Apollo Magazine (UK)

Body of Work

Antony Gormley’s belief in the public realm goes hand in hand with his conviction that art is a collective enterprise. He explains to Apollo why sculpture should be approachab­le and how it can even change the world

- By Gabrielle Schwarz

Antony Gormley talks to

Gabrielle Schwarz about the power of the human figure and how sculpture can change the world

These days there are few places quieter than the City of London. Recently, on a sunny February afternoon, I decided to take a bike ride through the financial district, making the most of the empty roads and cobbled back streets of this ghost town. At one point, I had to hit the brakes, startled to encounter another person standing at a junction where I was about to turn. Once I’d stopped, I realised it was not a human figure but a sculpture: Antony Gormley’s Resolution (2005). Up close (and if the sun is not in your eyes), the cast-iron sculpture – a shade over six feet tall – is quite clearly not an actual person but a tower of cuboid blocks, stacked to follow the contours of an upright body and vaguely reminiscen­t of the pixels that appear when you zoom in too close on an image on your phone or computer. Its hard-edged feet are fixed firmly to the ground, on the curb on the corner of Shoe Lane and St Bride Street.

There’s a chance I wouldn’t have even seen the sculpture, before the pandemic, amid the bustle of suits moving from office to Pret and back again. But also, there would have been so much else to see – so many shows that had just opened, or were just about to close, so many live performanc­es and fairs and new displays in museums and galleries. Over the past year many of us (when not looking at a screen) will have spent more time outside, becoming more familiar with our local streets, buildings and the many different forms of artistic expression that might loosely be defined as ‘public art’, and of which Antony Gormley is perhaps the best-known living practition­er. (Gormley himself resists the phrase, which brackets off a particular kind of art as public, preferring to place the emphasis on the site of the work: ‘art in the public realm’, ‘art in collective space’, and so on.)

What better moment, then, to speak to a person who has – with his scattered crowd of bodies that dot the globe from cities to seashores, from the Austrian Alps to a salt lake in Western Australia (Fig. 6) – made a career out of the idea that art is not just something you find in a gallery, that in fact it might be all the more powerful when taken out of its usual context, and placed in the world at large?

And so, a few weeks after my encounter with Resolution, I find myself face to face with another pixelated Gormley. This time it is the artist himself, beamed into my kitchen via Zoom. No sooner has our conversati­on begun, with a question on what motivated him in the mid 1980s to begin placing his now-signature ‘bodyforms’ in

outdoor locations, than the artist is offering a historicis­ed argument on the essential function of sculpture. ‘The Enlightenm­ent invented the picture gallery and the museum but prior to that, and actually still in many societies, the kinds of creative sharing that people do – and I would include gardening in this – are in a shared space, a collective space. The art they make is in the stories they tell, the dances they dance, the structures that they make collective­ly, and I think that is still the model, particular­ly for sculpture,’ Gormley says. ‘I have simply recognised the nature of my vocation, that it is of its nature collective and of its nature should exist in collective space.’

This expansive view of what art can be and where it can be found, with a particular emphasis on prehistori­c and non-Western cultural production, is fundamenta­l to Gormley’s approach. It can be traced back to his pre-artschool days: first, his undergradu­ate studies at Cambridge, where for a year he read archaeolog­y and anthropolo­gy before switching to art history; and then the three years he spent travelling in India and Sri Lanka, training in Buddhist Vipassana meditation and, for a time, Chinese brush-drawing. By the mid ’70s he was back in London and undertakin­g a more convention­al artistic education, studying at Saint Martin’s, Goldsmiths and the Slade, but he was already on a clear path. In his final-year written thesis at Goldsmiths, titled ‘The Stone’, he sought to establish humanity’s relationsh­ip to the material through millennia and across the world, from Mesolithic monuments in Ireland to Japanese rock gardens, and to the more recent experiment­s of land artists such as Richard Long. Today, among 20th-century touchstone­s, he cites the German artist Joseph Beuys, also a sculptor (as well as teacher, political activist, performer and self-described shaman), who similarly believed in the universali­ty of the creative impulse across cultures and through time. ‘Beuys for me represents continuity, the idea that the new of itself has no intrinsic value or benefit, that modernity in some senses comes with a loss of history.’

Over the course of his 40-year career, Gormley’s own art – his sculptures, which he sometimes describes as ‘totems’, but also his drawings, which for him constitute a kind of meditative daily practice – has both subtly and explicitly embodied this cross-cultural, transhisto­rical perspectiv­e. Take, as an uncommonly direct example, his aniline-dye drawings from around the turn of the millennium, such as Two Bodies (Fig. 5), Alife and Against Time (all 2000). With their reddish washes and roughly drawn silhouette­d figures, these small works seem like fragments of the very earliest paintings found in palaeolith­ic rock shelters – sites that Gormley has visited a few times (most recently courtesy of the BBC, for a documentar­y broadcast in 2019 called How Art Began).

Then there is his most famous work: the monumental Angel of the North (1998; Fig. 2), which stands on top of a hill, gazing out over the A1 on the site of the pithead baths of the former Team Colliery in Gateshead, and which Gormley has referred to as ‘my Stonehenge’. Describing the ‘experiment’ that this winged steel behemoth represente­d to him, he says: ‘There’s no question that this is a pre-modern idea of what art can do. Here

is a totem, a collective­ly engendered object that carries the materials and methods of the community and the place, the shipbuildi­ng and the engineerin­g, but uses it entirely imaginativ­ely, in other words is non-functional, as a focus for a region’s hopes and fears.’

This sense of the Angel, as deeply rooted in its particular environmen­t, goes some way to explaining the somewhat unusual move that Gormley recently took – and which was reported in the national press – of making multiple written submission­s to Highways England objecting to planned upgrades to the A1 south of Gateshead which, he contended, would mar views of the sculpture. And he’s not alone – in March the Twentieth Century Society submitted an applicatio­n to Historic England to list the Angel, describing it ‘as an icon not only of the North East, but of the UK as a whole’. The listing was rejected but the saga suggests that Gormley and his sculptures have become objects of public debate, discussed far more widely than almost any other contempora­ry artist or their output. See also the fact that, when a resident of the English seaside town of Aldeburgh installed a group of Gormley’s more abstract cast-iron sculptures on the beach earlier this year, complaints that they looked like ‘sex toys’ were eagerly reported in the newspapers. (In a further twist, the artist has objected to the owner of the works placing them on the beach when they are meant ‘to stand upright’.)

That is not to say that Gormley hasn’t had his fair share of convention­al art-world action. From his first solo exhibition at the Whitechape­l Gallery in 1981, and especially after his Turner Prize win in 1994, Gormley has never been short of important commission­s and surveys – most recently an exhibition at the Royal Academy in London, which highlighte­d the somewhat overlooked range of Gormley’s work: his early casts of everyday items such as bread and apples (and, ironically enough, in a work titled Natural Selection [1981], a sex toy); his drawings; and more recent room-scale installati­ons such as Clearing VII (2019), made up of tangled coils of aluminium tubing which the viewer is invited to walk through. There were plenty of bodies, too – ranging from rusty-red men cast from moulds of the artist’s own naked body, as in Lost Horizon I (2008), to his more abstracted figures built from cubes or bars of metal (Fig. 3). The show closed just weeks before the first national lockdown of 2020. But during our conversati­on, some 12 months later, there is a sense that Gormley has found the past year clarifying in terms of what art can do – and why attitudes towards art (and where we see it) may now be changing.

‘It’s obvious that in a time when people can’t go to these specific locations where art is hospitalis­ed, categorise­d, catalogued and conserved, that we are going to recognise that art can do a very, very different job,’ he says. ‘That the climate-controlled, light-controlled environmen­ts of museums actually take a lot of the potential dialogue of sculpture with time and place away.’ Yet the aesthetic experience of encounteri­ng art ‘in the elements’ is only

one of what he calls the ‘silver linings’ of our current predicamen­t. ‘We notice and care for our environmen­t in a very different way – we’re not just passing through it; we’re dwelling in it.’ Gormley has been a committed advocate for climate action for many years and has repeatedly called for the art industry to reduce its carbon footprint. He has also spoken about the ways he hopes his own work – with its themes of body and place – might engender an increased awareness within individual­s of our ‘connection to and dependence on the context in which we find ourselves’. He is currently working on a series of sculptures titled Cast Liners, begun in 2019 and made up of networks of thin cast-iron beams, which he describes as ‘diagnostic diagrams of being in the body’, ‘tangled things’ that express ‘how complex the intrarelat­ionships of the biosphere are’.

Gormley believes that, whether because of people’s increased connection­s to nature or out of straitened circumstan­ces, there’s an opportunit­y to do things differentl­y. ‘When I was growing up as an artist the only thing you had to aspire to was to be an internatio­nal artist, that your work was going to go everywhere. I think in a time of climate emergency and in a time of Covid, well, that model just doesn’t work,’ he says. ‘The sheer amount of air miles that artworks and artists and collectors clock up in order to keep the machine going just has to be reckoned with.’ The alternativ­e? ‘I can imagine many galleries and museums […] are all finding themselves with more space than they can economical­ly use, and they’re going to have to offer that space, hopefully to artists, to local artist communitie­s.’

Coursing through Gormley’s words is an almost religious conviction in the power of art and creativity as a vehicle for hope and healing (although he acknowledg­es that ‘I may be hopelessly utopian and romantic about this’). This year, alongside a virtual promotiona­l tour for a new book co-written with the art critic Martin Gayford, Shaping the World: Sculpture from Prehistory to Now, he has been involved in a project called the Great Big Art Exhibition, which invites the locked-down British public to make art at home inspired by prompts from contempora­ry artists. Gormley was first up. His challenge? Make an animal sculpture out of a ball of clay. Gormley is brimming with praise for this and other similar initiative­s, from the ‘Get Creative’ challenge instigated by Radio 4’s Front Row to Grayson’s Art Club on Channel 4. ‘The number of kitchen tables that have become mini studios for families working together,’ he says, ‘who then put something that they made inside the house out on the balcony, on the windowsill, in the window, and sharing it with their neighbours… This is a recovery, I think, of what I was going on about earlier – that creative sharing. I think we’ve found that again.’ Gormley’s own contributi­on to the Great Big Art Exhibition was a rather deftly handled miniature hound with a long muzzle and an alert stance – the same breed, possibly, that appears as an occasional motif in his studio

work: see, for example, the series of Lost Dog sculptures made from forged ball bearings in 2002.

It would be remiss not to bring up the other side of the conversati­on that has gathered pace in the past year about the role of sculpture in the public sphere. What does Gormley make of the debate about historical statues and other monuments in the public sphere, which depict and memorialis­e figures from Western imperial history? ‘I think we have to recognise that statuary in particular has always been a form of power using art for its own purposes, of supporting its hierarchy,’ he says. ‘But I think it’s a very minor part of what art can do.’ He draws a somewhat counterint­uitive equivalenc­e between ‘the use of the Robert E. Lee equestrian statue by the far-right white supremacis­ts in the States’ and ‘the dunking of Colston’s statue into the sea in Bristol’ by anti-racist protesters, suggesting that both are examples of ‘statue as materialis­ed history, being somehow used as a trophy, as a rallying cry, or as a scapegoat’. He’s equally sceptical of a trend that can be identified within contempora­ry art, citing artists who produce counter-monuments to underrepre­sented figures and stories. ‘I think these are very post-modern tropes which fall into the trap of, in attempting to criticise the politics of the original work, actually reinforcin­g them and doing them again.’ This is why, perhaps, there are no plinths in Gormley’s sculpture – only bodies, rendered at various scales and to varying degrees of abstractio­n, but always without name or character, laying claim to no significan­ce beyond the fact of their existence.

For Gormley, all art is inherently political regardless of its content. ‘Certainly for me sculpture is a tacit act of hope because it says something like, “I don’t want to make a picture of the world, I want to change the world, I want to change the world by putting something that wasn’t there before in it, and the world then has to in some way accommodat­e this thing that often is a bit of an irritation or a confrontat­ion”.’ This is not to suggest that all artworks are meant to last forever: ‘Well, I think if they are any good, they should become part of a place and if they’re not they’ll disappear.’ Some, it’s worth noting, are by their very nature ephemeral: in 2006, as part of a one-day arts festival in Margate, Gormley burnt to the ground a 25-metre-high sculpture titled Waste Man and built entirely from waste materials (Fig. 4).

Above all, Gormley is dedicated to the idea of art as ultimately belonging not to its creator or its owner but to the public, the ‘collective’ realm where it is sited. He firmly believes that ‘you don’t need to know anything’ to experience his work – another reason, I think, that he has a greater audience for his work than most of his contempora­ries. ‘You just need to go up to the thing, you can lick it if you like, but it would be good if you touched it, you should walk about it, you should think… well, there are no shoulds about it,’ he says. ‘I think that the meaning comes from what you make of it. Literally, what do you make of this thing with which you are sharing the world?’

 ??  ?? 1. Antony Gormley (b. 1950), photograph­ed by Stephen White in his studio in London in March 2021
1. Antony Gormley (b. 1950), photograph­ed by Stephen White in his studio in London in March 2021
 ??  ?? 2. Angel of the North, 1998, Antony Gormley, steel, length 54m, installed in Gateshead, Tyne and Wear
2. Angel of the North, 1998, Antony Gormley, steel, length 54m, installed in Gateshead, Tyne and Wear
 ??  ?? 3.
Quarters I, 2005, Antony Gormley, cast iron, ht 196cm
3. Quarters I, 2005, Antony Gormley, cast iron, ht 196cm
 ??  ?? 4. Waste Man, 2006, Antony Gormley, household waste and furniture, ht 25m, installed in Margate in 2006
4. Waste Man, 2006, Antony Gormley, household waste and furniture, ht 25m, installed in Margate in 2006
 ??  ?? 5. Two Bodies, 2000, Antony Gormley, water-dispersed aniline dye on paper, 28.5 × 37.5cm
5. Two Bodies, 2000, Antony Gormley, water-dispersed aniline dye on paper, 28.5 × 37.5cm
 ??  ?? 6. Inside Australia, 2003, Antony Gormley, cast alloy of iron, molybdenum, iridium, vanadium and titanium, one of 51 sculptures installed in Lake Ballard, Western Australia in 2003
6. Inside Australia, 2003, Antony Gormley, cast alloy of iron, molybdenum, iridium, vanadium and titanium, one of 51 sculptures installed in Lake Ballard, Western Australia in 2003

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