Antony Gormley: seminal 20th century sculpture

This week on Radio 3’s The Essay, Antony Gormley has been discussing key sculptures and art installations of the 20th century. He began with the Rock Drill, made by Jacob Epstein between 1913 and 1915, which he considers as the first work of Modernism in Britain and which he compares to Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel of the same year.

In the second talk he discussed Brancusi’s Endless Column, a 100-foot column, commissioned as a war memorial and situated above the small town of Targu Giu in Romania. He considers it to be the first Minimalist work.

In the third essay he considered Alberto Giacometti’s City Square – La Place – made in 1948, when the artist returned to Paris after the Second World War. Gormley dismisses the idea that Giacometti portrayed loneliness and isolation, arguing that this small sculpture is the first work to model ‘relational aesthetics’, where space and time become the artist’s subject.

In the next talk he focused on Joseph Beuys’ installation Plight. Originally created in London in 1985, it marked the end of the industrial era in Europe and foreshadowed Beuys’ own death the following year.

Joseph Beuys Plight 1986 : State of the Art Episode 3

Finally, Gormley reflected on the industrial force and impact of American sculptor Richard Serra’s steel work The Matter of Time, completed in 2005 for the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.

The Matter of Time by Richard Serra, Guggenheim, Bilbao

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Another Place revisited

I happened to be in the vicinity, so I decided to revisit Antony Gormley’s Another Place on Crosby beach –  and walk up to the mouth of the river Alt (having crossed it on the canal walk a few weeks back).

Another Place consists of 100 cast-iron, life-size figures spread out along three kilometres of the foreshore, stretching almost one kilometre out to sea. The figures – each one weighing 650 kilos – are made from casts of the artist’s own body standing on the beach, all of them looking out to sea, staring at the horizon in silent expectation.

According to Antony Gormley, Another Place harnesses the ebb and flow of the tide to explore man’s relationship with nature. He explains: “The seaside is a good place to do this. Here time is tested by tide, architecture by the elements and the prevalence of sky seems to question the earth’s substance. In this work human life is tested against planetary time. This sculpture exposes to light and time the nakedness of a particular and peculiar body. It is no hero, no ideal, just the industrially reproduced body of a middle-aged man trying to remain standing and trying to breathe, facing a horizon busy with ships moving materials and manufactured things around the planet”.

The sculptures continue to draw people to the beach, quite often photographing each other beside one of the figures; here, I’m photographing this guy photographing another couple adopting the same pose as the figures (again, something people do quite a lot).

Walking to the northern end of the beach you arrive at the surprisingly broad estuary of the river Alt.  There are wonderful, expansive views here: across the Mersey bay to the Wirral, the mountains of  Snowdonia and the isle of Anglesey. There are the persistent cries of oystercatchers.The Alt Estuary is an important site for shore birds such as Curlew, Redshank, Shelduck, Knot, Bar-tailed Godwit and Sanderling.

The River Alt rises to the east of Liverpool at Huyton-with-Roby and flows in a north westerly direction towards Formby where it turns south towards Hightown and the sea. The upper part of the catchment is urban, the lower part rural.  Within the total catchment area of 89 square miles there are about 20 square miles of rich agricultural fenland which could be ruined by high tides if special attention were not given to its damage. Just when this lowland area was won from the sea is not known but it is believed that the works were carried out by local monks in the 13th Century and by the Dutch in the 17th Century. The earliest written records are dated 1779, when an Act was passed for “Draining, improving and preserving the lowlands, in the Parishes of Altcar, Sefton, Halsall and Walton-upon-the Hill, in the County Palatine of Lancaster”.

Here, the back of the beach is strewn with building rubble that stretches for hundreds of yards, from the coastguard station to the river Alt. Huge piles of building material and rubble has been dumped between the beach and the sand-dunes to prevent the sea from wearing the dunes away.The rubble ranges from house bricks (with dates from 1912 to 1956 on them) to huge granite and marble lintels and arches, reinforced concrete and all sorts of other stuff. Some seems very fresh, while other pieces have been worn smooth by the waves.

Where is it all from? Apparently it’s rubble from Blitz through to 1970s slum clearance. The part nearest the Alt being 1940s Blitz rubble. From the beginning of the last century, the mouth of the River Alt began to migrate along the foreshore towards Liverpool. This had the effect of lowering the beach, allowing waves to reach and erode the sand dunes, gardens and large houses along Burbo Bank Road. In fact Burbo Bank Road North itself disappeared at one point.

In 1936, the Alt was diverted out to sea by a breakwater between Hightown and Hall Road. Due to the lowered beach, erosion continued and Blitz rubble and Bootle Tinworks waste was tipped to provide a barrier. Later demolition rubble followed, culminating in the construction of the promenade over part of it. The shore level has now risen enough for erosion to become accretion. Planting of Marram grass on the dunes north of Hall Road has stabilised that section.

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Gormley’s Field for the British Isles revisited

Gormley’s <em>Field for the British Isles</em> revisited

I went over to St Helens College to see Antony Gormley’s Field for the British Isles which I first saw at the Tate Liverpool in 1993. Field is one of Antony Gormley’s best-loved works of art featuring 40,000 clay figures. This summer Field has returned to St.Helens, the town where it was created 15 years ago.

The figures were handmade by 100 people, aged seven to seventy, at Sutton Manor High School in St.Helens in 1993, using local Ibstock clay. Every time Field is exhibited it takes about a week to install with a team of local volunteers, which this time will include some of the original makers of the work.

Winner of the 1994 Turner Prize, Antony Gormley is renowned for his distinctive representations of the human form. Gormley has described Field as ‘… twenty-five tons of clay energised by fire, sensitised by touch and made conscious by being given eyes … a field of gazes which looks at the observer making him or her its subject’. This arresting installation comprises a sea of miniature terracotta figures, clustered together. Some stand out because of their size and character; others are greyer than the earthy reds of the majority: the overall sight is both captivating and mesmerising.

Gormleys Field

In 1995 Field was purchased by the Arts Council Collection with the support of the Henry Moore Foundation and the National Art Collections Fund. Since its acquisition Field has been seen by nearly 400,000 visitors in Aberystwyth, Carlisle, Colchester, Gateshead, Gloucester, Lincoln, London, Salisbury, Sheffield, Shrewsbury, Wakefield and St Ives, in venues as diverse as a train-shed, a church, a cathedral, a gallery, and a warehouse.

This exhibition is part-funded by the European Regional Development Fund under the Merseyside Objective One Programme and is a Hayward Touring Exhibition from the Arts Council Collection.

This is Anthony Gormley on the Field project, which has involved the creation of many Fields in different parts of the world:

From the beginning I was trying to make something as direct as possible with clay: the earth.

I wanted to work with people and to make a work about our collective future and our responsibility for it. I wanted the art to look back at us, its makers (and later viewers), as if we were responsible – responsible for the world that it (the work Field) and we were in. I have made it with help five times in different parts of the world. The most recent is from Guangzhou, China, and was exhibited in Guangzhou, Beijing, Shanghai and Chongqing in 2003. It’s made from one hundred and twenty-five tons of clay energised by fire, sensitised by touch and made conscious by being given eyes.

The 200,000 body-surrogates completely occupy the space in which they are installed, taking the form of the building and excluding us, but allowing visual access. It is always seen from a single threshold. The dimensions of the viewing area are equivalent to no less than one sixth of the total floor area of the piece. This viewing area is completely empty. The viewer then mediates between the occupied and unoccupied areas of a given building. I like the idea of the physical area occupied being put at the service of the imaginative space of the witness

I gave these instructions to the makers:

Take a hand-size ball of clay, form it between the hands, into a body surrogate as quickly as possible. Place it at arm’s length in front of you and give it eyes.

It was important that it was through the repeated action of touching, forming, placing apart from the body and making conscious, that each person found their own form. The extraordinary thing was the distinctiveness of the forms that were found.

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