In the winter of 1985-6 a young Andy Goldsworthy came to London from his home in Cumbria to work with his hands in the ice and snow on Hampstead Heath. For six weeks, using only the materials to hand – twigs, leaves, feathers, stones, and the ice and snow itself – he created a series of ephemeral sculptures while locals or visitors to the Heath watched.

This unusual artist’s residency had been arranged and funded by Common Ground in association with Artangel and was one of the first undertakings for both organisations. Common Ground had only recently been launched a year earlier with a series of public events at the ICA intended to ‘re-open the debate about our relationship with the land and with nature’. These were subjects of ‘practical and philosophical concern for us all,’ they felt, not just for professionals with a specialist interest. Andy Goldsworthy’s residency was a way of drawing people into subjects that they felt everyone should be invested in, a way of opening people’s eyes to the wild nature on their doorstep and showing that ‘inspiration is to be found in everyday places and materials’.

Since the late 1960s, Land Art in Britain had been moving the focus of sculpture away from the object in the gallery. Richard Long’s famous A Line Made by Walking (1967) had seen the artist photograph an area of grass in a field on the outskirts of London that he had flattened by walking up and down repeatedly. The gesture of leaving the city on foot, of interacting with an ordinary, semi-rural landscape, and of producing no object that might be easily turned into a commodity, were all part a new generation’s break with the metropolitan art world in which they had trained and which seemed to hold all the power. While aware of Long’s ground-breaking work, in Andy Goldsworthy’s Hampstead Heath residency there was something Goldsworthy  slightly different at play. Here was an artist who had developed his distinctive working method in art schools in Bradford and Preston, who had, more importantly, refined his idiosyncratic method alone for long periods of time on the large flat sands of Morecambe Bay. Common Ground had invited this artist – used to working in remote and rural locations – to come and try his hand in the heart of the capital city, overlooking the blue misted skyline of Thatcher’s London, studded with spires and cranes.

As much as Land Art would come to influence Goldsworthy, he had, earlier in life, been fascinated with the performance art of Yves Klein. Goldsworthy had come to see his own work as something to be performed rather than something to be made, produced, or finished, like a sculpture. This was less about the theatrics of performance art as such, however, than it was about the sense that the meaning resided in the act of performing work, something that chimed with his memories of work as an agricultural labourer in his younger years when he learned a range of traditional crafts and techniques. He recalls Klein’s influential reflection on his monochrome paintings: ‘They are the left-overs from my creative process, the ashes.’ The emphasis on process rather than product was also something in which he endeavoured to engage with real, natural processes as well. It was a way of emulating the creativity of the natural world itself. Describing his fascination with the form of a tree in the early 1990s, he suggests that ‘more than its own material, it is a window into the process of life, growth and decay – an expression of the energy that flows through all nature and a binding of time, seasons, earth, air and water.’ Working closely with the materials to hand, he began to look for this ‘process of life, growth and decay’ and to weave his own creative process into it. Nicholas Alfrey has described Goldsworthy’s work as ‘enacting an investigative process’ and this is very much the case with the work on Hampstead Heath. It is a dialogue between fingers and thoughts and the processes that form snow and leaf and ice and bark.

Hampstead Heath itself was an important choice of site for this residency as well, not just because it brought this artist of the rural edges into the heart of the city. The poor soil quality in the area meant that it had long been common land where traditionally, and well into the nineteenth century, laundry was hung, donkeys were grazed, and sand was dug for small-scale building. However, it would not have remained common land had it not been fought for over the years. Hampstead Heath had been the subject of at least two high profile conservation battles, the earliest of which is generally  considered to be one of the first successful battles of its kind. In 1829, Sir Thomas Maryon Wilson, the Lord of the Manor of Hampstead, saw the potential to make some fast money through developing the land and building new properties in what was becoming a very desirable area. Opposition was strong though, especially from those wealthy house owners who lived nearby, and his plans were thwarted. Later, at the end of the nineteenth century, public outcry was heard again – though nationwide this time – when a, perhaps well-intentioned, London County Council began to ‘tidy up’ and ‘parkify’ the Heath in the name of ‘improvement’. They began cutting and burning its gorse bushes, filling in hollows and bogs and planting hundreds of saplings. But popular protest brought these developments to a halt as well,  defending what is one of London’s most cherished areas of common land.

The choice of such a popularly defended area as Hampstead Heath for this residency by an artist whose working practice represented such a dignified dialogue between a human being and his environment seems today like no coincidence. The relationship between people and place is an ongoing process of discovery wherever we are. Often what we discover is a feeling for a place such that we may be moved to protect it as a living part of our neighbourhood. Goldsworthy’s Hampstead Heath residency showed that no landscape can be too familiar or too close to home to inspire fresh perspectives on our relationship to the Earth.

Download the Visual Diaries catalogue for the exhibition at Hooke Park.