Antony Gormley on Sculpture

Antony Gormley on Sculpture


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One of the most exciting sculptors of our time, Antony Gormley is the creator of breathtaking public installations. Even casual fans will recognize Event Horizon, a collection of thirty-one life-size casts of the artist’s body that have been installed atop buildings in places like London’s South Bank and New York’s Madison Square, and Field, formed by tens of thousands of standing clay figurines overflowing across a room’s floor. Projects like these demonstrate Gormley’s ongoing interest in exploring the human form and its relationships with the rest of the material world, and in Antony Gormley on Sculpture, he shares valuable insight into his work and the history of sculpture itself.

Combining commentary on his own works with discussions of other artists and the Eastern religious traditions that have inspired him, Gormley offers wisdom on topics such as the body in space, how to approach an environment when conceiving an installation, bringing mindfulness and internal balance to sculpture, and much more. Lavishly illustrated, this book will be of interest to not only art lovers, curators, and critics, but also artists and art students. Dynamic and thought-provoking, Antony Gormley on Sculpture is essential reading for anyone fascinated by sculpture and its long and complex history as a medium.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226317823
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 10/19/2015
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 263,234
Product dimensions: 7.00(w) x 8.70(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Antony Gormley is a sculptor and installation artist based in London. Knighted in 2014 for his service to the arts, he is an honorary doctor of the University of Cambridge and a fellow of Trinity and Jesus Colleges, Cambridge. Mark Holborn is an editor at Random House in London.

Read an Excerpt



In 1979 I went back to the place where Walter De Maria made his parallel chalk line drawings in Arizona. The work of De Maria, Robert Smithson and Richard Serra, and their place in American art, was critical for me, as was the engagement of body with material and place, irrespective of image-making. Here, I simply threw a hand-sized stone as far as I could, cleared all the stones within that radius, made a pile that I stood on, and then I threw them out again.

You can see from the photographs that I made a huge difference to the topography! You can just see, in the middle of this picture, where the pile was. There's a kind of absent body there. All of these stones are radiating outwards only as far as I was able to throw. This is the action of a living, willing, feeling body on other bodies, which has made a displacement in space. I offer it to you as an image but for me it was an experience. The question of how the action of a human body, potentially, gives affordance to other bodies interests me. What kind of space mentally, physically, imaginatively does it transmit to others?

We have to test our environment, both built and elemental. We are the only animals that choose to live in an environment that is entirely articulated through Euclidean geometry, but at what cost?

This is Learning to Think (1991), sited in an old prison in South Carolina. The idea of breaking or rupturing the assumption about the permanence, or indeed the use value, of the architectural conditions in which we live, is a function of sculpture. Sculpture 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. You could say this is bilateral work. On one hand it recalls the lynchings that were so much a part of the life of this prison and the history of early America, but it is also about the potential of shared imagination: the realm of the mind that is free of the condition of a body in space. We exist in space, but space also exists in us.

This is an early work, Full Bowl (1977–78). It sits in your hand. The space that is inside the tiny little bowl at the centre of the work has a resonance with the space that surrounds the bowl; it is a continuum. The work is an examination of the arbitrary nature of skins and edges. If art has been so obsessed with the way light falls on objects and rendering a cogent approximation of the way that this is conveyed to the retina (and lastly celebrated in Impressionism), then is there a way that art can go behind the skin of things? This examination of form and content, of regarding or managing to make an 'objective correlative' account of the indeterminacy of edges, of limits, is very important to me throughout the work. I think we limit ourselves by being obsessed by the way things look.

This three-piece work is Land, Sea and Air II (1982). It is an early attempt to try to make this memory of a real body connect, not to the white cube of a gallery or the context of an exhibition, but to the elemental world: to land, to sea, to air, and to link each of those elements with a physical posture and to link that physical posture to a perception. The work Land is a carapace pierced with holes at the ears, listening to the ground. Sea is the first work I made that opens the possibility of a sculpture as a body relating to the horizon. It has its eyes open, looking out to sea. Air is an empty plaster mould covered with lead, a body case with nostrils open. Lead is a wonderful insulator – against liquid or sound leakage, against radioactivity. Each of these works shares a prominent repeated horizontal every 71/2 inches: there is a horizontal line (think of Replaced Rock), a repeated contour line that unites each of these pieces in a common spatial matrix. These two ideas – not taking the skin of things as a limit, and the power of immersing a culturally made object in the elements – I have put to work again and again.

This is Lorraine Williams, a fifty-five-year-old Wangatha woman from Menzies in Western Australia, scanned by a digital body scanner and her body then reduced laterally by 66.66 per cent recurring. The breasts have been re-attached to the body by a bridge and, equally, the arms to the torso, but otherwise everything is the result of analytic process. Here is Lorraine in the scanner with her feet more or less parallel. I asked all the participants to do this so that they could concentrate on something and allow the set of their physical bodies to be transferred into a digital record. A physical rendering of the work was then placed in the middle of a chemical landscape, Lake Ballard in Western Australia, in 2003. This is another horizontal field, another abstract body field.

Interestingly, soon after placing the sculpture of Lorraine within this site she was decorated with red ochre from the lake; a clear sign of some kind of energy field around her. She was just one of fifty-one sculptures placed on this lake and in a sea of salt. When I talk about a relational field and a translation from the representational to the reflexive, I am talking about the connectivity principle that allows your own trajectory to make connections between these inert masses. With this work, for the first time, this was illustrated: the participation of the viewer was registered by the traces left on this receptive surface.

I want to share with you the experience of being on the lake in a temperature of 42 degrees Celsius with zero degrees humidity. You have to drink 2 litres of water an hour. You move across a surface as taut as a drum, crunching through the crystallized sodium into the red mud. Because of its absolute flatness and whiteness this place allows you to be proprioceptive, to be aware of your own place in space and in time. It is your memory of the last sculpture you saw that makes the connection with the next as you make the 200 or so metre journey between them. At the same time you contribute to the work by leaving this trace: an emergent drawing that makes a matrix of connections across the site. These sculptures are so far apart you can hardly see them. They hang like hairs on the horizon, and as you walk towards them they realize themselves to you.

I like to exploit the uncertainty principle at the very edge of perception. The sculptures hover like a mirage on the horizon. Here this concentrated material memory of a particular human body in space becomes a focus for your loss of orientation on a flat surface that seems to extend infinitely. This particular work is 4 kilometres from the shore of the lake. It's a seven-year-old child, and if we think back to Full Bowl, it makes a concentrated black hole in human form, exposed to space at large.

The question for me is how can you make these bodies work? How can you transfer the representational, traditional function of the statue into reflexivity? Here is the sculpture that I gave the Royal Academy as my diploma work. It has been permanently installed in the Archaeology Department at the University of Cambridge. It's called Earthbound: Plant (2002), a 650-kilogram sculpture buried entirely in the ground and the only thing you see is the soles of the feet. You can stand on the feet and the sculpture becomes like a materialized shadow. This is a way of activating that democratizing horizontal that we take so little notice of – the ground beneath our feet.

This is me during a typical day in the studio. I'm not doing very much. I am a still point in a moving world where my assistants are fixing this moment of a real body in real time. This is important. This is the truth claim of my work. My work is not expressionist; it does not come from arbitrary abstraction, but is rooted in a particular example of a human experience of embodiment. It is offered back to the world as a displacement, hopefully with some affordance.

The State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg is the treasure house of the Russian Empire, where the spoils of war and of revolutionary expropriation are displayed. The building houses 4,582,039 objects. We are, perhaps, aware of their exchange value but I am more interested in their use value. If Einstein's specific theory of relativity of 1905 holds that mass and energy are interchangeable, and if the general theory of relativity of 1915 places that thesis in a gravitational field, then what I want to look at today is an examination of a common ground in which the shared field of objects in space could be termed an open space of art. Both Newton and Einstein defined objects as bodies, the shared condition of both life and sculpture. Is there, in the abstraction of the horizontal that links the floor with the horizon, some way in which the exchange value of the object in space can be transmuted into a use value?

So E=mc2, mass and energy defined by the speed of light. We are all moving bodies in space with the capacity for thought, will and feeling. Sculpture is no longer about the representation of power and about how a person might express their wealth or power. It is about how we might understand our own embodiment in both space and time. The exhibition Still Standing (2011–12) engages with the classical galleries at the Hermitage and alters the viewer's normal passage through the historical objects. Nine classical statues are placed directly on the ground, to share the same conditions as the viewer. Seventeen solid iron blockworks are then positioned in an orthogonal arrangement in the Small Classical Courtyard, their abstract and modernist forms contrasting with the classical architecture of the interior space.

Still Standing is an experiment. It is an experiment in which about 61/2 tonnes of iron is transposed into a voided classical gallery, displacing space and inviting bodies to interact. This moment is an experiment. What is an experiment? To see if experience can produce understanding. Understanding is not necessarily knowledge. Understanding comes from tuning into our body, rather than the hermeneutics that human beings have got so good at – the translation of experience into language. My return to the body is not about representation, it is an attempt to engage the total sensorium of consciousness. This transition from body as representation to body as space is a translation from representation to reflexivity. Why such a radical change? Because modernism failed. The vision of the pioneers of modernity – Mondrian, Malevich, Tatlin, Kandinsky, Brancusi and others – which liberated art into a formal purity that could touch people irrespective of race, creed or language, failed. It failed because it was inadequately common and inadequately linked to experience. So, in bringing the body back, the exhibition at the Hermitage is an experiment that puts forward a precise proposition. I have reinterpreted the body in the language of modernity, in which architecture and Malevich are perhaps more relevant than the early cubism of Braque and Picasso. I have used the 'orthogonal', rational geometry of architecture and binary information to map the space of the body. Why? Because I am hoping that at the junction of modernity and the body (which was rejected by modernism), some new theme or possibility might arise, perhaps some new perception of our being in space and time. Now, you might say this is all very abstract and inflated but that is why the exhibition is happening and why it is an experiment and not a 'finished' work of art.

The museum, in which the objects of power are hoarded, is an environment in which some people find it difficult to relate to the work and release the potential energy that constitutes any contact with art. My introduction of a false floor (originally I wanted to bring the floor up to 1.10 metres, the average height of the plinths) is a reciprocal action; idealized gods brought down to earth and the public brought to stand with the gods on a common ground. This is critical both as a philosophical proposition and a physical experience. By denying the easy equation of elevation and the elevated value of classical sculpture, we are forced to see these things as humanly made objects and witness the action of time upon them. The museum establishes its authority through the power of labels, of necessary distance. This is the 'short-circuiting' of true response through the patronizing translation of objects into information. I want empathy. Eros and his left index finger is not something that has to be protected by a velvet rope or do not touch labels; it is replaced by a natural protectiveness for a body roughly the same size as a young boy. The labelling of an object cuts us off from the ability to key into our own, intimate, fragile and therefore precious response. Sculpture can be a catalyst for first-hand experience; experience of the object and through it of being itself. What is a catalyst? An inert chemical that induces a reaction. That is what I would like the work, both classical and contemporary, to do here. The emergent behaviours necessary for this kind of engagement have to be developed and the behaviours enforced by the plinth have to be reformed. I am delighted to hear that people are lying on the floor next to the blockworks, trying to physically understand them by putting themselves into those positions.

Art is no longer about power and privilege, but participation. There is a much bigger issue here to do with whether, and how, human creativity can evolve and what our intelligence, feeling and will can do for the evolution of life on this planet. I am very aware that this exhibition is a small part of something very exciting: the increasing involvement of the former Soviet bloc in the evolution of art that is communicated to a wide world while changing the nature of the art world itself. The Moscow Biennale is one indication of a new and dynamic player on the international scene and this movement is getting more and more exciting as increasing numbers of artists, thinkers, critics and curators are getting involved.

The project here was an invitation to think about how that human activity of making ourselves again in mineral material represents both continuity and transformation. It is very important that the roughness and the rustiness of these iron objects stands in complete contrast to the rhetoric of the architecture that surrounds them. In that respect I want the work to make you think about the room that they are in, and your position in that room. I hope the two rooms of the exhibition are like twins, or like a battery with two zinc plates. The consistent floor material of these rooms allows you to think about your body in space but, also, because of the specific nature and the age of the classical works and the contemporary nature of my work, to be aware of your body in time too.

I love museums and they are very particular places in which thought and object come together in an interesting way. The issue for me is how you energize things. Museums can become catalogues of objects that are examples of a culture rather than actually acting on it in a dynamic and direct way. The objects in such a museum are in danger of losing their phenomenological power. The idea of a museum as a warehouse of booty or treasure is really very sad. Each object is trying to tell us, in its own way, about our human history and our need to make things. At the Hermitage it was very important to me to put the viewer on the same level as the maker. We have become so used to seeing a sculpture on an elevated platform. For an observer, a body living now that is trying to relate to this thing two thousand years or so after it was made, standing in the same position as the sculptor did when making it is a good place to start.

Horizon Field (2010–12) is a work situated over an area of 150 square kilometres in the Alps. There are a hundred body forms: seventeen moulds of my body taken over an eight-month period. Like the works in the Hermitage, they are made of cast iron and weigh about 650 kilograms each. They form an exact horizontal. Like the floor in the classical sculpture gallery, this horizontal, located at 2,039 metres above sea level, gives us a new perspective on bodies in space. Here you can see a living body on skis moving between two iron bodies that stare out into space. Our bodies move through this horizontal plane, at times seeing the sculptural bodies against the light, sometimes against earth, sometimes against snow.


Excerpted from "Antony Gormley On Sculpture"
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Copyright © 2015 Antony Gormley.
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