It irritates antony gormley that he’s often perceived as a figurative sculptor. he talks to stephen short about space, the body, perceptions and his expansive hong kong project
Sculptor Antony Gormley on space, the body, perceptions and his Hong Kong project
In a world where Nasa’s New Horizons spacecraft has just flown by Pluto, where man’s evolution from Homo sapiens to transhuman is now tangible, the arrival of British sculptor Antony Gormley’s
Event Horizon in Hong Kong this month—31 weighty human figures placed on buildings and pavements around the tall, small city— is an apt comment on the times. Exhibitionist yet introvert, collective yet solitary, still yet sprinting, ambitious yet nihilistic, minute yet infinite, Youniversal. Gormley’s work is troubling or triumphant, celebration or commiseration; it’s your choice, your reading, your feeling, all part of his participatory approach to life at the aesthetic edge.
Gormley has much to discuss. “What is your perception since 1997 in the change of character of Hong Kong?,” he Skypes from a holiday home in Norfolk, England. I mention the political, economic, cultural shift and the breakneck speed of artistic evolution. “From an outsider’s point of view, Hong Kong’s like a city on steroids,” he says. “Like it’s been in a gym and is muscle-built, without a very strong sense of where the epicentres of the city are.”
The sculptor has been doing his research. “I’ve been reading Abbas [Ackbar Abbas,
Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance] about what is culturally and politically more important in the development of the new Hong Kong subjectivity. Hong Kong had no history prior to the 1840s… and here we’ve got this mega international city… which in some way has had this secondary colonial identity but now can construct its own. It’s not surprising that art becomes an important tool in the construction of that identity. The interesting thing now is how that identity or history can become the catalyst or foundation for a new identity. We are watching a process of the evolution of an identity.” Most famous for his Angel of the
North sculpture in Gateshead, England, the 65-year-old is acclaimed for art that investigates the relationship of the human body to space. His work has developed the potential of sculpture through a critical engagement with his body and those of others in a way that confronts fundamental questions of where human beings stand in relation to nature and the cosmos. He’s most interested in seeing beyond the built world, the city grids that bind us, and thinking outside the box. Body as space, as black hole, as therapy.
The identity problem in Hong Kong he applies equally to his own medium. “Sculpture
“I USE SCULPTURE AS A TOOL FOR MINDFULNESS. THESE ARE NOT NUDES. THEY ARE NAKED PEOPLE. THEY ARE HUMAN SPACES THAT DISPLACE SPACE AT LARGE”
can no longer simply reinforce the known; it has to be a bridge to the unknown. It can no longer give us a sense of identity; by celebrating the past, it has to be open to possible futures. We exist in space, but space also exists in us.” For Gormley, the subject of space is omnipresent. “I hope [Event Horizon] is a way of talking about an openness to a future that hasn’t happened but seems full of possibility. We don’t know which way it’s going to go, whether it’s a crackdown from Beijing or, as seems increasingly likely, that Hong Kong will find its voice and become a cultural centre with its own identity, not just a receiver.” He refers to the installations that form
Event Horizon as cultural acupuncture or therapy. “We’ve got 31 needles going into various parts of the collective body, and we have to see what kind of responses and energies each one elicits. It’s an experiment. With any luck, that will provoke the reflective question—what am I doing in this world and what is this world anyway?”
The idea to stage Event Horizon in the city crystallised in 2012. It was due to open last year, until a financier took his life by jumping off Chater House, on which Gormley had planned to install one of his figures, prompting owner Hongkong Land to pull its sponsorship. That apart, Gormley is thrilled by the city’s reaction to his project. “It’s extraordinary how many people have made it their mission. The government have been very strong supporters, and Adrian Cheng [founder of the K11 art mall] visited me at my London studio and had strong feelings about the educational open space in which questions and feelings can be articulated.”
It’s hard to look at Event Horizon and not feel echoes of those who fell to their deaths in New York on September 11, 2001. And while recent figures show Hong Kong’s suicide rate is lower this year than last year, it’s at an all-time high in the 15-24 age group. “It’s understandable that people will think somebody’s jumping off a building. But this piece is about the celebration of life, and we’re back to this point about trying to consider what is the identity or subjective voice of Hong Kong. And if in the process of doing this we uncover a silence, or the silent truth, that Hong Kong, despite its identity as an international finance centre of extreme
intensity, has a shadow side... getting this out in the open can only be a positive thing.”
For a man whose medium is bodies, Gormley has little interest in physical contemplation. “I use sculpture as a tool for mindfulness. These are not nudes. They are naked people. They are human spaces that displace space at large by their mass. They are sky-clad and they deal with bare life; I’m not interested in the female nude as a kind of object of desire. I’m more interested in these body forms themselves, which are like black holes in human form, dark silhouettes against the sky, in which the built environment that surrounds them is the thing that becomes the foreground.”
Last year saw the opening of Room, a most ungormley-like project—a luxury suite encased in a sculpture of a crouching robotlike figure atop London’s Beaumont hotel. “On the outside he’s a tin man. Inside, he’s infinite space,” says Gormley of Room. He describes the inside, which has no windows, as being a hermit’s cave, “about the most intimate experience you can have... You begin to realise you’re inside a black [Kazimir] Malevich painting. It’s a subliminally illuminated space. What is the real luxury of that work? Not to be at the world’s command, to enjoy pure silence and real intimacy. That’s what Room is.”
What’s the most common misconception about Gormley? “It’s my fault. I’m still considered a figurative statue maker, which annoys me. But I’ve obviously got to continue to work on that. There are two very distinct lines in my work. One is to make a very accurate account of what it feels like to inhabit a body, often using the language of architecture to reinterpret anatomy. The other is to make situations in which people are invited to observe their own experience. In Event Horizon those two things come together.
“My body is the only bit of the material world that I happen to live inside, and if I am interested, as I am, in the mind/body problem, then I’m interested in feeling, the space, body as place, not as an object. The accident of appearance is not something that interests me. I want a sense of connection with the horizon, with space at large, so these works are alert, erect, aware. How do you capture that if you’re not interested in appearance? You have to live it.”
space man Previous spread: One of Antony Gormley’s Event Horizon installations in London in 2007. This spread, clockwise from above: Gormley; Inside Australia at Lake Ballard, Western Australia, in 2003; one of the Event Horizon installations in New York in 2010
all at sea From above:
at the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, Russia, in 2011; detail from Land, Sea and Air II in 1982
Inside the BOX Breathing Room III at White Cube, Mason’s Yard, London, in 2010