In Praise of Antony Gormley (2019)

At the Royal Academy

“What can Sculpture do?” Antony Gormley muses on the purpose of his current exhibition at the Royal Academy. “Can it change the way you engage with art?” And (consequently) with the world?

An ambitious and noble aim for sure. Using seven spaces within the RA’s sumptuous main gallery, Gormley attempts to address such questions by presenting works that shine a light on different aspects of his varied practice. The layout and design of the exhibition, curated by Martin Caiger-Smith with Sarah Lea; presents the uninitiated visitor with an overview of the artist’s career to date. It also offers those more familiar with Gormley’s oeuvre a greater insight into his creative process and outlook. Plus there is some new stuff on display.

Over the last few years, the RA has had great success giving over its main galleries to high profile artists like Anish Kapoor, Ai Weiwei and Anselm Kiefer. Allowing them to showcase their art and offering each the opportunity to produce site specific pieces. Now it is Antony Gormley’s turn.

For those who don’t know, Antony Gormley uses his own body as the basis for his many works; the vast majority of which are sculptural. The intricate casts the artist makes of his own physical form symbolically represent every ‘body’ and aim to convey something about the ‘shell’ in which each of us reside (and most likely can never leave).

Where exactly is it that ‘we’ reside within our body and how does that arrangement relate to the world outside?

Gormley’s sculptures, installations and mixed media drawings ask us to consider the nature of sentience and consciousness.  Yet however distended or diffuse they might appear or eventually evolve as art, the works always remain extensions of Gormley’s own frame. In his sculpture, the process of casting takes on a philosophical dimension, going beyond technique. The artist remaining in a sense ‘present’ in every piece; the result of a very physical process that leaves within each a ‘trace’ of his own body. He talks about the ‘Bodycase’ or even describes the casts he makes as ‘carapaces’. Something once integral, cast and then cast off, or a mark left behind.

With reference to that last point, one can find plenty of evidence of markmaking in this exhibition.  Drawings from pigments derived from the artist’s blood are shown together with more gestural works in two dimensions. Throughout Gormley amply demonstrates his dexterity and prolific output as a draughtsman; including several vitrines of exquisite sketchbooks. The drawings on show greatly vary in size and scale. Particularly successful are those made using ink. Something I’ve long admired in Gormley’s drawing is his graceful control of line on paper. Yet again, there are plenty of examples on display here.

You could even argue that a large piece like ‘Clearing VII’ is what happens when linear work is scaled up into three dimensions. This installation consists of many concentric looped wires, filling the entirety of the gallery. Creating an ever shifting and intricate dynamic tangle; constantly effected by the changing environment. Air and movement, as well as ambient temperature all playing their part. People have to carefully negotiate their way through it, yet there’s fun to be had. I saw some playing hide and seek with their children, carefully dodging the wires in order to retrieve them from this metal bramble.

In the first gallery we see a collection of modular (de)constructions of the figure. Life size versions, reduced to metallic arrangements of rectangular shapes, reminiscent of the pixelated human forms in early video games. Here the viewer is asked to consider the various parts of the body as building blocks; the raw materials for artistic invention, exploration and development (beyond their usual configuration). These ‘Slabworks’ evoke architectonic forms of the kind produced by utopian movements such as De Stijl, Suprematism or Constructivism. Yet despite the fact the bodies here are fragmented and reconfigured, they still manage to retain the essence of the their original pose. Thus, we see crouched figures evoking vulnerability or those standing, sitting or lying down instantly communicating particularly human characteristics. Things we can identify without words or explanation.

‘Clearing VII’ evokes a strong sense of place- another key feature of Gormley’s art. In this case, the ‘place’ is created inside the gallery with an almost theatrical control and precision. But in other commissions, a works’ relationship to its setting compels the artist to consider a quite different set of priorities. Certain locations possess a unique historical or social footprint; a context that will obviously influence the eventual outcome. Gormley does this thoughtfully and with what appears to be effortless imagination; never lapsing into an overtly literal or didactic interpretation, never lapsing into a ‘one size fits all’ style. He is far too aware of the responsibility of the sculptor to make certain that each work of art seamlessly fits into it’s location and how it must somehow connect with the wider history of that place.

Gormley’s early works offer us glimpses of later themes and preoccupations. ‘Full Bowl’ and ‘Fruits of the Earth’ for example. One truly inventive early work that combines this idea of trace and cast is ‘Mother’s Pride’; in which the artist ate away the exact shape of his own body from a two dimensional lattice framework made of sliced bread.

An entire gallery is given over to ‘Host’. A layer of shallow still water, covering the floor of the otherwise perfectly empty white space, where raw, unformed clay has settled on the bottom. The surface of the water acts to sharply reflect the architecture of the gallery ceiling. The effect of all this is to induce a contemplative state in the viewer, despite the fact you can only observe the work through a small door (and there are loads of people waiting their turn to take a peek). This is an installation designed to still you down.

Not shown in this exhibition is ‘Field’ from the 1990s. Multiple small figures anonymously and crudely worked in clay, gathered by the artist and displayed en masse, packed into a gallery.

Inevitably a work like ‘Field’ asks questions about the nature of authorship and individual creation. Gormley has spoken about ‘Host’ as being the opposite of ‘Field’. It’s water containing the same kind of clay, before it can be formed by human hands. ‘Untouched‘ as the artist says. The clay in ‘Host’ is in it’s natural state, presented as the potential genesis for a work of art. We are also being asked to think about our own physical state. Water and clay from the primordial swamp. From where we originate, to where we are destined to return. The timeless natural processes we see happening within the clay being analogous to those of the life cycle itself.

The sheer scale of ‘Matrix III’ takes your breath away. Each time you approach this vast sculpture, you get a different perspective. It is possible to spend hours immersed within its complicated, repetitive structure. It must be incredibly heavy, yet appears to float like a cloud. ‘Body & Fruit’ on the other hand focuses on the quality of weight. Suspended from tought wires that rise high, through the delicate glass dome on the roof of the Royal Academy (to be held outside our viewpoint by a hidden crane); these large objects look as if they should groan under their own weight, yet don’t. The hypnotic way they gently move; governed by their location in the gallery, an occasional inquisitive touch and the invisible forces of nature at play, keeps one’s attention totally. Recalling Foucault’s Pendulum.

Although a lot of Gormley’s work might at first appear to be solely concerned with timeless questions about the body in its philosophical and material sense; it is worth noting that the artist is also passionate about addressing questions of our own time. For example, his current plans to locate seven sculptures on the coast of Brittany, looking back at Britain in the wake of Brexit. A salutary meditation on the perils of inwardness and self delusion. Easter Island in the 21st Century.

In interviews Gormley is thoughtful, well read and has an infectious enthusiasm. Willing to talk about his ideas and about the general function of art in depth, not just with artistic luminaries, but also with the general public. He speaks of certain works- ancient standing stone circles for example- as reflecting something beyond our own lifetimes. Connecting us with those who came before. Teaching us about the slow burn, planning for the long term.

Although I’ve seen a few negative reviews, overall I found this to be a pretty successful retrospective. It’s not so much dedicated to Gormley’s work beyond the gallery setting (outside and on vast scales all over the world). Nor is it fully representative. But it certainly provides an insight into the artist’s’ creative thinking and practice. Plus of course the works themselves are really special. Its worth mentioning at this point that I have had to be selective about what to comment on (in order to keep the article fairly concise). Because there are so many more interesting and valuable works to be seen in this exhibition,  all that I’ve written is of course only part of the story. I therefore urge you to come and see the rest yourself.

Another thing worth mentioning is that the show is well suited for children to visit. ‘Cave’ in particular offers them the chance to explore and seek adventures; walking through the inside of the building sized ‘body’ occupying the entirety of one of the galleries. In addition to the exhibition itself, details about upcoming events and supporting material are available on the RA website. There’s also some good material to be found on YouTube.

In conclusion, this was a well designed and thought through show with something for everyone. Yet it was on my way out of the Royal Academy that I saw, what was for me, the most moving work of the entire show. You could almost walk past ‘Iron Baby’ without noticing. It’s small size, located on the pavement outside, will have a powerful impact on those who manage to spot it. A cast of the artist’s tiny child, just out of the womb. Fragile, one feels a natural instinct to protect it, keep it safe. At this point, a baby has no experience of life outside their mother. So to juxtapose this naked raw form and cast it out upon the busy London courtyard is a very powerful image indeed. As I left, two little girls were stroking and holding the sculpture. Caring for it.

‘Antony Gormley at the RA’ runs until December 3rd.

(C) Gideon Hall 2019

PS: Rather than include pictures of the exhibition within the text, I have instead included a gallery of images from the show that relate to the text. All pictures taken by me)…