British Sculptor, Printmaker, Installation and Public Artist
Summary of Antony Gormley
A highly celebrated contemporary sculptor whose works are globally recognizable, Antony Gormley is most famous for his large-scale public art interventions. Gormley is fascinated by the human form and he references it in most of his work, with sculptures that range from the semi-realistic to the semi-abstract. One of Gormley's reoccurring motifs is his use of multiple human figures within a single work, situating them in unexpected natural or urban locations. In doing so, he questions how humans interact with the environment and how they fit into the landscape that they inhabit. The fragility of the human form is contrasted with Gormley's use of industrial materials such as concrete and cast iron, which bring materiality and solidity to his work, giving them a sense of permanence and allowing them to survive in the outdoor environments in which they are often placed. Gormley is widely regarded as Britain's best-known sculptor with permanent public artworks existing in locations around the world, including Liverpool's Crosby beach, the Austrian Alps, and Sao Paolo in Brazil. He continues to work actively to date and has recently branched into more digitally-informed projects.
- In his earlier work Gormley used his body as both source and tool, creating indentions, shapes and replicas of his own form. Although, he has now stepped back from the production side of his artwork, he continues to use casts or models of his own body in many of his works. In doing so, his form exists as both himself and an Everyman representing the wider population, as he notes, "the instrument is particular, the ambition universal".
- Some of Gormley's most prominent works, including his Turner Prize winner Field (1991), contain significant elements of collaboration, with communities engaging with the artist to produce the constituent parts of the artwork under his direction. In other pieces, individual components are informed by casts or measurements taken from the bodies of volunteers as in Allotment (1995) and Domain Field (2003). The effect of this cooperative effort is the creation of work that, when initially viewed, appears to present a homogeneous mass of humanity, but when inspected more closely is made up of distinctly individual shapes.
- Gormley's figures are neutrally posed, simplified, repetitive, and lack facial features. This removes the ability of the viewer to draw emotional cues drawn from expression and posture and it is, therefore, hard to place a direct narrative interpretation on his works. The figures simply exist in the environment in which they've been placed, but their presence and appearance leads to a feeling of the uncanny. They are recognizably human, particularly from a distance, but on close inspection their humanity is less apparent. In the same manner, their placement within the landscape populates the space, but the figures lack sentience. This uncomfortable reaction to the pieces, in conjunction with the vastness of many of Gormley's installations, marks his work with a connection to the sublime, an effect common in Romanticism and particularly the works of painter Caspar David Friedrich.
The Life of Antony Gormley
Antony Gormley’s figures have towered over hilltops, appeared precariously on university rooftops and perched 2,000 meters above sea level on Alpine mountaintops. But the sculptor said: "I've never been interested in making statues. I have been interested in asking what is the nature of the space a human being inhabits.”
Progression of Art
More than 8,000 slices of Mother's Pride bread coated in paraffin wax are laid out into a patterned grid formation to resemble the weather-beaten surfaces of brickwork. Into the centre of the grid are two ghostly, body shaped indentations laid out flat like coffins in the ground, each forming one half of Gormley's figure.
Displayed during a two man show at London's Whitechapel Gallery, this work is a much celebrated, early example of Gormley's developing style as he explored the parameters of his own body, following on from his 1970s Sleeping Place sculptures. To create the work, he ate through enough slices of bread to leave the recessed areas behind, carefully calculating with mathematical precision the exact proportions of his body. "It was like eating to a (musical) score," he recalled. To prevent the complete decay of the remaining bread, Gormley deconstructed the stack and dipped the slices of bread into paraffin wax, preserving them in their gently mouldering state.
Commenting on the work's underlying meaning, Gormley wrote, "When making Bed I had this revelation that between what we eat and how we shelter ourselves was our condition and it became obvious that I had to address this in the most direct way possible and use my own experience as a template." The act of ingesting bread turned the simple, everyday ritual of eating, an act integral to human survival, into a work of art, pre-empting the Young British Artists of the 1990s, who, amongst other things, sought ways of humanising the gallery space by bringing in aspects of their own lives. Former director of The Whitechapel and later Tate, Nicholas Serota spoke of the work's potent message, which it still retains, pointing out, "The piece is a relic of an action - Antony did eat that bread - and today people respond to it like a relic. It remains an evocative and powerful image." Parallels can also be drawn between the consumption of the bread and the taking of Catholic sacrament, a significant ritual of Gormley's childhood. This imbues the process of the creation of the work and, therefore, the finished piece with a sense of religious purpose and this is also reflected in the traditional death-like pose of the absent figure.
Bread and Paraffin Wax on Aluminium Panels - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom
Three Ways: Mould, Hole and Passage
Three figures are grouped together across the gallery floor, each in a series of conflicting poses. One curls up in a foetal position suggesting child-like vulnerability, another with legs flipped overhead in a transcendental yoga pose, while the final one lies flat on the floor, with a rigid body echoing his erect penis, as if caught in a trance.
This work is one of Gormley's earliest body castings, in which he created a series of figures based on plaster casts of his own body, yet removing any trace of his identity, allowing the figures to become anonymous signifiers for varying human states of mind. Each body relates to geometric language, forming a sphere, a pyramid and a line. They each have a recessed point of penetration, one at the mouth, one at the anus and the final at the penis, but rather than simply implying sexual connotations, Gormley's entry points allow the possibility for access to internal emotions and spiritual awakening. This play between the inner world and its external context has been a vital component of Gormley's artworks, inviting us to also consider our own inner/outer experiences amongst his bodies. Referring to these early work as "body cases," Gormley writes, "The works deal unequivocally with the darkness of the body, the space that we all inhabit when we close our eyes."
Lead and plaster - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom
A vast sea of small figures are tightly packed together, rubbing shoulders with one another to form a mass of throbbing energy. Gormley has worked on many versions of this project, but the original idea was conceived during a difficult phase in his career in the late 1980s when financial struggles constrained his ability to make large scale cast sculptures. The immediacy of clay appealed to him, as he explains, "...clay is so receptive to touch and carries the sensation of a moment so powerfully." As his idea grew, he gradually saw the possibilities of including others in the process of making, remembering, "... it took several years to work out that I shouldn't be manipulating it. The process of giving up making something specific was a long one, but in the end I knew I had to get away from the idea of being the author, the originator and the subject."
Each version of Field made by Gormley has been constructed as a collaborative project with a specific community, with sites including Cholula in Mexico, Porto Velho in Brazil, St Helens near Liverpool in the UK, Ostra Grevie in Sweden and Guangadong in China. Although based on the same instructions, every location produced their own unique versions of the project. The work was carried out by men, women and children alike, who could each make as many figures as they liked. All he asked for was that each was hand-sized and easy to hold, had deep eyes, and a head in proportion with the body. Sizes of figures varied considerably, ranging from 8 to 26cms tall, and each was air dried before being baked in a kiln.
Gormley then installed these figures into rooms or galleries, packing them tightly together to create a surging mass, temporarily constrained by the architecture of the display space. This mass is punctuated by the eyes, which give the figures an unnerving sense of consciousness, returning the viewer's gaze. This, in turn, subverts the traditional idea of viewer and viewed. Gormley treated every individual figure with the utmost respect, commenting that "Each one comes from a lived moment. It is a materialisation of a moment of lived time, in the same way that my other work is...and they have a very particular presence, each of them." When seen as part of such a large group, the minutiae of each individual figure becomes lost as they are absorbed by the crowd, but their collective impact is a powerful metaphor of the strength made possible when people come together, a message which helped to win Gormley the Turner Prize in 1994 with Field for the British Isles (1993).
Fired Clay - Installation view: CCBB, Rio di Janeiro
A series of abstract, totemic columns spread out across a dry, barren landscape, resembling tombstones or the outlines of a modernist cityscape. Gormley produced this work collaboratively with a large group of volunteers in Malmo, Sweden, asking them to give him their exact body dimensions, which he distilled into the 300 blocks seen here giving an impression of both human presence and absence. Deliberately industrial in appearance, Gormley brings together his interests in human life and the modern metropolis in the piece, writing, "Modernism rejected the body, yet 90 percent of the populations of the western world live within the urban grid. Within this particular spatial system, architecture protects and defines us."
Engaging with our relationship to architecture, he invites us to consider the ways we are defined by the geometric spaces that contain us, writing, "The body is our first habitation, the building our second. I wanted to use the form of this second body, architecture, to make concentrated volumes out of a personal space that carries the memory of an absent self, articulated through measurement." Combining the human body and social engagement in this way echoed his work on the Field series, whilst also marking him out as a key player in the language of Post-Minimalism. Much like Field (1991), Gormley has also created various versions of this work since.
Reinforced Concrete - Malmö Konsthall, Sweden
The Angel of the North
One of the most iconic sculptures of all time, Gormley's Angel of the North stands 20 metres high and 54 metres wide in Gateshead, on the site of the former Tyne Colliery, forming a tribute to the coal mining industry. Like many of his sculptures, the body of the angel was loosely modelled on Gormley's own silhouette, although it has been simplified to take on a gender neutral role. The ribbed, panelled structure of the design echoes the vernacular shapes of the Tyne Bridge and Tyneside ships, whilst also giving the construction the strength to withstand British weather patterns, including winds of over 100 miles per hour. Beneath the angel's feet, 20 metres of concrete anchor it to the ground below.
Gormley is often asked why he chose to create an angel for the site, and he explains that, "The angel has three functions - firstly a historic one to remind us that below this site coal miners worked in the dark for two hundred years, secondly to grasp hold of the future, expressing our transition from the industrial to the information age, and lastly to be a focus for our hopes and fears - a sculpture is an evolving thing."
Although Gormley's plans for the sculpture were met with criticism throughout the process of design and installation, particularly since it cost £800,000 of public money, since its completion the angel has become a vital symbol of human endurance for the communities living around it. Visitors treat the site with the same sanctity as a cathedral, leaving flowers, spreading ashes, or pasting notes in memory of loved ones. This function taps into the spiritual essence in all Gormley's art, allowing the angel to become a potent signifier for the threshold between the real and the spiritual world. "That's a function that religious or sacred buildings have had in the past," says Gormley, "And I think that's a vital job."
The Angel of the North can be seen from the A1, one of the main arterial road routes across the country, and as such has also become a prominent symbol of the region, defining the area in which it stands. The sculpture has, subsequently, led to a regeneration of the entire area surrounding it. As a representative from the local authority explained, "The birth of the angel marked the beginning of a great deal of change in our borough and indeed in the wider region. It was the catalyst for the cultural regeneration of Gateshead Quays that led to the Gateshead Millennium Bridge, BALTIC (Centre for Contemporary Art) and Sage (International Music Centre)."
Corten Steel - Gateshead, Great Britain
A field of spectral figures seem to fade into the distance as the shapes merge to become an ethereal mass. Gormley invited a series of participants from Newcastle and Gateshead "aged from two to 85 years," to model for this installation, making plaster moulds of their bodies before filling the moulds with a series of welded steel bars to capture the bare bones of their essence in three-dimensional form. In doing so, it was Gormley's intention to depict each figure's unique patterns of energy or 'domain'. "How can you make the spaces that people displace into a collective energy field?" he asks, "...in other words, take the idea of spatial extension from the idea of a singularity, producing an expanded field to an immersive field of individual packets of energy?"
In the final installation 287 sculptures were displayed across one entire level of the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead. Gormley hoped visitors who came to the space could feel themselves being drawn into the work and integrated into it, allowing their energy fields to combine with those immortalised in his sculptures. He wrote, "The work needs to be inhabited by the living bodies of the viewers. It is their motion through the piece that makes the work."
Stainless Steel - BALTIC, Gateshead, Great Britain
100 standing figures are spaced out along a 2-mile stretch of Crosby Beach in Merseyside, each gazing out towards the ocean as if lost in their own thoughts. Each form is based on Gormley's own, and in this beach setting they resemble swimmers heading out into the ocean, or perhaps lost souls casting their fate to the sea.
Previously displayed on other beaches including Cuxhaven in Germany, Stavanger in Norway and De Panee in Belgium, Gormley's figures took up permanent residence on Crosby Beach in 2007. Gormley saw in the beach setting the possibility to play with the natural rise and fall of the tide, as well as the fall of the land and changing weather conditions, placing his figures in varying positions across the wide expanse of land. He wrote, "The idea was to test time and tide, stillness and movement, and somehow engage with the daily life of the beach." Resisting the romantic associations the work conjures up, Gormley sees the installation more as an observation between human interaction and the sea, writing "This was no exercise in Romantic escapism." Instead he observes how our bodies follow the same ebb and flow of energy as the ocean, driven by ancient forces beyond our control. Since installation, the artwork has altered under the conditions to which it was exposed, particularly the growth of barnacles on many of the figures further down the beach. This change and development shows the work responding to its environment and as a consequence becoming inextricably linked to it.
Cast Iron - Crosby Beach, Merseyside, Great Britain
In this deeply contemplative installation, 100 life sized figures made in cast iron are spaced out across 150 km in the Austrian Alps. Seen from a distance, the figures form a horizontal line just over 2,000 metres above sea level. Gormley deliberately chose this height, describing it as "an altitude that is readily accessible, but at the same time, lies beyond the realm of everyday life."
By placing figures in the relative wilderness, Gormley creates a human dialogue with the topology and geology of the area. Situating them in an elevated position also lends the sculptures an otherworldly, aspirational quality, as he explains, "[they] represent where a human being once was, and where any human being could be". The solid materiality of the works is also important to Gormley, not just because they are designed to withstand severe weather conditions, but because, as he explains, "They are my attempts to immerse myself in the stillness and silence of sculpture in the belief that we need these qualities in a time in which everything is erasable and instantly replaceable. Sculpture can turn us back to the primacy of first-hand experience rather than the mediated world of our habitat."
As with many of his sculptures, Gormley's Horizon Field also holds a profound messages of optimism, connecting with the inner world of human experience, where drive, ambition and hope propel us forward, while placing them in a context filled with awe and wonder as if to suggest the limitless scope of our potential.
Cast Iron - Mellau, Schoppernau, Schröcken, Warth, Mittelberg, Lech, Klösterle, and Dalaas, Austria
Biography of Antony Gormley
Antony Gormley was born in London in 1950 to a German mother and Irish father. A wealthy family, Gormley's father owned a pharmaceuticals company which was famously the first to work with Alexander Fleming to commercially produce penicillin. Gormley grew up in the family home his father had built in Hampstead Garden Suburb, where they had a chauffeur, cook and several household assistants to take care of them. Gormley has, however, hinted in interviews that his parents' strict, Catholic beliefs played out in harsh forms of discipline. Despite this, Catholicism informed the spirituality of some of Gormley's later pieces, as he explained in an interview, "If you are brought up a Catholic you may lose your Catholicism but the fact is it has marked you for life. And the need to replace its belief system with something else becomes your life's work."
Looking back, he likens the static, rigid bodies of his mature art to several childhood memories. One was the "enforced sleep" his parents imposed on him as a young boy, instructing him to lie down in his bedroom at 3pm in the afternoon. As he remembers, "I was never tired enough to sleep, so I would lie there and tell myself I couldn't move. And it was mixed with a certain kind of fear - somebody's coming and if I move they're going to kill me, so I'm not going to move..." He also cites the "terrible claustrophobia" he suffered as a child as a precursor to his still, stiff bodies, particularly after he was sent to a Catholic boarding school, where tightly cornered bedclothes closed him in.
At Ampleforth, Yorkshire's Benedictine boarding school, Gormley quickly discovered a natural inclination towards the arts, with a particular liking for carpentry and furniture making. He won various school art prizes, painted a mural in the school grounds when he was just 13 and even sold a series of paintings to the monks who taught him, demonstrating the talent and self-assurance that would catapult him into the spotlight as an adult.
Early Training and Work
Although Gormley had his sights set on art school, his parents pushed him towards academia; he recalls their attitude towards education, "The most important thing was that you had to have a job and not be a burden either on your parents or the state." His first degree was in archaeology, anthropology and history of art at Trinity College, Cambridge, begun in 1968. While there he met and befriended various prominent figures within the arts including artists Michael Craig Martin and Barry Flannigan, as well as former Tate director Nicholas Serota, who would give Gormley a major solo show at London's Whitechapel Gallery years later.
Gormley's interest in making art continued throughout his degree as he found paid work painting murals for university balls, nightclubs and private parties. Following his graduation in 1971, this work earned him enough to go travelling around India and Sri Lanka on the hippie trail for the next couple of years. While travelling, Gormley went on a spiritual quest, learning meditation and considering whether or not to become a Buddhist monk, but he eventually found his desire to be an artist was stronger. The huge number of drawings he made during this period, documenting the people, animals and architecture around him were impressive enough to earn him a funded place at art school.
Initially studying sculpture at London's Saint Martin's School of Art, Gormley's first figurative sculptures were based on the homeless people he had seen sleeping under blankets on the streets or railway platforms of India. He made casts of his friends' bodies while lying down under a blanket. Emphasising the importance of this stage in his creative development he states firmly, "There's no question that they carry in seed everything that has happened since."
Moving on to Goldsmiths University, Gormley remembers finding a great sense of humility, saying, "Goldsmiths caused me pain, trouble and great inspiration. I realised when I got to art school that I didn't have a clue what I was doing. Irrespective of whether art can be taught, art school is where you learn from everyone around you. I'd say it's essential for an artist." After graduating from Goldsmiths, Gormley went to study at the Slade School of Fine Art, where he met his future wife, the painter Vicken Parsons.
Gormley's breakthrough came in 1981 with Bed (1980-81), in which 8,640 slices of bread were stacked to create the size of a double bed, while Gormley ate out a section in the centre to match the proportions of his body. Nicholas Serota was the director of the Whitechapel Gallery at the time, and he chose to display Gormley's Bed in a two person show with British sculptor Tony Cragg.
Gormley then moved onto producing figurative sculptures, mainly in lead, which he would later abandon after discovering it was poisoning him. He first began making early body castings during this time, using his own body as a spiritual signifier for all people, particularly when multiplied, as seen in works such as Three Ways, and Land, Sea and Air II (1982). Gormley's wife became his primary studio assistant, helping him cover his entire body with plastic food wrap and plaster in a gruelling and lengthy process of creation. He remembers the unrelenting support she gave him in achieving his dreams: "Right through those early days when it wasn't looking as if it was going to work out - my God, you know, we had three children...[and] Vicken quietly accepted whatever came along...did all the moulding, did the lion's share of the child rearing and never stopped working herself."
Even after the Whitechapel show's positive reception, Gormley was still struggling to get by, with a shabby studio in Peckham and few commercial sales. Taking on teaching work a few days a week at various art schools helped, particularly while he and his wife were raising a large family. Suffering the financial strains of producing body casts proved challenging for Gormley and he later admitted his collaborative and much-loved work Field (1989-2003), was born from this period of struggle; sculpting from clay, and involving others in the process of making, seemed a more affordable and egalitarian option.
In 1993 art dealer and gallerist Jay Jopling signed Gormley with his commercial White Cube Gallery, leading to a period of financial security. Gormley also received commissions to produce various public artworks throughout the 1990s. These were often composed of figure groupings placed apart, yet in harmony with one another, opening up meditations on the human relationship with the natural world. These ideas prompted critical comparisons with land artists including Robert Smithson and Walter de Maria, although it was clear Gormley's ability to bring the internal and external spaces that surround the human body into his art set him apart from his peers. In 1994, Gormley won the Turner Prize for his ongoing work with Field. Three years later he was awarded an OBE for services to British sculpture.
Following his Turner Prize win Gormley was commissioned to create The Angel of the North, begun in 1994 and completed four years later. As Britain's largest, and perhaps most famous public artwork, it stands at the site of a disused collier and has become a powerful symbol of stability and endurance. On a recent visit to the site he observed, "... people are spreading ashes, leaving tokens for lost loved ones ... It's clear that the work is doing something that people need to be done."
With his three children grown up and pursuing careers within the arts, Gormley now has several large, factory style studios in England, including one in north London near Kings Cross designed by David Chipperfield, and one in Hexham, Northumberland. Both of these employ multiple assistants to help keep up with the influx of commissions and exhibitions he receives. Gormley has found distancing himself from the process of making gives him greater opportunity to contemplate the conceptual aspects of his practice, as he explains, "I used to go to bed exhausted from beating lead and mixing plaster. Now that extreme physical exertion of making sculpture is shared with my assistants; perhaps that allows me to see the work more ruthlessly. When you've invested an enormous amount of physical and emotional energy in a piece of work, it can be difficult to judge it objectively. I think I'm in a better position to do it now, and it's a huge pleasure and privilege to be surrounded by such ambitious, sensitive, intelligent people."
Recent projects by Gormley have become more ephemeral with figures made from delicate tangles of wire or geometric blocks that slot into one another like a puzzle. He has also embraced new technology and in early 2019, he collaborated with astrophysicist Priyamvada Natarajan and Acute Art to create Lunatick (2019), a virtual reality experience that allows viewers to fly over the surface of the moon. Both he and his wife continue to pursue their independent practices, although he has spoken of the impact she has had on his career, saying, "I couldn't have done what I have done without Vicken's help. My lover, muse, assistant - she is the maker of my life, really."
The Legacy of Antony Gormley
Given the introspective, meditative quality of his art, Gormley has tended to be a somewhat lone figure who has not been associated with any one specific art movement. He rose to prominence, however, during a vibrant time as the Young British Artists (YBAs) brought the British art scene to international attention in the 1990s. Although the YBAs are most prominently remembered for their shock tactics, many also emphasized their own bodies in their work, using them as universal signifiers for the human experience and this overlaps with the physical immersion and interactivity of Gormley's practice. This can be seen in Sarah Lucas' 'laddish' self-portraits and bodily sculptures, and in Tracey Emin's brutally honest self-exposure through printmaking and tapestry. Gormley's ability to combine a Minimalist language with an awareness of the body also connects him to various Post-Minimalist artists including Rachel Whiteread and Mona Hatoum, who have also sought ways of bringing psychological tension and traces of human presence into geometric arrangements.
Glasgow School of Art's Environmental Art course, established by David Harding in 1985 also helped to promote British sculptural practices and many graduates have extended ideas first explored by Gormley. Nathan Coley's large-scale public artworks, for example, explore the ways we react to our surroundings, with loaded phrases that invite deeper contemplation about our place in the world, connecting with the spiritual strand of Gormley's art. Similarly, Martin Boyce's geometric, angular sculptures reference the contemporary industrial environment, while opening it out into an imaginative, magical realm, recalling the play between gritty materiality and Buddhist thought in Gormley's public sculptures.
Many of Gormley's large-scale public art installations have become extremely well-known and iconic symbols of towns or regions, with local people actively identifying the works with the locations in which they've been placed. The most famous of these is The Angel of the North, but other examples include Another Place at Crosby Beach, Merseyside and 6 TIMES (2010), a series of sculptures running along the Waters of Leith in Edinburgh.