Antony Gormley’s passion is to ask whether a human form – as both a vessel for the body and a container for the mind – can be a contemporary subject for contemplation; questions that are essentially spiritual.
Gormley speaks of “being” in its widest context, exploring the now. He works with life, making body moulds and body casts, by implication life-size, in various subtle, undramatic states, and places them in a range of settings. These locations are never random; Gormley selects them for their associations. He treats the body as a house and invites the viewer’s participation. For Gormley:
“How the sculptures are disposed in space is perhaps more important than what they represent.” [Vessel, Antony Gormely, Galeria Continua, San Gimignano, 2012, p.42]
In the 1980s, Gormley, like some of his contemporaries, embraced a variety of ways of making objects with humble materials and found industrial elements. These sculptors (including Tony Cragg, Alison Wilding, Bill Woodrow and Richard Deacon) experimented with all kinds of materials that came to hand, breaking with the past. Making art was redefined during the 1960s: Conceptual Art, Land Art, Arte Povera and Performance Art presented possible new ways of producing art. Young British sculptors in the 1980s, including Gormley, embraced the experimental, non-art materials, while emphasizing image-making.
One of Gormley’s materials at that time was a popular mass-produced bread, called “Mother Pride”. Gormley “sculpted” the work Bed (1981), by eating his own volume from a mass of 600 loaves to produce a negative of his body divided in two halves. The work was a deliberate attempt to re-animate the grid of minimalism:
“I came to bread as a material because it’s something that’s with us all the time, like bottles and knives, coats and socks… I’d been working with bread for about two years before it became obvious to me that it was ridiculous to be treating it as if were wood… So I started using my teeth, thinking much more about bread as a food substance.” (Objects & Sculpture, London: Institute of Contemporary Arts, 1981, p. 5)
As the body became Gormley’s central motif, Gormley turned to lead as a key material, for which his work in the 1980s became known and esteemed.
“Lead brings silences and stillness. It is a wonderful material – it is so inert, so dense, its greyness combines all colours, its quality as an insulator is important. It protects against all forms of radiation – and that is part of its power.” (Antony Gormley, New York: Salvatore Ala, 1984, p. XII)
Later, Gormley began to explore groups of three lead body-cases as a way of engaging more complex associations. Land, Sea and Air II (1982), anticipated Gormley’s increasing drive to place his work “directly in the world” (Antony Gormley, Humlebaek: Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, p. 16), as he began installing his works in open landscapes and urban spaces. This led to the sculptures being able to command a much larger area than they physically occupied.
Gormley gradually turned to other materials such concrete, steel and cast iron. Increasingly, the settings activated by his sculptures incited new ways for sculpture to engage with space and audience. Another Place (1997), one hundred cast iron life-size bodyforms spread over two miles at Crosby Beach, Liverpool, disappear and re-appear as the tide rises and falls. The Angel of the North (1998) is a twenty-metre-high steel sculpture with a 54-metre wingspan that shares its hill with its visitors and offers the whole region, the North East of England, a wide embrace.
Gormley believes that art can “become an open space for human future “(High Concept, Financial Times, August 7/8 2010, p.10). Event Horizon (2007), consists of 31 bodyforms that look out to the horizon. There are 27 on the skyline and 4 on the ground. In London, they were sited each side of the River Thames at the heart of the city. This project was also mounted in New York, Rotterdam, Rio de Janeiro and Hong Kong. In each case, the citizens began seeing their familiar environment in new ways.
Horizon Field (2010), a project in the High Alps in Austria, involved one hundred solid life-size cast iron bodyforms placed more than 2,000 metres above sea level over an area of approximately 150 square kilometres. One can contemplate the work as part of the landscape from a distance, or approach it up-close. Its principle viewers were hikers or skiers. This installation in the mountains, removed from everyday life, is a homage to earlier land art projects, such as The Lightning Field (1977) by Walter De Maria: 400 stainless steel poles arranged in a one-kilometre by one-mile grid in a remote high desert in New Mexico.
Those who spent time in the landscape with the work recall a mind-altering experience and sense of awareness, as described by Gormley: “For me sculpture uses physical means to talk about the spirit, weight about weightlessness, light to refer to darkness – a visual means to refer to things that cannot be seen.” (Antony Gormley, Frankfurter Kunstverein, 1988, [p. 50) These concerns can also be felt in this exhibition at the Convent of St Agnes.