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Culture

A body in contemporary art -- Antony Gormley



IRON MAN: Antony Gormley poses with a new series of cast iron blockwork sculptures at London's White Cube gallery

Antony Gormley, the Turner Prize-winning sculptor has cast his own body, placing it on top of buildings -- on gallery ceilings, beaches, and now on snow-clad mountains

Antony Gormley cuts a fine figure - tall, lean, articulate. It is just as well since his is one of the most famous bodies in contemporary art. For years, the Turner Prize-winning sculptor has cast his own body, placing it on top of buildings, on gallery ceilings, beaches, and now on snow-clad mountains (his latest installations dot the western Alps). The 59-year-old isn't just very successful - lifesize casts of Gormley sell for over $2 million - he's also very popular. Thirty-three million motorists drive past 'Angel of the North' every year and the fourth plinth project in London's Trafalgar Square gave more than 2, 000 people a chance to turn themselves into works of art. He's had his share of critics - with one saying that he "dominates and squats on British art like a lead toad" - but few dispute that he's brought art out of the gallery and into the real world. Neelam Raaj met him on the sidelines of the Hong Kong art fair

Your iron avatars people many parts of the world. Will India get a Gorm soon, especially since you have an India connection?

I travelled to India after graduating from university. I just wandered about for two years - spent some time in Dalhousie and at a monastery near Darjeeling. I also learnt vipassana meditation in Mumbai. I haven't been back to India since 1974. I'd love to come back, perhaps to do a museum show or maybe just work directly in the streets or in a temple. I can imagine Breathing Room III (Gormley's latest installation which is a glowing labyrinth of grids) working very well in the inner sanctum of the Meenakshi temple in Madurai. It can work like a three-dimensional mandala that you can enter and use as a kind of concentrating chamber for existence. I like the idea of using the context of multiple courtyards of an Indian temple - a layered approach to a void centre. Maybe there is a deconsecrated temple somewhere in India that may be a possibility for the installation.

Did India's ancient sculpture tradition influence your work?

I love Chola and Pala sculpture. The main thing I got from Indian sculpture is the sense of a fullness of form, the idea of a kind of prana, the interior breath of a form giving everything an imminent energy. Of all the forms, I love Chola the best. There is a period of Mathuran stone carving that is also very beautiful.

What interests me - and I found this in Elephanta - is this idea of architecture as the manipulation of a pure void. In other words, you don't build form, you excavate it. You create space by the removal of mass.

Why is the body so central to your art?

I am very interested in the potential of art to bridge experience across race, creed and language. And what is it that is truly a universal human condition? It is the body. The challenge is: how do you bring the body back into art without it being an illustration or a representation. My answer to that is to treat the body less as a thing and more as a location of consciousness out of which we look at the world. I am trying to deal with the body from the inside - as a place of being - rather than the outside.

Are you always conscious of the viewer?

I have an exhibition on at the moment in New York called 'Event Horizon'. Thirty-one sculptures in the middle of Manhattan. One is on Broadway - next to a hot dog stand, next to a traffic light and in the flow of people coming and going. It's not about an idealised human form that happens to find itself on the street. The work only begins to work when you begin to appreciate how it makes evident the changing conditions of light, the moving of the people around it. It becomes in a way a measure, a control, a point of reference against which the changing conditions around it can be more distinctly appreciated. Sculpture has to accept its position of dormancy, of inertia, of stillness but it waits for us, waits for our consciousness, our feeling, our freedom of movement. Our presence creates in a way something worthy of attention. It would be a mistake for me to think I am making these objects that have intrinsic value. They only begin to have value when they make a relational field in which the potential viewer's life becomes immersed.

You've been working with the body since 1981. Aren't you becoming repetitive?

I am not saying my body is something special. I continue to do it because I can't think of any other way of reinforcing the notion of the relationship between mind and matter and doing it from the point of maximum contact. This is the only bit of the material world I am inside. You don't criticise a dancer for repeatedly using his or her body. How I interpret it is constantly being revised and changed. The show at White Cube gallery is another development in the notion of a body as a test site, as a zone of an exploration.

What is the process of making a Gormley cast?

I stand, or sit or lie and my body is wrapped in cling film and covered in plaster. I have to be very still until it sets. It takes about an hour and a half.

Just like art is no more restricted to the wall, sculpture is no more restricted to the pedestal. In your case, it's not even restricted to the gallery. You seem to be filling landscapes, and not museums, with your works. Around 33 million motorists a year drive past the gargantuan steel wings of Angel of the North in Gateshead, and hundreds of thousands have experienced Another Place, 100 life-sized human figures installed on a beach in the UK. Is your work a deliberate attempt to open up art to the masses?

I have nothing against museums. Museums are there to protect work that has had a life, that often is removed of its context. The ethos in museums is changing but it still is a cataloguing of things that have had a life in order for us to understand something about history, something about the changing evolution of space. And as such these are all objects removed from their ability to affect life directly. I am very interested in how when you place some reflective object - an object that has to do with imaginative function - in daily life, how that changes the context around it. It's also a way of testing a model of art. The museum is about one context among many. I am about to install a 100 sculptures in the western Alps. Over a 150 sq km, at 2000m above sea level, a hundred 650-kg body forms in seven valleys in Austria. I am very interested in using these installations to see where this human project fits within the scheme of things.

We can think of art entirely in terms of surplus production, in terms of exchange value, in terms of these unique things of high value that people with loads and loads of cash can go and decorate their lives with and feel they are like these objects unique, special and of high worth. But that's an absolute travesty of what art is. It is a basic human need, a basic human right. It should be for everyone and part of the lived world, not privatised and isolated. I have nothing against people buying art and living with it. It is one of the wonderful things that can happen to it. But it is only one of many things. I have just come back from walking and helicoptering in Kimberley in the north-west of Australia looking at rock art over 17, 000 years old. There are no signs of human remains apart from these extraordinary paintings that are everywhere. It's clear to me this art was for the pre-literate, pre-urban society an essential part of life. It was the way they communicated with time, space and each other. It was evidently a collective activity and here they've left it for people coming along the other side of the ice age. I was very moved by this expression of the need to leave some trace of human thought and feeling.

You'd like to leave your imprint on the planet?

I don't care about it being mine. This is a critical moment for the human project. We know that the earth can't support us if we carry on like this. We haven't been around very long in terms of the age of the planet. One wonders if we are gone by the end of this millennium which is quite possible, what will be left. An extraordinary monument which will be all the motorways and roads across inhospitable land. What will future life forms think - they will recognise that we are restless, unsatisfied and rapacious life forms. The roads indicating a desire for constant movement, a desire not to be where we are.

So what does this have to do with art? Rather than concentrating on the exchange value of art, can we use the space of art to think about human nature and human future. Maybe this is too much of a burden for art and maybe art is only about surplus value, surplus value and surplus production.

In many countries, street sculpture is a nationalist symbol - Pakistan has tanks and aeroplanes on its streets! In Denmark, the Little Mermaid was put in a burqa to protest Turkey joining the
EU. In Baghdad, the statue of Saddam Hussein was decapitated. Are your works a response to the political and social scenario?
The background of that question is: how does my work differ from those statues. India was once covered with lots of statues of Queen Victoria. My works are uninscribed bodies, naked and open to space. It doesn't matter whose body it is. It is not about the celebration of known deeds or a trophy to idealism. It is simply asking: what the hell is a human being and where do we fit in the scheme of things. My works are not about reinforcement of known values which is why statues are always decapitated or toppled but an expression of standing at the edge of the unknown. They are not reassuring, they are deeply unsettling.


Gormley's show Test Sites will run at the White Cube gallery in London till July 10

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