‘Hello, anybody here?’ The gate into Antony Gormley’s studio had slid mysteriously open as I approached, but there was no one behind it — just a courtyard, a row of trees and two metal figures.
‘Hello, hello?’ I walked across the yard up to a vast warehouse, and peered in through the double doors. Still no living people — instead, what looked like a group of aliens hovering silently in mid-air: life-size figures made of looped orbits of wire suspended from the ceiling, others, radiating metal spikes, dangling below; a brace of life-casts hanging by the neck but looking, nonetheless, pretty calm.
In fact, the whole room was tremendously peaceful. So much so that, at a loss for what else to do, I hung out with the aliens, waiting, and wondering as I waited whether perhaps this meditative stillness was what Gormley’s work was all about.
Which — as I discovered after an hour’s tutorial with the sculptor in his studio — it’s not really. It’s just not as simple as that.
‘Yes, it’s true that I spent a lot of time in India, doing Buddhist meditation, but I’m not trying to recreate that experience,’ said Gormley, sitting opposite me, looking hip in a white V-neck T-shirt and sipping green tea. ‘Meditating was useful, though, because it helped me realise that, though I’d done a lot of drawing and painting, I didn’t know a damn thing about art.’
You mean, you didn’t know the history of art?
‘No, no, no! Learning about the history of art teaches you nothing about how to be an artist!’ Gormley leant back in his chair. ‘History of art is about iconography and connoisseurship and categories and provenance. It’s just detective work.’
OK, so what do you mean? ‘What I realised in India is that I couldn’t go on just representing things: drawing and painting the things I saw. I realised that art should be an adventure, an attempt to get beyond the realm of appearances.’
I thought about the Gormleys we all know and love. ‘Angel of the North’, ‘Field for the British Isles’ (the 40,000 miniature terracotta figures), ‘Quantum Cloud’ in Greenwich. It’s true that they provoke strong feelings — of being protected by the Angel, perhaps, and of wanting to protect the little people — but isn’t that a reaction to their appearance? How can Gormley hope to use a sculpture — which does little else but ‘appear’ — to get beyond appearance?
‘Well, the best way of explaining is to go back to a piece called “Bread Line” I made at the Slade,’ said Gormley. It was the first successful work I did. I laid a loaf of Mothers Pride out on the floor, one bit at a time, with a bite taken out of each piece — and it was a revelation! The point is that it wasn’t about making a picture, but about transforming something ordinary in such a way that you were able to form a new relationship with it.’
‘Bread Line’ sounds appealing, comic even, but how does that explain the work with human forms, ‘Another Place’ (the men on the beach in Crosby), say, or ‘Iron: Man’ in Birmingham’s Victoria Square?
‘I’m not making traditional figurative sculpture,’ said Gormley, ‘because I’m not using the human form in the traditional way. I’m taking something that already exists, and re-presenting it. That’s why I talk about a “body” or a “body-case”, not a figure. The “figure” in Western art is about narrative or symbolism, but I’m trying to get away from that. I think of a body as a place, the place where we all live.’ Gormley looks at me, unblinking: did I get it?
Well, finally, I thought, I did. When a traditionalist like Brian Sewell disdains Gormley for the ‘vulgarity’ of his figures, he’s missing the point because, unlike all the ‘Apollos’ and ‘Davids’ in the canon of Western sculpture, Gormley’s sculptures aren’t trying to represent a particular person, or even a type of one — nor are they there to showcase his brilliant technique (‘Field’, after all, was made by volunteers). Instead (like ‘Bread Line’), they’re there to draw you into a reflective mood. They get ‘beyond appearances’, by making you aware of the murky realm of your own subjectivity. Is that right?
‘Yes!’ said Gormley, ‘that’s right! In fact, I’ve just made a work which is on top of the Roundhouse at the moment, and it’s called “You” because you’re the subject. I’m trying to use the inherent stillness of the object, to reinforce the being of the viewer, make them aware of the darkness of the body.’
The darkness of the body? I’m lost again for a moment. What do you mean?
‘Well, close your eyes for a moment,’ said Gormley. I did. ‘Where are you?’ Best not to answer, I thought. ‘You’re somewhere that is palpable, aren’t you?’ he said. ‘It’s there, but it’s dark. As far as I’m concerned that is a space that deserves exploring — a weird space, unhitched from normal causality.’
We were quiet for a few minutes, hands in laps, both of us, and eyes closed. And, as we sat, I wondered for a sacrilegious moment whether Gormley was necessarily right about the appeal of his work. He’s a national hero all right, a member of the Royal Academy, with an OBE and a place reserved in posterity, but does that mean we have to accept his interpretation? What if, I wondered, the British just have a sentimental fondness for anything they can anthropomorphise: men staring out to sea, for instance, or tiny terracotta people. What if we relate to Gormleys not as portals into the world of Kantian apperception, but as big metal pets? It’s not a question I felt I could ask; and — after remembering the undeniably unsettling effect of some Gormleys — not one I thought worth mentioning either.
Are people ever a bit frightened by your work? I asked instead. ‘What do you mean?’ Gormley sounded defensive. Don’t British people shy away from self-awareness, don’t they prefer a brisk walk and a nice cup of tea? ‘Yeah, but I think all that escapism is unhealthy,’ said Gormley. ‘It’s like our attempt to escape from the reality of death.’
So this is art as therapy? Gormley laughed: ‘Maybe, but it’s better than art as trophy. I mean, what’s the point of hanging something on your wall, so that you can say, “I’ve got a Damien Hirst” or whatever and obsessing on its value.
‘I read somewhere,’ he said, ‘that art should only be there to show you that life is more important than art, and it’s true.’