The British sculptor on the activity of making ‘an account of what it feels like to reside now’
We’re dealing with a produced globe,” Antony Gormley tells me, “rather than an elemental one, and I’ve set myself the job of attempting to make an account of what it feels like to live now.”
It is a massive ambition — the expression of the modern urban situation. We’re sitting in Gormley’s lofty and light King’s Cross studio, an interior on an industrial scale, a spot of making, of welding, casting, cutting and drilling, our conversation just audibly peppered with the faint clanking of lifting gear and the shrill buzz of mechanical cutting in the adjacent workshop. It is a location where Gormley directs the making of steel armatures, cages, casts and cubes, most referring to his personal physique, shrinking, enlarging, hollowing out and abstracting his really recognisable tall, lean form. So for his concept of highlighting what he calls mankind’s “profound shift” from a organic globe to the man-produced landscape of cities (as he refers to more than half the world now living in cities), of hybridising body and sculpture, art and artifice, the organic and the constructed, this neo-industrial space seems a excellent setting.
In truth the planet right away beyond Gormley’s automatic steel gate, a landscape of cranes and construction, exactly where the very same mechanical noises echo about the streets, is an exemplar of exactly what he is talking about. When the industrial and railway backlands of the city, King’s Cross is now a massive experiment in the monetisation of a post-industrial, post-public-ownership wasteland. It is also 1 that asks urgent queries about public space, housing, ownership and what, if something, is left in this new corporate landscape for the city’s inhabitants to improvise with, to make them really feel at home. “What participation can there be,” Gormley asks, urgently, leaning in towards me, “in this new collective physique of the city?”
It is back to the body metaphor. From the “Angel of the North” to “Field for the British Isles”, practically Gormley’s entire oeuvre has been defined by an exploration of the body (his physique) in space, as element of a mass or with its own mass being broken down into a minimal armature so that it becomes one thing ethereal. “All that is solid”, as Marx and Engels wrote, “melts into air”. And just as the two German émigrés had been writing their Communist Manifesto, a couple of miles from where we’re sitting, they have been studying the situation of the modern city — a place in flux that was defining a new situation for mankind, a city of uncertainty and upheaval. That identical city outdoors Gormley’s door is metamorphosing once more.
“What are our genuine values?” Gormley asks me, rhetorically, “and how are they exposed in what we generate? Do not we have to resist pure monetary values in favour of the higher value of the high quality of life? Ruskin was appropriate — ‘There is no wealth but life’.”
Gormley is addressing these problems, in his own, characteristic, thoughtful, if slightly oblique manner, in a perform that will form the centrepiece of a new show at Bermondsey’s vast White Cube Gallery. “Sleeping Field” is a landscape formed by a cluster of almost 600 sculptures, every single based on a human form abstracted into blocks like primitive industrial pixels, laid out in a landscape resembling a rather anarchic city program. Figures morph into architecture, bodies into entire urban blocks.
“I see it as trying to say one thing about the change in the urban which has crept up on us. We’ve been asleep — this is our collective body. Why have we accepted this condition of becoming aliens in this bigger physique? Although we’ve been sleeping an individual stole our personas and they’ve moulded [the city] in a way that’s not about wellbeing but about financial benefit.”
It’s an Invasion of the Bodysnatchers analogy, a brutal portrayal of a rapacious city consuming its own population. And the artwork will be inaccessible, glimpsed by means of slots in walls, an analogy for the alienation from the city.
Gormley himself benefited from what was once a far more forgiving London. Born into the gentle greenery of Hampstead Garden Suburb he ended up (after travelling to India in the early 1970s) a couple of miles south in the then almost abandoned wastelands of King’s Cross. “I was in a position to squat in a complete bloody factory in the King’s Cross Road,” Gormley says. “It was teeming with artists and there was genuine life on the streets.”
“There was this feeling of coming over the viaduct here, with this black brick wall with black granite copings and this massive open sky above — it was like a James Turrell!”
That expanse of sky is now being eroded by tall buildings. “York Road has turn out to be a canyon,” Gormley says, referring to the road outside his studio, “These priapic towers signal a new planet order that has no interest in culture at all. Mary [Shelley’s] Frankenstein’s monster is now a system that one particular can not handle — growth for its own sake.”
Gormley is genuinely angry, at least in his rather English polite and thoughtful way. Frustrated by a corporate takeover of the city. “Affordable housing appears to be the only condition. But why isn’t there a requirement for cultural provision to be made the developer’s duty? A dance studio, a music venue, studio space. Why has London just accepted that artists will have to move to Dagenham, or wherever. If we contact King’s Cross a ‘creative quarter’ and that creativity is a single of Britain’s identities, then is not there a need to have to integrate it? We need to contact these late capitalist, corporate values to account. They’re playing Monopoly with London.”
The artist is conscious of his personal luck: the long free squats in an era when central London was loose and accommodating to art, the great fortune of getting been born into a generation that could afford their own houses and the success that allowed him to commission architect David Chipperfield (who utilized himself to have his workplace on the other side of the railway lands in Camden) to design a huge studio. But he also sees the city through the eyes of a younger generation. “I am my [grown-up] children’s’ student,” he says. “They see what’s taking place to the city and they despise it.”
We return to chatting about the context, York Road, Central Saint Martins, the radical transformation of the city outdoors. “There is no such issue as Terra Nullius,” Gormley says, referring to the blank slate situations, which is how developers so frequently treat their web sites. “The site is its history, its present population and you have to attend to that. This whole show is a materialisation of my anxieties about the forces that are forming — and deforming — this city that is exactly where I was born and where I reside.”
For a even though it seemed that Gormley was moving towards architecture himself. His plan for the London Olympics internet site featured a enormous body as developing, a 24-storey figure with lots of stairs even though his crouching figure sculpture jutting out of the front of London’s Beaumont Hotel (“Room”) consists of an actual hotel bedroom. But in this show he has returned to the physique and its relationship with buildings, a more tangential but perhaps far more urgent inquiry. There are bodies upended and laid horizontal to resemble skyscrapers or collapsed buildings, one more a long tunnel based on an extrusion of his own body kind, “so you move down it like a piston”, he explains, towards the darkness at its sealed end. “It’s a test website in which the reflexive replaces the representational,” the artist says. “Stability and instability, the pieces of a puzzle.
“I’m hoping what it will do is to make absolutely everyone who comes to this show more conscious of how light, volume and space influence them emotionally.”
This is a show about the physique, and about bodies. But far more than any of Gormley’s preceding exhibitions, it is about the collective physique, about responding to the city and about responsibility for the city. “Our principal situation is the physical body,” he says, “and the secondary condition is the world that we have constructed with our bodies — which then goes on to develop us.”
‘Fit’, White Cube Bermondsey, London, September 30-November six. whitecube.com
Photographs: Greg Funnell Alamy
Copyright The Monetary Instances Limited 2016. You may possibly share using our post tools.
Please don’t cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by e mail or post to the web.