Alan Yentob’s film for the BBC’s Imagine strand last week made a powerful case for Anthony Gormley being one of the most original and profound of British artists at work today. In Antony Gormley: Being Human, Alan Yentob followed the sculptor to recent exhibitions of his work in Paris and Florence, and explored the influences that have shaped his life and work.
Antony Gormley’s career now spans more than forty years, during which the sculptor has been concerned consistently with the human figure, casting metal sculptures, nearly always from his own body, as a means to examine the human condition.
Yentob spoke with Gormley about the high points in this long career, and listened as the sculptor recalled the impact of his Catholic upbringing – and of a moment in his childhood that was to affect his entire approach to his art.
Gormley’s childhood was profoundly Catholic. One of seven children whose parents were devout Catholics, at school he was taught by Benedictine monks. His most striking observation was that his initials, he told Yentob, are AMDG, which he reckones his parents chose for the Latin ‘ad maiorem Dei gloriam’ (‘to the greater glory of God’), which is the motto of the Jesuits. He recalled how, aged 17, he spent several weeks volunteering at Lourdes. The experience led to his first religious doubts as, working with the most disabled pilgrims, he witnessed no miracles.
His most vivid childhood memory – and one that has clearly informed his work as an artist – was of an afternoon in his bedroom. As a young child, his parents insisted on a daily afternoon nap, and there in the sunlit room, with light seeping through the curtains, he was suddenly aware of how we are enclosed in our bodies.
After studying history of art, archaeology and anthropology at Cambridge, he decided to travel to India, travelling the hippie trail, drawn to Buddhism, and losing his Catholic faith. Once, he told Yentob, he was robbed of everything he had and was forced to spend two weeks on the streets of Calcutta.
After returning to England, he embarked on his artistic quest to explore the human condition, specifically through his own body, by applying to his art some of the insights he had gained in India. Touched by the common sight all over India, in the streets and on railway platforms, of people asleep covered by thin cotton saris or dhotis, in 1973 he produced ‘Sleeping Place’ which described the minimum space occupied by a person seeking to establish shelter. It is formed from a plaster-soaked sheet laid over the body of a friend to make a simple hollow shell that is both abstract and yet realistic.
So began forty years of attempting to conveying ‘what it feels like to inhabit a human body when you close your eyes and are inside yourself, in a way that only you can be.’ He has used his own body as the model, subject, and instrument of his art: he became his own object.
Gormley admitted that he could not have achieved this without the assistance of his wife, artist Vicken Parsons, who for the first fifteen years worked as his trusted assistant, totally encasing his film-wrapped body covered in plaster until only his mouth was still connected to the outside world.
Perhaps his most affecting work was Field, the work that began with small hand-held lumps of clay which many volunteers, notably primary school children, formed according to the artist’s direction into tiny human figures with two holes for eyes. Each figure turned out to be touchingly different. Field for the British Isles in 1993 totalled 40,000 figures. I saw it first at Tate Liverpool in 1993, and again in St Helens (where it was created) in 2008. Versions of Field have been created around the world, from Brazil to China and Japan.
Alan Yentob accompanied Gormley to Paris and Florence during preparations for two recent shows. In Paris, in a major show titled Second Body, viewers were able to walk among 60 abstracted humanoid sculptures arranged in four rows, each based on a different pose, and reflecting a new direction in Gormley’s work in which the naturalistic forms of the human body are processed and reassembled using computer techniques.
In Florence Gormley was making preparations for what appeared to be a stunning exhibition of old and new work – carefully-positioned figures in various poses, some alone, some arranged in a processions – simply called Human. The setting was the Forte de Belvedere on the edge of Florence, built by the Medicis in the 16th century. The Forte had only once before staged an exhibition of sculpture – a definitive show of work by Henry Moore in 1972.
The film also featured retrospective discussions of several of his best known works. There was archive footage of the installation of Angel of the North in1998. Standing near to the A1 near Gateshead, it is probably, said Yentob, Britain’s most-seen sculpture (at the time of its installation it was also the largest sculpture in Britain).
Like Another Place on the shore at Crosby, Gormley’s Angel has become almost a place of pilgrimage: its exoskeleton form and the process of its making refer to the industries, skills, and industrial decline of the north. With the recent closure of the last-remaining steelworks in the area at Redcar echoing the traumatic closure of the Consett steel-making plant in 1980 (now replaced by a Tesco Extra), it’s perhaps no accident that the Angel’s pose alludes to a crucifixion.
One of Gormley’s more recent ‘digitised’ forms was installed earlier this year on Lundy Island, and we were taken there to see the how the life size, cast-iron statue, which marks the 50th Anniversary of the Landmark Trust, has been positioned on a granite cliff at the south end of the island, staring out towards the Atlantic Ocean. ‘It’s got to have that sense of irritation,’ mused Gormley about the placing of his piece. ‘But at the same time it’s got to own the place.’
The only test of a well-sited work is that during in the time that it’s there, you can’t think of the place without the object – or the object without the place.
The story of a much earlier work, unfamiliar to me, ‘Sculpture for Derry Walls’ was told by Gormley in the film. Created in1987, it was a three-part sculpture placed in three locations along the city’s 17th-century fortified walls: on the east overlooking the Foyle River, over the Bogside and on the Bastion overlooking the Fountain Estate. These positions marked the religious fault-lines that divided the city.
Each sculpture consisted of two identical cast-iron figures joined back-to-back. They held a cruciform pose and were placed in such a way that one faced into the walled city, while the other was outward-looking. The sculptures therefore suggested Derry’s two main religious communities, turning away from each other, but paradoxically joined as one body, separated by their religious, cultural and political differences, but united in their Christianity and their shared location.
In the film, Gormley explained to Alan Yentob that at the time that he wanted the sculpture to be a ‘poultice, and a benign piece that related to the feelings of the people in that place and their situation’. But that was not how they were received by local people. Putting the statue in place in the city’s Fountain estate proved a ‘pretty hairy’ business, he said. ‘It was right in the middle of the Troubles. We were surrounded by a sullen group of Protestant kids. They were throwing stones and sticks and then spitting on the sculpture. The sculpture was dripping with saliva, the missiles kept coming,’ he said. The work literally had a baptism of fire. Overnight, local teenagers set a bonfire around it.
The final act was throwing a tyre around its neck and then pouring petrol on it. There was this splendid vision the next day of this totemic object that had really been made into a fetish… Red melted plastic was running like blood over the totally black charred head. This was excellent. This was the work as poultice throwing violence and evil onto itself that would otherwise be experienced in other ways.
For Gormley, the fact that his work immediately provoked such a strong reaction was proof that it was working.
A very different mood is evoked by a work which was installed in the crypt of Winchester’s ninth century cathedral in 1986. Over atmospheric film shot during on the regular floods which leave the work standing in several feet of water, Gormley suggested that Sound II ‘speaks of that big unknown: what lies on the other side of the horizon of life.’
We are very lucky to have one of Gormley’s greatest works on our doorstep. In his narration, Alan Yentob spoke of how the emotional impact of a work by Gormley ‘transforms the environment in unexpected ways …from the sea shore to the city skyline’. In the latter case, he was referring to Event Horizon, staged in London in 2007.
In an age in which over half the human population of the planet lives in cities, Gormley hoped that Event Horizon would ‘activate the skyline in order to encourage people to look around’.
In this process of looking and finding, or looking and seeking, one perhaps re-assesses one’s own position in the world. … Isolated against the sky these dark figures look out into space at large asking: Where does the human project fit in the scheme of things?
With Another Place, Gormley’s idea was to ‘test time and tide, stillness and movement, and somehow engage with the daily life of the beach’. It was, he said, ‘no exercise in romantic escapism’. Like the estuary of the Elbe where the work was first located, the Mersey is busy with container ships and ferries every day.
These glimpses of Gormley’s career were interspersed with sequences in which Gormley discussed his work with Alan Yentob, most notably with the pair leaning against pillars in the grounds of the Forte de Belvedere in Florence. In particular they spoke of the work at the centre of the show, Critical Mass.
Gormley had re-arranged earlier pieces in two clusters. In one, a number of his body forms are reassembled in a pile that looks like the aftermath of some genocidal act. In their new form, said Gormley, ‘they bear witness to history – bad history – a foil to any illusion that idealism might be represented by the heroic statue.
Some distance away, other figures are arranged in an orderly line, with a sense of progression:
The breakthrough was realising that the twelve positions of Critical Mass could be shown, in a line, as an evolution of crouching, ground-facing foetal figures to a body standing absolutely erect like a soldier ready to take orders while looking up at the sky.
The work represents a questioning look at aspirations for human perfectibility and the whole idea of progress:
You’ve got to see both sides. You have the illusion of progress, and you have the truth of this pile of matter. Critical Mass began as a meditation on the ubiquity of war, and in a way the normalisation of war. Things haven’t changed much. In fact, it’s been a progress of the infiltration of the theatre of war into civilian life. Now, in certain parts of the world we don’t know whether a child is just a child – or a child and a bomb.
Yentob also asked Gormley about his extraordinary response to being awarded the commission for the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square in 2009. Instead of installing an object, his One & Other handed over the platform to individual members of the public to do as they willed – one person an hour for one hundred days.
The idea is very simple. Through putting a person onto the plinth, the body becomes a metaphor, a symbol. In the context of Trafalgar Square with its military, valedictory and male historical statues, this elevation of everyday life to the position formerly occupied by monumental art allows us to reflect on the diversity, vulnerability and particularity of the individual in contemporary society. It’s about people coming together to do something extraordinary and unpredictable.
Pressed by Yentob, he reluctantly admitted that his favourite intervention was that of a young crouching woman, an agoraphobic, who buried her head in her arms, only occasionally looking out at the crowd. For an artist whose work is predicated on the physical form of the human body, with the goal of encouraging us to look inward, One & Other represented in living, physical form his artistic aspirations.
Antony Gormley: Being Human was a fine film from Alan Yentob and the Imagine team: a profound and moving portrait of a substantial and original artist that revealed much about the influences on his work, his artistic skill, and the convictions that have defined his artistic career. For now at least, the entire show can be viewed on YouTube:
Antony Gormley also provided the conclusion to this autumn’s fine BBC series from Simon Schama, The Face of Britain, in which he explored the history of British portraiture, looking at some really compelling images in British art and examining the varied ways portraiture has been used to make a statement.
The last programme in the series, ‘The Face in the Mirror’, was about self-portraits, with Schama examining work that included William Orpen’s paintings during the First World War to see what they reveal about the artists who produced them.
The episode ended with Schama on Crosby beach, looking at Gormley’s Another Place and discussing it as a self-portrait that looks ‘not inward, but outward to the world’. This was Schama at his absolute best, magisterial, incisive, and deeply humane.
On the very western edge of Britain is a beach, at Crosby sands. To walk this deserted coast ought to be a lonely experience. But here you are never alone. Spread over two miles are a hundred iron figures, each one identical, each one staring impassively to the great beyond. Together they form an installation of self-portrait sculptures by one of Britain’s most visionary artists.
This is the body of Antony Gormley, cast in iron and then reproduced on an industrial scale. You would think that when an artist takes a cast of his own body and then plasters a beach near Liverpool with over a hundred clones it would be the ultimate ego trip.
But that’s not the way we read Antony Gormley’s figures, because they are faceless, they become an emblem of the human condition, not of A. Gormley,esq.
They’re planted there on the edge of the earth, on the rim of the land, facing the ocean. So something that begins physically as a self-portrait becomes a symbol of humanity. These are very, very poignant figures.
An individual self-portrait is now dissolved, featureless, into the universal human condition. These iron men, standing for all of us, seem oddly, touchingly, skinless, vulnerable, forever worked on by time and tide.
But there they stand, as must we, not masters of the earth, not separate from the physical world, but inevitably and fully part of it.
These figures are not just Gormley; they’re really all of us. This is the self-portrait made plural, made collective, forever as the tide comes in, disappearing in the water, re-emerging. Coming from and going back into the element from which we all came.
- The Face of Britain: BBC website
- The Face of Britain: National Portrait Gallery website
- From masterpieces to selfies: Simon Schama on portraits of a nation (FT)