t just these beautiful walls — which they are — they also have that conflict between what happened before,” he said. “Historically, they’re fascinating. They weren’t being made to look good. They were made out of a need to make something strong. They were honest. People pecking the stone out of the ground and making the walls just to get the work done.”
It’s the same approach Goldsworthy used with his crew — some locals, some from the U.K. and Scotland and one young man from Goldsworthy’s village whom he’s known since the man was only yea high.
“I’ve said to the guys, this wall is all about speed, all about making a good wall fast,” he said. “Speed has always been an essential and important part of wall-making in an agricultural context. Wallers got paid by the yard, so the only way they made a good living was making a lot of well-made yards in a day.”
He wanted a certain rawness and ruggedness to the project. No hammers or strings. Just put the thing up where Goldsworthy tells them to. If he wanted to put a turn here, they put a turn there. If he wanted to turn back south, they’d turn back south.
“I laid out the line with very little thought but a lot of experience,” he said.
The first leg of “Walking Wall,” which was constructed during some truly gray and miserable dampness, went up well ahead of schedule at a pace of about 12 yards a day.
“That’s impressive, isn’t it?” he marveled. “I needed people willing to work in all weathers. It’s part of the work that it goes through the trials of wind and wet and cold and heat and so on. They have to sign up for nonstop work through all these weathers.”
And no one on the crew has questioned him: So, in a few weeks we’re just going to tear this down again?
“No one’s said, ‘What’s the point?’” he said. “Day to day, you just see the small part of the bigger thing going on, but they bring such energy.”
It’s interesting that the workers understood Goldsworthy’s idea from the jump. He said he’s proposed “Walking Wall” with other institutions, but, for whatever reason, their directors and board members couldn’t wrap their heads around the idea.
In Kansas City, however, “Walking Wall” fits both with the town’s agricultural roots and the Plotinus inscription on the side of the museum wall, which reads: “Art deals with things forever incapable of definition, and that belong to Love, Beauty, Joy, and Worship, the Shapes, Powers and Glory of which are ever building, unbuilding and rebuilding in each man’s soul, and in the soul of the whole world.”
Goldsworthy said he also was challenged by Kansas City’s history of ambitious art projects, from the Shuttlecocks to Christo’s “Wrapped Walkways” in Loose Park in the late 1970s. He felt like he should try to come up with something that rose to that scale, but he found it difficult with the site.
“You can’t put a wall between the Shuttlecocks,” he said. “You can’t, and you shouldn’t.”
And so, the idea of a “wall that walked” came back to him. The work would be huge in scale once photographed in its entirety, but didn’t forever claim the ground upon which it was built. He said movement has always been a part of his walls, as the ground has shifted and the elements took their toll. This seemed entirely appropriate.
“But for the wall to actually move so you only see a small part of a greater thing at any one time is such a beautiful and poetic idea,” he said.
The decay and movement of his works have always fascinated him. Recently, some of his sculptures were destroyed in a fire, which excited him perhaps more than it devastated him.
“I had to go see what remained,” he said. “My sculpture had turned bright red from the fire, and it was beautiful. I think the changes that will happen in this wall will make it more beautiful. It’s alive.”
When Goldsworthy and his crew come back in a few weeks, they’ll leave about six yards of wall attached to the existing wall as a reminder of where it began. From there, they’ll start taking it apart and cross the road. (Of course, they have the necessary permits to block the road.)
“That’s such a poetic idea,” he said. “I hope it will be a good-humored reaction. I’m very excited about it. It’s like a ship leaving shore. And after being here for a while, I imagine it will leave a line in the ground, with different vegetation or none at all.”
Once the wall finishes its time on Rockhill Road, the piece will make its way onto the museum grounds over several months and eventually take up permanent residence, half outside the museum and half inside. Both parts will rest flush with a window so the work can be seen inside and out. He hopes visitors will use this opportunity to think about how certain things find their way into museums, and how those artifacts are just a small part of something larger.
“Inside, you have, for instance, quite a large collection of American Indian artifacts, but it’s just a small fragment of something bigger — the culture, the time, the place they came from,” he said. “So I hope this resonates with the collection and makes people think about the origin of objects.”
Goldsworthy said “Walking Wall” itself, though not originally intended to be part of the discussion of building a wall at the southern U.S. border, becomes so merely because of the time in which it’s constructed.
“What is happening this year, with walls in America, is going to be written into that whether I like it or not,” he said. “This is nothing I’ve ever had to deal with — I don’t know how to deal with that. I will figure that out maybe as I go along. But it’s put me and the project into a really uncomfortable and amazing space. You can’t ask for better as an artist, really.”
Up to this point, Goldsworthy and “Walking Wall” have been met with general positivity from passers-by. He was wary when he started because he’d heard rumblings of a certain amount of ongoing tension between the museum and the neighborhood. And there’s always general dyspepsia about construction.
In a statement in January, Nelson director Julián Zugazagoitia said he sees the installation as a positive for neighbor relations.
“This poetic disruption pushes the boundaries of a city and nature and solidifies the tie between the museum and the neighborhood,” he said.
Goldsworthy said his aim is to just make a great work of art.
“The day I start worrying about what people think about it, forget it,” he said. “I will say I’ve never been given so many cakes. It must be a thing in Kansas City. If you see someone working hard, you give them a cake.”