Watched a repeat last night of the Channel 4 documentary, Antony Gormley: Making Space, having first seen it a couple of years ago. Beeban Kidron’s film was well worth a second view, following Gormley over a nine month period as he made work for his Blind Light exhibition at the Hayward Gallery.
We saw Gormley attempting to create a cloud in a box, into which visitors would be invited to disappear, and creating the casts from his own body for the figures to be placed on rooftops around the gallery – Event Horizon.
Departing from the use of traditional materials for sculpture, such as marble or bronze, he uses a plaster cast of his own body to produce a body-cast covered in lead or cast in iron. The aim of Gormley’s work is to unite the internal world of the mind and sensations with the external world of feeling. His figures engage in a stillness and slowness and it is through their physical presence that Gormley tries ‘to make concrete that life that goes on within the head’
‘I want to deal with existence and I want to use my own existence.’
Gormley argues, that by turning to the body he hopes to find a source, ‘that will transcend the limitations of race, creed and language, but which will still be about the rootedness of life’. The human body, and its relationship to the space around it, has been the central motif of the works which have propelled Gormley to be acclaimed by many as Britain’s greatest living sculptor.
Gormley likes to play with scale, a word he prefers to size. Confronted by his work Field, in which a huge room was packed with more than 40,000 tiny terracotta figures, we are all Gullivers; gazing up at the 66ft-high Angel, we are all Lilliputians. Gormley works on epic canvasses, such as the Western Australian desert, where his isolated metal figures appear out of the blistering heat, yet it all begins with his own 6ft 4in body smeared in baby oil, wrapped in cling-film, covered in dental plaster and forming the required position until it sets hard, breathing through straws stuffed up his nostrils or a tiny mouth-hole.
– David Smith, The Observer
The best bit of the film comes when Gormley hears that Sefton Council have decided that the 100 iron men of Another Place must be removed from the beach at Crosby following pressure from the ‘cod lobby’. As the campaign grows to save the work for Merseyside, which had grown to love the installation, Gormley reflects on the meaning of his large-scale works:
[Another Place] is one of my most significant works…it was an experiment, it’s now proved that it works…We have to have, in the shared bits of the world, things…that are not just about convenience, not jus about the cause and effect of daily life….Culture is not real culture unless it is shared. Every human being has the potential of being touched by poetry, every human being has the potential to be not only an observer of the picture, but to be in the picture…that’s why it matters. I’m trying to put art back where it belongs in a world it should never have left.
The argument for retaining Another Place is, of course, eventually won. Gormley has said of the work: ‘The place made the piece. [It represents] the place we imagine when we want to escape. Each body form had to have its own ‘arena’ – be alone and be together’.
In the film Gormley reveals that it was ancient Egypt which gave him the desire to sculpt during childhood Saturday afternoons spent in the British Museum: ‘ Egypt is the benchmark of sculpture. They set, in a way, a measure of determination in the language of sculpture that I think has never been bettered … there’s no question I’m trying to make the contemporary equivalent.’
He was the youngest of seven children, raised by a German mother and Irish father, a millionaire who ran the first pharmaceutical company to sign a contract with Alexander Fleming for the commercial production of penicillin. His parents were such devout Catholics that the family prayed in the dark. His father also meted out beatings, but Gormley insists it was a happy childhood. On the beach at Crosby he reflects on the importance of his Catholic upbringing, noting that the human body is conspicuous. ‘I think Christian iconography is quite obsessed, in a masochistic way, with the suffering body. I would like to think I’ve escaped from that and my bodies are a celebration of the fact we are spirits in a material world or consciousness in matter.’
His father was also an art lover and often took his children to galleries after mass. Gormley was sent to Ampleforth, the Benedictine boarding school in Yorkshire, where he won all the art prizes and proceeded to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he read archeology, anthropology and history of art. After graduating in the Sixties he spent time travelling in India where he became fascinated with the way people slept on streets or railway platforms, often under cotton blankets with a pair of sandals or transistor radios against their heads. ‘It was very beautiful to see this public declaration of the sanctity and fragility of life,’ he said. They directly inspired his first sculptures, in which his friends lay under sheets dipped in plaster.
Gormley achieved public prominence with Field, which won him the Turner Prize in 1994. Four years later, when the Angel of the North was commissioned by the city of the Gateshead, sceptics questioned why the money was not being spent on hospitals, but since it was unveiled an estimated 90,000 people a day have seen Angel of the North, making it Britain’s most famous piece of public art. Standing on the site of an old colliery in Gateshead, the towering steel sculpture pays tribute to the industrial heritage of the North East.