Sue Hubbard admires Antony Gormley’s ambition, but is curiously unmoved by his new show
I must confess I’ve never been a big fan of Antony Gormley’s art. The Angel of the North, 1995 has always seemed a rather bombastic affair to me, more authoritarian logo than resonant artwork, more populist than serious. It wasn’t until 1997’s Another Place, the group of figures looking out to sea from Crosby beach like a cluster of wistful emigrants, that I began to feel a sense of insightful vulnerability. So it was with mixed expectations that I visited Blind Light, the first major London show of Gormley’s work for 25 years.
It is certainly an ambitious exhibition. The art extends from the confines of the gallery out into the streets, walkways and rooftops of the city. One of Gormley’s figures, a cast taken from the artist’s own body, stands naked and unashamed not far from the bus stop on Waterloo Bridge as if waiting for the number 4 bus; as I walked past some teenagers were standing in the rain making jokes about its willy. Others are poised like lookouts on both sides of the Thames on buildings from the Thistle Hotel at Charing Cross to the Union Jack Club. Gormley becomes ubiquitous and the effect is disquieting, like being watched by silent snipers or surveillance snoopers.
These foreign bodies sit on the city’s skyline, insinuating themselves into the landscape, so that it appears reduced to the scale of a model. They certainly make us look at London with fresh eyes. Yet there is something inert about them – they never quite achieve the existential vul nerability of the figures created by the late Juan Muñoz for his 2001 Tate Turbine Hall installation Double Bind, which must surely have been an influence on Gormley.
Even before you enter the gallery, these sentinel forms signal his themes. Taking the body as his point of departure, he explores how we orientate ourselves within the built environment and architectural space. He also seems to be asking questions about who the audience is and who it is who’s doing the watching. He suggests that art is not simply to be observed by passive onlookers: it is dependent on the viewer who walks through it, navigates and negotiates the spaces around it. Gormley has said he prefers the word “body” to “figure” – wanting, no doubt, to distance himself from conventional figurative art. These featureless incarnations are not in dividuals, because, although their origins are unique, they can be endlessly reproduced.
Inside the Hayward, Gormley has mixed old works with new. Tilted precariously on its side is Space Station, a 27-tonne structure that looks like a gargantuan Meccano model, the sort boys made when Gormley was growing up. Full of peepholes into its interior void, it is a labyrin thine space evocative of the prisons etched by Giovanni Piranesi. It also looks like a giant colander. Only when you look at it from a higher level does it become obvious that its genesis was as a curled foetal figure. It set me thinking about the fashion for outsize sculpture – Anish Kapoor’s Marsyas or Louise Bourgeois’s Maman. In many cases, big now seems to equate with beautiful – or at least innovative. In fact, some of the most powerful sculptures I have ever experienced are Alberto Giacometti’s tiny, evocative postwar figures.
Space Station is lit only by the glow from Blind Light, both pieces having been commissioned for this show. Brancusi said that “architecture is inhabited sculpture”, and Blind Light, 2007, a luminous glass room filled with dense cloud, seems to embody that. From the outside, those who enter the vaporous space are visible only as traces on the glass walls. On the inside, the discombobulated viewer is entirely enveloped by the bright light and cloud. Architecture is supposed to give a sense of security, to be a refuge from the elements. Within Blind Light, however, it feels like being lost in a thick mist at the top of a mountain. Thus immersed, the viewer becomes an integral part of the work.
In another gallery stands Allotment II, 1996, 300 sarcophagus-like, life-sized concrete blocks. Each one is derived from the actual dimensions of a citizen of Malmö in Sweden aged anything from one and a half to 80. Massed together, with apertures for the mouth, ears, anus and genitals (but no eyes), they form intimate and moving relational groups. The grid structure of the work also suggests a city’s high-rise buildings and, as I stood looking down their ranks, the graves of the dead from the Great War.
Upstairs are examples of Gormley’s early work, such as a rather droll piece made from slices of bread with a central figure eaten into the middle. His “matrices” and “expansions” (2006-2007), bodies made of steel rods and tubes that seem like fluid drawings in space, are beautiful but somehow uninvolving. There is something calculated about them (literally, as they must have been generated on a computer) that creates a sense of distance. Hatch, 2007 is a small built room where a maze of aluminium rods of varying lengths creates the illusion of solid divisions. The body feels in constant peril of being spiked.
Do I like Gormley any better than before? Well, a bit. It is hard not to be impressed by his grand aspirations and the earnestness of his intentions; no one could accuse him of postmodern indifference or ennui. But to make and instal this work, with its ambitions of scale, must have cost a pretty penny, and ultimately I remained curiously unmoved. I kept thinking of the modesty and power of those Giacometti figures and how less, so very often, really is more.
Antony Gormley Blind Light at the Hayward Gallery, London until 19 August 2007
Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2007
Images © Antony Gormley 2007. Courtesy of the Hayward Gallery
Published in New Statesman