Memory, By The Ton


Hurricane Isabel threatened to drench Manhattan last week, an unpleasant forecast for most New Yorkers.

For Andy Goldsworthy, the British sculptor whose primary media are nature and time, a predicted downpour is good news. Surveying the granite boulders and oak saplings that make up his newly dedicated "Garden of Stones" at the Museum of Jewish Heritage-A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in Battery Park City, he said the gray boulders look good in sunshine, but glisten when wet.

Rain or shine, "Garden of Stones" will reach its "optimum point" sometime during the next century, when the dwarf oaks (which can reach heights of 12 feet) fill and fuse into hollows at each boulder’s core, Goldsworthy explained.

"It gives a sense of the impossible," he said last Wednesday after the 18th sapling was planted. "A tree growing out of a stone."

Adding to the sense of impossibility were the challenges of creating a rooftop assembly of stones weighing three to 13 tons. The memorial garden "has been a complicated and difficult project," Goldsworthy said, holding a calloused, blistered hand to his close-cropped white beard.

The installation required the use of a crane and two forklifts, as well as some structural reinforcement. But the result (a spare garden of granite, oak and gold-hued gravel) articulates life’s tenacity "with far more clarity than I ever thought possible at the beginning," the artist said.

Goldsworthy, 47, is known for ephemeral sculptures fashioned from materials found in nature: stone, mud, wood, leaves, flowers, ice and snow. Often the only record of these labor-intensive works are photographs snapped before the tide flows in or the sun beats down.

"Storm King Wall," which weaves through a corner of the Storm King Art Center in upstate Mountainville, is one of a dozen permanent commissions in the United States. "Garden of Stones" is Goldsworthy’s first in New York City.

For the memorial, the resident of rural Scotland traveled to Vermont and found a group of erratics (boulders transported by glaciers) that had been removed from farmlands centuries ago. He had a Connecticut stoneworker, Ed Monti, bore into the igneous rock with a flame torch, creating hollow spaces for saplings to take root.

The boulders’ glacial journey makes a tidy metaphor for Jews’ historic wanderings, and the violence that went into preparing the stones holds a "ghastly parallel" with the Holocaust, Goldsworthy said. But he stressed the garden’s universal message that "life can survive in the most difficult circumstances."

"That it’s a Holocaust memorial garden adds weight to that," he said, but "the issues involved in this museum are related to everyone."

His intention was to install as many stones as would fit in the 4,150-square-foot garden. That number turned out to be 18, which happens to be the numerological equivalent of the Hebrew word "chai," meaning "life."

"Garden of Stones" is one of several new features at the expanded museum. The 82,000-square-foot, $60 million Robert M. Morgenthau Wing, named for the museum’s chairman and Manhattan District Attorney, opened last week as the first new construction in downtown Manhattan since the 9-11 attacks. The garden is free to the public during museum hours.

Goldsworthy vied against 59 sculptors and landscape architects in a competition held in collaboration with the Public Art Fund and funded by Michael Steinhardt, a museum trustee.

Some of the proposals included smells and sounds, said Ivy Barsky, the museum’s deputy director for programs and one of the eight judges who ultimately chose Goldsworthy’s proposal from among five finalists.

"We were really not looking for things that said ‘Holocaust memorial’ immediately," Barsky said. "A lot of people expected jagged limestone, names of communities or people. We really didn’t want to go that route."

At one point, Goldworthy said, he had considered proposing a garden of flat stones on which visitors could make "rain shadows."

He had created one earlier last week when the skies opened just as he was about to enter the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Braving the possibility that a passing stranger might attempt resuscitation, Goldsworthy lay flat on the pavement until the rain cleared, leaving behind his body’s dry imprint.

At the Museum of Jewish Heritage, he mused, visitors would have lain "on the memory of another person," thus create multiple layers of memory.