Entering the Antony Gormley exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts is almost like walking onto a construction site. Full of dense, hard-edged steel slabs, visitors navigate around building-like constructions to get to the next room. Overwhelmed by the stark, geometric shapes, it is easy to miss the human forms that the sculptures are representing. Open until 3rd December 2019, the human body plays a large role in Gormley’s latest exhibition in ways you would least expect.
Unlike most solo exhibitions, there is no history of Gormley’s life or 45-year career. There is no explanation about his style of work or artistic movement. Instead, the only story in the exhibition is the one visitors bring with them. With many interactive exhibits, Gormley’s aim is for everyone to come away with unique, individual experiences. He invites people to slow down, become more aware of their bodies and rethink their understanding of the connection between body and mind.
Sir Antony Mark David Gormley was born on 30th August 1950, the youngest of seven children to a German mother and Irish father. Growing up in the suburbs of London, Gormley attended the Benedictine boarding school Ampleforth College in North Yorkshire before enrolling at Trinity College, Cambridge to study archaeology, anthropology and the history of art. Despite being brought up in a Roman Catholic family, Gormley travelled to India and Sri Lanka to learn more about Buddhism. On return from his time abroad, he began attending Saint Martin’s School of Art and Goldsmiths in London, finally completing a postgraduate course in sculpture at the Slade School of Fine Art.
Whilst at the Slade, Gormley met his future assistant and, as of 1980, wife, Vicken Parsons (b.1957). The couple have since been blessed with two sons and a daughter, the latter was the inspiration for the first sculpture in the exhibition. Situated on the floor of the courtyard where anyone could trip over it is a small iron cast of a newborn baby. Cast from Gormely’s 6-week old daughter, the life-size baby is made from the same material as the core of planet Earth. Gormley aims to make visitors aware of our “precarious position in relation to our planetary future.” The curled up body of the baby represents a need for shelter, comfort and peace.
Antony Gormley’s career began with a solo exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1981. The majority of his sculptures were based on the human body, often cast from his physique. In 2006, with the help of 350 Chinese villagers, Gormley submitted an installation of 180,000 small clay figures to the 2006 Sydney Biennale and in 2007, 31 life-size casts of his body were installed on top of public buildings along the South Bank of the River Thames.
Gormley began making cubist sculptures in 2012, similar to the Slabworks installed in the first room of the exhibition. Despite being made of geometric shapes, each sculpture is positioned in the vague shapes of human bodies, whether standing, sitting, curled up or lying down. Those visitors who are unaware of the significance of the shapes could be forgiven for mistaking them to be the layout of cityscapes, ourselves being giants navigating our way around them, careful not to cause any disruption or damage.
Gormley won the Turner Prize in 1994 for Field for the British Isles, which consisted of 35,000 miniature figures, which is in keeping with his fascination of the human body. Of course, Gormley is most famous for his Angel of the North, one of the UK’s most famous public art sculptures located in Gateshead, Tyne and Wear. Constructed from steel, the angel is 20 metres (66 feet) tall with large geometric wings spanning 54 metres (177 feet).
Not all of Gormley’s work involves representations of the human body. The second room of the exhibition explores some of his earlier works produced in the 1970s and early 80s. During this time, Gormley experimented with different materials and everyday items, for example, an apple. His installation One Apple bisects the room with a row of 53 lead cases of increasing size. The cases record the growth of an apple from the first fallen petal to the ripening of the fruit. Originally constructed during the Cold War, Gormley used lead to encase the individual pieces for two reasons; one, it was an easy, malleable material to work with and, two, it is a material that can insulate against radiation. Gormley’s reason for wrapping objects in protective material is to make people think about how they wrap and protect their own bodies.
Gormley’s most unconventional choice of material is arguably the bread he used to construct Mother’s Pride in 1982. Reconstructed for the fifth time for this exhibition, the shape of a curled-up body has been cut out of a hundred or so wax-covered slices of bread. The edges of the figure are jagged, suggesting the artist has eaten the bread to achieve the result. By consuming food, we keep our body alive. In this instance, the foetal position of the figure could suggest a baby in a mother’s womb; therefore, the mother is eating to keep both herself and the child within alive and well.
Overhead, a highly tensioned steel bar zips across the room and into another where it meets a second bar going in a different direction. A third bar travels from the ceiling to the floor, completing an abstract notion of the x, y and z-axes on a graph. Gormley’s aim to heighten our awareness of our position in space and time. Wherever we go, our location can be pinpointed using the horizontal and vertical lines on a graph to plot the coordinates.
Visitors become part of the exhibition on entering the third room. Full from ceiling to floor and wall to wall with a continuous eight-kilometre coil of aluminium wire, visitors must navigate their way through to reach the next room. The curls of wire feel like a three-dimensional representation of a child’s energetic scribble. As a sculpture, Clearing VII has no boundaries, the walls of the room are the only parameters; had the room been bigger or smaller, the result would have a completely different look.
By entering the bundle of wire, visitors become part of the installation as they physically negotiate their way through. Bending under, side-stepping and climbing over low sections, a path is eventually navigated through to the room on the opposite side. If the wires are likened to confusion, the journey through them represents the way we solve the problem. The tighter the coils, the harder the problem.
Having traversed the wire-filled room, the next sculpture is a bit of an anticlimax. Subject II is a single life-size body constructed from tightly packed steel bars. With its head bent, contemplating the ground on which it stands, the sculpture is studied from all sides as people make their way around it. Due to the varying horizontal and verticle segments, the sculpture appears to change its appearance when looked at from different positions. Then it is back through the eight-kilometres of wire to reach the next room of the exhibition.
As well as completed sculptures, the exhibition features four decades worth of Gormley’s preliminary work. Hundreds of sketchbooks fill display cases revealing the thought processes and drawings Gormley made before sourcing materials and making his ideas reality. Several of the sculptures on display can be recognised in the sketchbooks as well as other works, such as Angel of the North.
Rather than detailed sketches, Gormley prefers to make rough scribbles. It is more important for him to get his thoughts down on paper than it is to produce accurate representations. Except for this exhibition, Gormley’s sketchbooks are for his eyes only; the presentation of the drawings are irrelevant.
The drawings show the progression of Gormley’s thoughts and the realisation of the outcome. The more developed sketches contain notes of materials and sizes that will be used to construct the sculptures. Not all of Gormley’s final pieces are constructed solely by himself, for instance, his Turner Prize-winning Field for the British Isles, for which he enlisted the help of 60 Mexican brickmakers.
Matrix III is an example of a sculpture that needed input from assistants. The “perpetual maze” consists of 21 intersecting cages suspended from the ceiling. Each cage is roughly the size of an average European bedroom, however, it is impossible to work out where each cage begins and ends.
“I’m trying to activate the space itself in such a way that the viewer’s body becomes activated.”
– Antony Gormley
Once again, the sculpture relies on the viewer’s curiosity and personal interpretation. By walking around it, or even under it, the perspective of the interlocking mesh changes. Gormley’s idea was to visually show the effect an increasing population is having on architecture. With high-rise buildings and blocks of flats being built left, right and centre, we as a society are beginning to live on top of each other. Gormley is asking, “what does that mean for our collective identity?”
The six-tonnes of standard steel mesh is usually used to reinforce concrete walls and lift shafts. As Gormley says, “This rebar is the inner skeleton of the environment we live in.” By only using the densely latticed steel, Gormley has stripped a growing city to its bare bones.
The eeriest installation is hands-down Lost Horizon I. Gormley began to work with cast iron, which was suitable for works situated outside. Lost Horizon I consists of dozens of iron casts of the artist’s body. Covering himself in plaster, Gormley spent hours staying still to produce six different moulds. The iron versions have been placed around the room, climbing the walls and standing on the ceiling.
Entering the room, visitors are instantly met by an imposing naked iron man. With slightly rusted appearances, the others come into view as the crowds make their way through the installation. Some people may be familiar with Gormley’s iron men since these are not the first he has produced. Many life-size figures have been placed in deserts, fields, cities and beaches around the world. One, for example, stands in the sea in Margate, Kent, which gradually becomes hidden as the tide comes in.
The largest exhibit in terms of architectural scale is titled Cave. This is another interactive sculpture, which involves visitors making a choice: enter a constricted passageway or navigate around the outside. Those who brave entering the “cave” have to stoop to walk through a pitch-black corridor from one side of the sculpture to the middle and eventually through to the other side.
Gormley is attempting to recreate the darkness we experience when we close our eyes. We become fully aware of our bodies and the walls around us, however, we need to rely on our imagination and intuition to determine where we are in the room. Gormley likens this to cosmic space: we are bounded by our bodies on Earth yet, although we cannot go there, we can imagine the endlessness of space.
Those who opt to walk around the outside of the cave, navigate around rectangular and cuboid chunks of steel, intersected at chaotic angles. What they may not realise, however, is that if viewed from above, the shapes are arranged to look like a human form curled up on its side. In the next room, small sculptures of precariously stacked pieces of clay are laid out to produce a similar shape. In Gormley’s sketchbooks, visitors can see the thought process that went into making these sculptures.
The final room of the exhibition can only be viewed from the doorway. Titled Host, the entire room is flooded with seawater on a bed of clay. Gormley calls this an “invasion of the inside by the outside,” resulting in something beautiful, yet destructive. Unlike the rest of the exhibition, which involves structure and man-made materials, Host only uses organic elements. The walls of the gallery are the only thing giving the “sculpture” any shape.
This exhibit changes throughout the day as the natural light darkens towards the evening. The water level may recede as the months go on, gradually being absorbed into the clay. The smell of the seawater and the stark contrast of the nineteenth-century gallery also play a role in the way visitors react to the exhibit.
Is Host a work of art or is it a form of destruction? What will the state of the room be like when the exhibition closes in December? Will the floor and walls be damaged – one assumes there must be some form of protection in place. Is the water representing a flood, the destruction of the world; or is it the total opposite, a creation of some sort? There is no explanation, only the interpretation of each individual peering through the door.
It is interesting to see the different reactions of people passing by the entrance to the room. Some take a glance and move on, whereas others stop and stare for a little while. It is impossible to determine what they are thinking but many are no doubt captivated by the reflection of the wooden door in the water. It is not a reflection you often get to see in seawater.
Host marks the end of the Antony Gormley exhibition and people are thrust out into the gift shop with thoughts ranging from “wow” to “what on earth was that about?” Having been a Royal Academician since 2003 and an OBE since 2014, Gormley had hundreds of works to choose between to display in the exhibition and, presumably, these are some of his best or at least most thought-provoking.
It is impossible to sum up the Antony Gormley exhibition. You do not come away having learnt something, you still know next to nothing about the artist. Has Gormley achieved what he set out to do; have we been inspired to self-reflect and challenge the status quo?
“Art becomes this proposition that invites you to rethink what the world is, and your position in it. In the end, the raw material of this exhibition is the psyche, the bodies, the people who come and indeed the feeling that they make together. That is not something that can be moulded or carved or cast, and that’s what makes the whole thing worth doing, because I want to move people. Can we care? Can we look at things anew?”
– Antony Gormley
The Antony Gormley exhibition is open until 3rd December 2019. Tickets are priced between £18 and £22. Please note that some exhibits are not suitable for people sensitive to enclosed spaces or those with mobility problems.