Honor Clerk

Figures in a landscape | 25 January 2018

From Alaska to Australia, the beauty and originality of his sculptures are unfailingly breathtaking

Martin Caiger-Smith’s huge monograph on Antony Gormley slides out of its slipcase appropriately enough like a block of cast iron. In its beautiful rust-coloured linen covers it looks a bit like a block of cast iron, too. Open it to the endpapers, ‘Bodies in Space’, and black splatters across a white ground. Turn a couple of thick, silky pages and a frail human figure, photographed from behind, is silhouetted on a rocky precipice facing an abyss of roiling water, cloud and spray. Keep turning and the developing story of Gormley’s life’s work reveals itself in image after remarkable image.

In the 1980s Gormley was almost alone among contemporary sculptors in turning to the human form as his source of inspiration, his ambition to ‘find again the place of the body in the space created for art by modernism’. For nearly 40 years he has pursued this idea, developing and evolving a language of his own that has moved from beaten lead body cases, soldered and seamed and hollow, to solid cast iron forms; the body explored inwards, pierced, projected outwards, re-imagined in blocks, in steel rods, expanded, contracted, condensed and atomised.

And as the sculpture has developed so too has Gormley’s discourse with the world, with people and with place. The diminutive terracotta army that invaded white gallery space in the 1990s heralded the beginning of both a collaborative act of making and a new way of seeing the exhibition of sculpture. Never one to tread the obvious path, Gormley pushed the boundaries with every new commission. For an exhibition in Cologne he emptied the gallery and put the sculptures outside looking in. In an abandoned jail in Charleston he flooded a room with seawater and mud. At the Hayward Gallery in 2007 he placed sculptures on rooftops up to half a mile away.

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