The Norfolk beaches of my childhood must have been a state of grace. Within that monochrome and windy bowl of the blank sky meeting blank sea and pan-flat land, there was often a young, responsive, yet not uncritical figure: a young child at play in the dunes. From my middle age, such a place seems remarkably unmediated. Apart from being told ‘to be careful’ by my worrisome Grandmother, from which I learned the wry-smile of a Grandfather, things just happened. My response to the environment was thus a visceral, immediate and non-programmed co-creation, even if all trace of such creation would disappear with the next tide.
Yet, as with much of my childhood such continuing pleasures seem under threat. Far from coming to the waters-edge to find a place where daily social demands were relaxed enough to get lost in something more eternal; and in later youth perhaps to enter a short-lived and wholly unsuitable relationship. We now have the unpredictable behaviour and cookery of our seaside landlady replaced by the slightly threatening menu at the ‘restaurant with rooms’: an establishment constantly on the verge of that Michelin star (as if), replicating the concerns and paint-scheme of middle-class London.
Equally unwanted is the invasion of our seaside towns by Art with a capital A, and with it the attendant industry of patronising profundity. If it’s not a botched-architecture full of Emin’s, constantly declaiming ‘slag, slag, slag …’ in Margate; it will be some giant shells covered in the memory of Maggi Hambling’s cigarette smoke in Aldeburgh; or it will be a work by Antony Gormley.
Actually it is nearly always a work by Gormley. No other artist has managed to invade our watersides quite as much: from the ordinariness of Formby beach, to the small burns of the river Leith, to the flooded crypt of Winchester Cathedral, to the Thames itself. One need hardly have removed one’s shoes ‘for a paddle’ before ah … yet another iron-man-of-Gormley; cast from the artist’s own body.
Some of course have chosen to see this as plain egotism. To cast him as Charles Arrowby from Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, the Sea, a character motivated largely by his own vainglory whatever the intellectual underpinnings. Yet a few moments actually speaking to the artist would undermine this view. For he is both maniacal about the intellectual coherence of his practice and appears driven by a penitential, almost flagellant, necessity for him to undergo the discomfort of the mould-making process.
More difficult however is the acceptance of his overall messianic project. His initial desire to ‘re-orientate the object nature of sculpture within the body proposition’ seems fair enough. Modernism may well have gone too far in banishing the figurative to the realms of the amateur painter. A problem which post-modernism’s ‘for-a-laugh’ reintroduction did little to solve. High-art, as Gormley has proved many times, does indeed have much to say about what it means to ‘dwell’ within a body. One that, gender excepted, is largely like every other body on the planet. He is also one of the few who has an understanding of the underlying language of sculpture (block; mass; stack; lintel; volume et al) to say it quite as well.
What is distinctly problematic is his insistence, following Duchamp, that the observer does ‘half the work’. That is regardless of the vast and complex webs that these ‘field-works’ weave within a landscape, that really have nothing to do with any form of spectacle or entertainment.
Rather, they seek nothing less than the ‘replacement of the dumb observer with a participatory and agency fuelled viewer’. With wilful cultural refusal – the possible majority position within these isles – such a strategy can end up leaving the work looking entirely like an Arts Council funded ‘interactive experience.’
Such a demand might also foreshadow an unwanted or unjustified universality. Much has been made of the artist’s abiding interest in Buddhism; but it could potentially equally hide something more charismatic and demanding as any Middle Way Siddhartha. Behind the softly-softly there might be a bible-belt evangelicalism, condemning the cultural sinners, the poor, the ‘thick’ and voting Republican.
That said, Gormley has in the past succeeded in avoiding the cultish whilst keeping away from the schmaltz, although often more so with the large architectural objects such as Hatch, 2007 or the Firmament project. For me his best result with the body-form was, appropriately enough, his angry response to the ‘return to civic Victorian municipal pride [embodied within Thatcherism] and that kind of shit’ (IRON: MAN, 1993). A work that defiantly remains one of his least popular.
Given this background, I admit to having great expectations for his new show set within the austere spaces of White Cube. For it has nothing of the distractions of the Deichtorhallen in Hamburg, where his last large-scale architectural work made full use of the open glass and steel structure to again reference the horizon. In enclosed, monotone Bermondsey I hoped he might again draw on the successful dialogue between the body-form and pure architecture presented last year at Galleria Continua/Le Moulin in the show ‘Space Station and other Instruments.’
The main piece at ‘The Cube’ is Model (2012), a room-filling sculpture of weathered steel plate that curiously reminds me of the rather surprised but articulate whale conjured into improbable being within the pages of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Overall it appears as a series of interconnected boxes, having somehow arrived into the space, and now intent on slowly decaying with the unapproachable solidity of any giant. It has in-fact been constructed specifically for the south gallery and has a figurative form; although this is made curiously unreadable by its very scale and the limited space between it and the all too solid gallery walls.
In the aforementioned case of the whale, the initial decent though thick cloud occasioned it to reflectively analyse its own being. Likewise this demanded intimacy forces us away from looking at or for a body and towards a more profitable analysis of each component element: To construct our own first-hand ‘body’ from that which we actually see of the work.
This in turn also forces us from any pre-imagined form to towards the purely material. The steel at once speaking of something human, what Gormley would term ‘a permissible entropy’, whilst remaining distinctly eternal with the frame of our own short lives. Thus, just as a limited understanding of the wider picture by the rapidly descending whale caused it to want to be friends with that ‘thing, so big and flat and round’ approaching very fast. In the same way this play of mammalian-biological with metallic-geological time allows us to inhabit the work’s content somewhat free of the ‘headlights’, or indeed inconveniently placed planet, of our own mortality.
The concentrated and restricted space also makes more sense when we realise that we are to enter the sculpture through a slightly less than human sized opening at the ‘foot.’
Like all dark spaces it is most shocking on first entry and a ninety degree turn into the compressed space of the ‘leg’ only heightens any claustrophobia, dislocation and demands the necessity to ‘see with one’s ears’. Indeed it is this initial sensory uneasiness that has been growing part of Gormley’s contemporary architectural language. Whether sudden vertical drops in Sculpture for an objective experience of architecture, 2008 (jointly with David Chipperfield); or the visual disorientation of up/down/left/right within the New York style urban landscape presented in Space Station, 2007, all proceed from a swirl of jeopardy and precariousness.
Eyes too, as in-part here, have been previously relegated to a secondary or interior function. As with the concrete box works Room for the Great Australian Desert, location known only to the artist; or Allotment, (1995); both describing the minimum dwelling space necessary for an individual body and where only the holes for the ears, mouth and anus were included.
It is however a temporary phenomenon and one soon sees light entering from openings above, quelling any primal fears; except that of forgetting one’s way out. The viewer also then begins to register proportions and volumes, before seeing the language of ‘building’ itself. A structure formed of the box, perhaps; shelf, maybe; hallway; kind-of alcove; and dark-hole of the under-stairs cupboard? Inside the sculpture all these voids lose identity as body-part analogues but gain real effectiveness
© Antony Gormley Photo: Stephen White Courtesy White Cube Antony Gormley
Shrive XV [Twisted] 2012,
Cast iron, 214.5 x 43 x 36cm
129 14/5/13 16:40:08 130
© Antony Gormley Photo: Ben Westoby Courtesy White Cube
Antony Gormley, ‘Model’, White Cube Bermondsey, London 28 November 2012 – 10 February 2013© Antony Gormley Photo: Ben Westoby Courtesy White Cube
Antony Gormley, Mark, 2012 Cast iron, 599.5 x 255 x 276.5 cm
as dynamic spaces linking both the idea of a body and body-processes together: heightening our perception by making life itself nothing more than a changing architectural space. One brought into focus both by our own dynamic passage and the steel tap-tap-tap of other heels elsewhere in the structure.
Indeed it is this determination to keep as rigorously architectural as possible that saves the work from a fairground fete. It could so easily have been nothing more than an art-world fun-house or play area just waiting to be filled with those soft rubber balls.
And yet for all its rigour, it still remains one of the most entertaining and because of that effective works I’ve experienced for a long while. Such a realisation began with me wanting to furnish it. After all, in a world full of product, what could be a better ‘model of my own perceptions’ than my choice of interior décor? True, Antony might be personally a little disappointed expecting something a little purer and more mindful: but the point is that the sculpture allows it, whilst still retaining its overall coherence as an artwork.
Indeed, I became increasingly convinced that its effectiveness lies in it being able to capture its audience at a multitude of points, some very far away from the artist’s natural character. Which in turn allows you to use whatever devices best suit you to examine the ‘dwelling’ or ‘the darkness of the body’ whilst still undertaking a meaningful activity rather than any new-age ‘whatever it means to you … man’. At the same time however this openness also undercuts any tendency towards didacticism or tub-thumping, without resort of an overly popular form that would destroy real content.
Surprisingly then my compulsive irreverence has struck artistic gold in the shape of coherence with vitality. But perhaps that was always on the cards? For walking through the other gallery spaces on the way to Model, it is clear this show acknowledges an obvious step-change in the tempo of Gormley’s project. True we pass familiar pixillated clamped-iron-block figures riff-ing and jammin’ on entropy, the boundary-condition, and ideas of the first and final ‘skin’ of a human life. But here they seem loose and less conditioned; for the first time becoming less rigid and unyielding, better balanced by losing their surety, with one even requiring the wall for support.
If they had a musical style it would be moving away from the dense serialism of say Schoenberg or Webern, towards the light-programme, variety and the music hall. Perhaps even a fitting return to slapstick at the end of the pier? For it was here, that some performers betrayed unique talent to prod the highest of intellectual beings with a light yet effective jab of mild profanity; or used physical comedy to make a cruel but necessary point. Whilst others puffed and laboured in their attempt at a cheap laugh, or performed too far outside their character by failing to fully acknowledge their identity. All true indeed of these human-scale sculptures, but thankfully the off-gags are infrequent.
This is not to say that Gormley is now reduced to creating a form of sculptural funny-man in captured comedic pose, for none of the works betray the abiding concerns of his practice. What he has done in all these works is begin to explore a new and emergent, orthogonal language. To take another step in the forty year project to drive forward the agenda of sculptural reflexivity and the relationship between art and public freedoms.
This time however he acknowledges that whilst it is important to ask questions of interior states (and if we do not we are diminished as individuals), that it should not, cannot, be a dominant mode for living. For in the end no-one really thinks highly of an introverted narcissist.
It’s turned out nice again … even for the slag.
Antony Gormley: Model, was at the White Cube, Bermondsey, from 28 November 2012 – 10 February 2013.