While Sir Joshua Reynolds, on his plinth, was looking the other way, a little girl last Saturday morning was trying to prise a littler sculpture from the pavement of the Royal Academy’s courtyard. For all its tininess — from a distance the sculpture’s curvy lumps, 12 x 28 x 17cm, resemble horse droppings a security guard might dig into their rose bed — she couldn’t shift it.
‘Iron Baby’ (1999) is a solid iron cast made by Sir Antony Gormley of his six-day- old daughter abased before the Enlightenment temple of art, buttocks facing Piccadilly in eloquent critique. But for the Instagramming hordes, you might step over her heedlessly on the way to the exhibition, a survey of Gormley’s works from the late 1970s to today.
Many of the 69-year-old’s career-long preoccupations are inside — the dialectics of tough vs tender, bodily erotics vs rational geometries, void vs the infinitely dense, body in space as against body of space — but no more so than in this abandoned baby outside. Gormley says she is made from the same material as the Earth’s core, filled with potential like a bomb and yet nakedly vulnerable as, apparently, she ‘attempts to make us aware of our precarious position in relation to our planetary future’.
But that makes this heartbreaking, wingless angel of the South sound like a pre-verbal Greta Thunberg. Thankfully, ever since Roland Barthes proclaimed the death of the author, it’s been possible to read art against the grain of artists’ statements. In one room, for instance, two huge spheres dangle, suspended from the skylight. ‘Body’ and ‘Fruit’ (both 1991/93) are made from casts of Gormley in a foetal position. They call to mind, the gallery guide told me, ‘the formation of planetary bodies, and the ever-expanding universe’. Balls, I mutinously countered: more like giant conkers.
I stood for long minutes before ‘Floor’ (1981), a kind of conceptual-art doormat in which two footprints are encircled with ridged rings. I happily imagined, doubtless contrary to Gormley’s conception, that the rings depict a personal force field, the kind of exclusion zone I need around me in crowded shows like this to protect me from — without wishing to sound too sociopathic — annoying children, gormless parents and Home Counties day-trippers with surprisingly sharp elbows.
That said, never have I felt so pleased to share playground space with children. In a maze of eight kilometres of coiled aluminium that explodes in one room subverting its rectilinear confines with what evokes both childish scribble and electron flight paths, I tripped and stumbled with some kids, becoming less old fart than child anew. Standing under ‘Matrix III’ (2019), a grid made of the steel wire used to reinforce concrete walls, I felt like a child crushed by the void hanging inches above me. That void demarcated by wire, Gormley tells us, is the size of an average European bedroom. A small boy, a guard and I contemplated a flooded room called ‘Host’ (2019) that Gormley suggests evokes the primordial soup. See where a naughty man has left his footprints in the sand beneath the water, said the guard. ‘He walked in!’ said the boy, astounded. ‘No footprints suggesting he returned,’ I offered, thinking of Leonard Rossiter as Reginald Perrin.
In ‘Cave’ (2019), my teenage daughter and I felt nostalgic. The soft-play labyrinths of many a toddler birthday party have their unwitting echo in this crowd-pleaser of a darkened tunnel. It’s when we close our eyes that we experience our body as space, Gormley tells us; true, but it was here that I bruised my knee after a wrong turn. The guard at the ‘Cave’ exit told us there are more women than men among the emerging injured, though she couldn’t explain why. If you contemplate the floor plan you’ll see that ‘Cave’ is shaped like an airy inflation of the crouching ‘Iron Baby’.
While missing the éclat of Gormley’s last big London show 12 years ago (there are no rooftop Gormley figures looking like suicides waiting to happen as there were then at the Hayward, and as for Gormley’s steam room from that show, Olafur Eliasson currently has dibs on that art gag, vaporising visitors at Tate Modern), I hobbled happily on to the show’s denouement. Two prone figures made from rolled stacks of clay, post-apocalypse siblings perhaps to the girl in the courtyard, or — more likely — reminders of our ultimate bodily disintegration.
A bus to Millbank and into another labyrinth. For O’ Magic Power of Bleakness at Tate Britain, Mark Leckey has built a replica of the M53 underpass in the Wirral. On the walls, multiple screens supply a 50-minute personal history from the artist’s birth in 1964. Along with black and white home movies, there’s 1960s sexual awakening as the camera zooms in on two inches of flesh above corseted Carry On star Liz Fraser’s stocking top; there’s Tony the Tiger from the 1970s Frosties ads; there are 1980s bands at Eric’s night club in Liverpool. I loved the northern soul boy dancers from 1970s Wigan Casino, each grooving alone as if Gormleyan force fields repelled potential partners. E-fuelled ravers, ten years later, busted similarly solitary moves to trance music.
In a catalogue interview, Leckey explains the appeal of such music: ‘You enter into a loop that has the potential to take you out of your body — into this state of ecstasy — but then you yourself are on repeat, you’re stuck.’
Where Gormley is immanent, Leckey is transcendent. The former is fixated on the body and how it occupies the world, Leckey on escaping it.
In the film’s last sequence, that underpass becomes a portal akin to the one on the Oxford bypass described by Philip Pullman in The Subtle Knife. Instead of a subtle knife, Leckey imagines using drugs, music and art to transcend the quotidian. Flitting across multiple screens, giggling nocturnal scouse scallies in athleisure wear take drugs, their eyes dilating in cartoonish reverie.
The screens next depict an animated netherworld beneath the M53. Leckey is exploring the desire to go beyond the prison houses of body and daily grind. Understandable, though I ultimately felt trapped at the dead end of Leckey’s labyrinth, a voyeur watching someone else’s ecstasy. When the lights came up, I glimpsed another mystic portal, the exit door, and made my escape.