Antony Gormley: Being Human

Antony Gormley: Being Human

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. Continue reading “Antony Gormley: Being Human”

Uncommon Ground at Yorkshire Sculpture Park: ‘looking hard at real things’

<em>Uncommon Ground</em> at Yorkshire Sculpture Park: ‘looking hard at real things’

After seeing the profound and meditative works by Ai Weiwei in the chapel at Yorkshire Sculpture Park last week, I spent some time looking at the current exhibition in the Longside Gallery there: Uncommon Ground: Land Art in Britain 1966 – 1979. Continue reading Uncommon Ground at Yorkshire Sculpture Park: ‘looking hard at real things’”

Blowing in the Boxing Day wind

Boxing Day and we join the confederacy of dog walkers, joggers and Christmas sofa escapees on Crosby waterfront.  The plan when we left home was a bracing stroll along the beach, meandering between Anthony Gormley’s iron men.

It was not to be – the tide was in, and the wind, which in the city had been no more than breezy, was a here an ear-deafening, body-battering roar.  The waves pounded the promenade, sending spray  far into the dunes beyond.

Skeins of geese headed south, hugging the estuary coastline, working hard to hold their course as the wind buffeted them towards the land. In the distance the cranes of Seaforth docks and the towers of the city glinted silver in the sunlight.

It was a fine morning; away from the wind the day was mild, and has been so for several days – a stark contrast with the icy temperatures this time last year.  The air was clear and the views across the estuary towards the Wirral and the Welsh hills were sharp as a knife.

Looking at these photos now I think: this could be somewhere remote – the Scottish islands, perhaps – rather than a place barely ten miles from a city centre.  Only the turning blades of the wind turbines out on the horizon hint at something different.

It’s not often that we’ve seen it like this at Crosby.  We always seem to arrive when the tide is out and the iron men of Gormley’s Another Place stand erect along the sands – go compare.

Returning to the city and the other reality of the newspapers is a reminder of what else might be blowing in the wind as we edge towards 2012.  Assessing the crisis in the eurozone, Aditya Chakrabortty writes in The Guardian that something pretty scary lies in wait on 1 February:

It is almost certain that 2012 is going to be worst year yet for the eurozone. Easily the worst financially, terrible economically and increasingly grim politically.

A good rule of thumb in this crisis is that when a European state pays more to borrow than an ordinary taxpayer shells out for a bank loan, the government eventually has to call in the rescue brigade. For much of November, Italy was borrowing at a rate of 7% – and probably the only thing that has kept interest rates from going higher still is that the European Central Bank (ECB) has been buying Rome’s IOUs.

In other words, the markets trust the Italian state – with its own tax-raising powers – less than it does a couple in Kettering who’d quite like a new kitchen. Which, given that Italy plans to roll over more than €360bn (£310bn) of debt next year, is hardly sustainable for the new prime minister Mario Monti. Indeed, on 1 February, Rome will have to either repay or renew €28bn of loans. Even now, no one has the faintest idea how it will do that.

Over the next couple of months, Italy’s crisis can go one of three ways: either the ECB keeps on buying its bonds, with the blessing of northern-European voters and markets; or ECB head Mario Draghi pledges to fund financially distressed eurozone governments; or Rome gives in and calls for a bail-out. If the last even looks likely, financiers will almost certainly panic that Italy is about to default on its debt. With about a third of the country’s bonds held abroad, this could wreak chaos in world markets – including in Britain, which is by far the biggest foreign owner of BTPs. That’s the sort of event Barack Obama has in mind when he remarks that Europe’s crisis is “scaring the world”.

In the same paper, David Lammy, MP for Tottenham, offers a precis of his book on the summer riots, Out of the Ashes, in which he, too, has a grim prediction for 2012:

In the inner-cities, lighting does strike twice – ask Brixton, Toxteth and Tottenham. Last summer’s riots have been swept under a very big, eurozone-shaped carpet. All the while, the fundamentals of the disorder remain unchanged. Hopelessness still permeates the estates of concentrated poverty and worklessness. People who have no stake in society are the least likely to have respect for it. And those with the least to lose are invariably the first to throw the brick. There is a very real chance the riots will repeat themselves in 2012.

In a nutshell his argument is that the riots were the consequence of ‘two revolutions’, one social and cultural the second economic:

The riots signposted the failure of successive governments to deal with two liberal revolutions: a 1960s social revolution and a 1980s economic revolution. Together they made Britain a wealthier and more tolerant place. But these two revolutions, built around notions of personal freedom, sell Britain short unless they are moderated by other forces. The riots were a reminder that, whether we like it or not, we are heavily dependent on one another. A good life depends on the strength of our relationships with family, friends, neighbours, colleagues and strangers.

Lammy’s conclusion is that  ‘we cannot live in a society in which banks are too big to fail but whole communities are allowed to sink without trace’.

 

Horizon Field by Antony Gormley

Horizon Field by Antony Gormley

Map a horizontal line at 2,039 metres above sea level.  Mark it with a hundred lifesize, cast-iron figures placed in isolated locations, some nearly impossible to reach.  This is the latest and last of Antony Gormley’s field experiments – multiple statues of the artist placed in cities and landscapes to act as ‘silent witnesses’.  These stunning images are from a gallery at The Guardian website. The text is extracted from the accompanying Guardian feature.

Horizon Field is one of the most ambitious of his projects and has taken five years to pull off: 100 cast iron versions of Gormley carefully winched by helicopters into the deep summer green countryside of the Austrian Alps, all precisely positioned – give or take 5cm – at 2,039 metres above sea level. In a few months, they’ll be submerged in snow. Some are easy to find and touch; others are nearly impossible to reach.

A figure at Diedamskopf

The project, a collaboration with the Kunsthaus Bregenz, has been hugely complicated logistically, particularly because of Gormley’s insistence on the figures being in a horizontal line, and involved the Austrian army and mountain rescue teams.  In Austria, most visitors will need to take a half-hour cable journey to see them.

Cast iron figures of Gormley have been placed around cities and landscapes from Crosby beach to London to Australia to Calabria but the alpine project is the last of them, said the artist.

Gormley said the work addressed a simple question: where does the human project fit inside the bigger question of the planet’s future?

“The art work is in a way less important than the work people will do with these objects. The looking, the finding, the not finding, the relationship between something you can touch, you can see, you can imagine.

This will be the end. We’ve done the sea, New York, and now the mountains. We’ve covered the urban condition, the endlessness of the sea, and now the chaos of the mountains. That’ll do.

I am working on the body from inside, using my own as a model. They’re not like statues. They’re almost forensic, evidence of where a body once stood. There is no expression, no virtuosity in the way they’re made. There is a distinction between my work and Rodin’s. A Rodin [sculpture] is made, manipulating skilfully… modelling clay. None of that pertains to my work. I simply stand there, mould it, and the result… is cast in iron. I’m not wanting to call attention to the beauty of my handiwork.

Henry Moore viewed sculpture as an art of the open air. Gormley talks of wanting to ‘liberate’ it from the ghetto of galleries, and likens the bareness of his figures to man’s vulnerability.  The artist sees the figures as “silent witnesses” that change the feeling about where you are:

“The works are neither representations nor symbols, but [define] the place where a human being once was, and where any human being could be… [It] asks basic questions – who are we, what are we, where do we come from and to where are we headed?”

He wanted the statues to look in all directions without ever facing each other:

“It’s important to me that it’s the viewer who has a direct relationship with the sculpture. It’s important there’s no drama. I’m not putting them into a tableau. It’s called Horizon Field. They’re all facing a horizon, or making a horizon themselves.”

Update

On 7 August, The Guardian published an essential piece by Gormley in which he discusses Horizon Field as ‘the last of my attempts to ask a simple question in material terms: “Where does the human being fit in the scheme of things”?’  He writes:

Sculpture doesn’t need a roof or a label. You don’t need to pass over the threshold of an institution in order to experience something that engages your imagination and, with luck, your body. When placed in the outdoors in rain and sunshine, in summer and winter, in daylight and moonlight, sculpture, in my view, begins to live and its silence becomes a potent marker in time and space. People may well ask “What the hell is this thing doing here?” and the work returns that question and it responds reflexively “What the hell are you doing here?” […]

All of the sculptures I have placed within this social and geological landscape are made from inside, from the other side of appearance, celebrating a moment of being in time. They are my attempts to immerse myself in the stillness and silence of sculpture in the belief that we need these qualities in a time in which everything is erasable and instantly replaceable. Sculpture can turn us back to the primacy of first-hand experience rather than the mediated world of our built habitat.

Antony Gormley: Making Space

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.

Antony Gormley: Angel of the North

Gormley On Epstein

Gormley On Epstein

Jacob and the Angel 1940-1 by Sir Jacob Epstein 1880-1959

Jacob Epstein: Jacob and the Angel 1941

In this programme, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 today, Antony Gormley focused on the work of  ‘the most important artist, above any other, working in this country at the beginning of the 20th century’ – the sculptor Jacob Epstein. The programme coincides with the 50th anniversary of Epstein’s death, as well as a new exhibition at the Royal Academy, Wild Thing: Epstein, Gaudier-Brzeska, Gill. I was particularly interested in this since Epstein’s work, Jacob and the Angel is currently displayed at the Tate in Liverpool, and, of course, because we have the privilege, in this city, of meeting ‘under a statue exceedingly bare’.

Gormley began by explaining how Epstein attracted criticism during his turbulent career – his work was seen as too graphic or hard hitting, too ‘ugly’ or ‘cannibal’.  Gormley told how the problems began in 1908 when his first major project, to decorate the front of the new British Medical Association Building on the Strand, provoked outrage among conservative critics. Certain newspapers conducted a campaign against his design, and the resulting scandal damaged his reputation, discouraged potential employers, and ultimately destroyed the works themselves.

Epstein: British Medical Association freize detail

Jacob Epstein, British Medical Association freize detail

Zimbabwe House, formerly the British Medical Association building, still displays on its second-storey façade the hacked remnants of the eighteen, eight-foot-high Ages of Man statues with which he decorated the building. Nude sculptures depicting an old woman’s sagging dugs and withered flesh, and a man’s full-frontal nakedness, were the focus of not only the furious campaign against the statues but also signified to his critics that his art transgressed the laws of beauty and sexual propriety. The sequence of nude men and women, symbolising the ages of man, was mutilated when the Rhodesian government took over the building in the 1930s.

Edwardian London proved unprepared for 18 monumental, anatomically correct, naked males in a public place, and the Evening Standard launched a campaign to have them removed. In the 1930s, on the pretext that a fractured stone penis had fallen and nearly killed a pedestrian, the sculptures were castrated and mutilated; thus they remain today, neither fully destroyed nor fully preserved. It was as if the icon-smashing years of the Reformation had never been forgotten. – James Meek, Guardian

Jacob Epstein, Cast from Ages of Man statue

After his death, fellow sculptor, Henry Moore paid tribute to his courage as a pioneering artist who bore the brunt of critical derision: from the late 1930s to the mid 1950s many of Epstein’s works, including Adam, Consummatum Est, Jacob and the Angel and Genesis were exhibited in Blackpool, in an old drapery shop surrounded by red velvet curtains, to be viewed as a shocking curiosity by the holiday-making crowds for the cost of a shilling. After a small tour of American fun fairs, the works were returned to Blackpool and were exhibited in the anatomical curiosities section of the Louis Tussaud’s waxworks. The works were displayed alongside dancing marionettes, diseased body parts and Siamese twin babies in jars.

Jacob Epstein, Consummatum Est

Jacob Epstein, Consummatum Est

Gormley argued that Epstein revived British sculpture in crucial ways: he looked for inspiration from the ancient, non-Western cultures of Egypt, China and Africa; he insisted on ‘direct carving’, where he worked out his ideas straight into the stone, but above all, he made the first British ‘readymade’, alongside Marcel Duchamp when he included a real rock drill, the kind used to drill in quarries, in his pivotal work, The Rock Drill which he completed in 1915. He exhibited the powerful sculpture once that year, after which he completely dismantled it. He hacked the figure of the rock driller apart, and cast its torso in bronze, to resemble a battered soldier – by this time Epstein had seen the ways that the machines he celebrated, could destroy human lives during the First World War.

Jacob Epstein, The Rock Drill

Gormley sketched in the key elements of Epstein’s biography: born on the East Side of New York City in 1880 to Jewish immigrant parents, he moved to Paris in 1902, where he absorbed the work of Rodin and saw ancient Egyptian sculpture in the Louvre. He moved to London in 1905, immediately feeling at home and becoming a British subject.

Jacob Epstein

His first significant commission came in 1907, when he carved the 18 figures for the British Medical Association Building in the Strand. Completed the following year, these pieces solidly established the young sculptor’s reputation – he had numerous private commissions for portraits throughout his career. At this time, Epstein’s passion for direct carving in his own work becomes evident and his subject matter is devoted to major human themes and a search for the primordial, archetypal image. From modest beginnings in Paris, his keen interest in African sculpture grew and he amassed one of the finest collections of African art in Britain.

Jacob Epstein, Jacob and the Angel

Jacob Epstein, Jacob and the Angel

Gormley concluded by analysing Jacob and the Angel. The Old Testament story tells how Jacob, at a crisis in his life, wrestles through the night with the angel, who restrains him.  For Gormley, Epstein’s statue is ‘an absolute vision, representing the struggle between matter and spirit’.  It is clear, says Gormley, that for Epstein, the struggle through the night was sexual as well as spiritual: ‘what you have here is post-coital; Jacob is in a swoon, the angel is supporting Jacob, who has just collapsed. Jacob has passed his energy into the angel; his life is now the angel’s’.

Epstein’s legacy in his greatest work, asserts Gormley, is of an artist seeking out ‘real engagement with the unknown…he is not afraid to make large, really heavy things about things that can’t be grasped’.

Liverpool Resurgent, Lewiss, Liverpool

Liverpool Resurgent, Lewis’s Building, Liverpool

We speak with an accent exceedingly rare,
Meet under a statue exceedingly bare

And so to that statue ‘exceedingly bare. Some pretty awful buildings were erected to replace those destroyed in the Blitz, but the Lewis’s building, dating from 1947, with Epstein’s Liverpool Resurgent as its proud main feature, is the exception. The Lewis’s directors decided to commission a statue to identify themselves as being firmly in the van of Liverpool’s rebirth after the ravages of the war. Epstein’s stupendous statue, towering over Ranelagh Place was completed nine years after the building, in 1956.

Children Fighting

Baby In Pram

Children Playing

Epstein also designed the three mural panels below Liverpool Resurgent and  just above the doors representing the new post war generation of children. Children Fighting, Baby In Pram and Children Playing, were completed and installed in 1955, a year before Liverpool Resurgent was unveiled.

Links

Jaume Plensa: Beyond Limits

Jaume Plensa: Beyond Limits

When we visited Chatsworth last Saturday, we found an exhibition of  modern and contemporary sculpture from Sotheby’s – Beyond Limits. This is the fourth year that the exhibition has been mounted at Chatsworth and is increasingly recognised as one of the most prestigious platforms for displaying monumental modern and contemporary sculpture in Europe. This event featured works by Henry Moore, Antony Gormley, Marc Quinn, Manolo Valdés and Jaume Plensa set against the backdrop of this magnificent English estate. A Sotheby’s video about the event can be viewed here.

These are the two Plensa pieces on display at Chatsworth – Heart of Trees (top) and Song of Songs. Heart of  Trees consists of a life-size bronze figure, with a tree growing from the centre. The skin of the figure is covered with characters spelling out the names of composers. The other installation Song of Songs was interesting, but probably not displayed to best advantage – viewed behind bars in the Game larder. When previously exhibited, people have been able to walk through the steel curtain of suspended letters spelling out the words of the Biblical text.

I’m highlighting the work of Jaume Plensa here because this is not our first encounter with the sculptor’s work. In June his monumental piece, Dream, was unveiled on the old Sutton Manor colliery site at St. Helens (see my earlier post here).  In 2007, working closely with a group of ex-miners, he was commissioned to create a new work on the site of the former colliery as part of the Big Art Project, a major national public art initiative linked to Channel 4. The proposed sculpture titled Dream takes the form of a young girl’s head with eyes closed, seemingly in a dream-like state. It is fabricated in pre-cast concrete, with a white, marble-concrete aggregate mix, so that it has a luminescent finish.

“My work is first and foremost about celebrating life and the human experience of standing in between past and present, present and future, knowledge and ignorance. I fell in love with this site in St Helens as soon as I saw it. The spectacular setting, proud heritage, vision for the future, and the warmth, humour and passion of the former miners I have met are all inspirational. To capture the essence, hopes, and aspirations of a whole community on this scale is a great honour but also a responsibility.” – Jaume Plensa

We also encountered Plensa in Nice last year, where his Conversation in Nice is displayed on the Place Masséna. The square was renovated in 2007, accompanied by the installation of the artwork along the tramway: seven statues devised by Plensa, representing the seven continents.

Jaume Plensa, born in Barcelona in 1955, is one of the leading sculptors in the field of plastic arts. He works in a wide range of media including drawing, sculpture, print-making, opera scenery, video art, acoustic installations, text and light. Plensa is a Catalan artist born in 1955. He’s worked all over the globe and frequently, but not always, uses the human form. He also manipulates the effects of natural elements such as a light and water in his work.

A significant part of Jaume Plensa’s production is set in the context of public sculpture, a sphere in which he has permanent works installed all over the world. The Crown Fountain, in Chicago’s Millennium Park, is one of his latest and most renowned projects.  According to Plensa, the Crown Fountain was inspired by the people of Chicago and the city’s historic connection with water, including the Chicago River and the great Lake Michigan. The fountain features two 50-foot glass block towers at each end of a shallow reflecting pool. Plensa used faces of 1,000 Chicago citizens projected on LED screens, with water seeming to flow from their mouths through a water outlet in the screen. This is in reference to the use of gargoyles from whose mouths water flows out in traditional fountains. Each image is shown from four to five minutes all year round, while the water is on from mid-spring though mid-autumn.

Another work is Blake in Gateshead, a laser beam that on special occasions shines high into the night sky over the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art.

On 16 June 2008 Jaume’s sculpture Breathing was dedicated by the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, as a memorial to journalists killed whilst undertaking their work. The sculpture in steel and glass is situated above a new wing of BBC Broadcasting House in London. At 22:00 GMT each evening a beam of light is  projected from the sculpture extending 1km into the sky for 30 minutes to coincide with the BBC News at Ten.

El Alma del Ebro was created for the International Exposition in Zaragoza, the theme of which was ‘Water and Sustainable Development’. It is eleven metres high, the sculpted letters representing cells of the human body which is over 60% water. Its white letters and hollow structure invite the view to look inside and reflect on the relationship between human beings and water.

Finally, a gallery of some of the other exhibits in Beyond Limits at Chatsworth:

Three Piece Reclining Figure: Draped by Henry Moore

Dancers by Fernando Botero

Buddha by Niki De Saint Phalle

Angel of the North (life-size maquette) by Antony Gormley

Air Gets into Everything, Even Nothing by Ugo Rondinone

Mariposas by Manolo Valdes

Ariadna 1 by Manolo Valdes

Archaeology of Desire by Marc Quinn

Narcissus Garden by Yoyoi Kusama

Links