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 - Tate Gallery, London
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 - Tate Gallery, London
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