Today’s post is dedicated to Antony Gormley, an English artist whom I rediscovered through his solo exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London and who truly impressed me.
The exhibition at the Royal Academy on Antony Gormley is the perfect opportunity for those who, like me, want to discover or rediscover the artist. While it’s not a true retrospective, like Eliasson’s exhibition at the Tate Modern that I talked about in another video, it certainly tells the story of the artist’s journey and the reasons behind his creation of artworks.
Antony Gormley works
Gormley was born in London in 1950 and has always placed some fundamental themes at the center of his works. One of these is the human body, understood not only as the space we first inhabit but also as something that unites us all and makes us feel close.
The human body is described by Gormley as a place: the place of our experiences and emotions. A real kingdom that we govern and that allows us to dialogue with the space outside of us and with our fellow human beings.
I found it brilliant that the exhibition path begins outside the Royal Academy with a work that anyone can access: Iron Baby from 1999.
It is a tiny iron sculpture that takes the form of a newborn human body. A small being curled up on the floor that almost gets lost in the large courtyard of the Academy. The model for the creation of the work was the artist’s daughter, only 6 days old. And the work describes all the potential that is in each of us. The little body on the floor has been compared by Gormley to a bomb, an element of potential energy. Energy that can positively grow inside us even when we seem so defenseless.
Antony Gormley works. Slab works
And the theme of the human body continues inside the exhibition rooms. It is linked to a thousand other elements that are part of our daily lives. In a work like Slabworks, for example, we find ourselves wandering among 14 iron sculptures that seem to form a city of buildings, but which, seen up close, resemble more assembled bodies engaged in a thousand different actions, some standing and others lying on the ground. And so we have the feeling of visiting a city made up of real human beings.
This work, like others, especially those from the early years of his career in the 1970s and 1980s, has a strong connection to the history of art and other movements of the 20th century that characterized it. First and foremost, Arte Povera and Land Art. Being a fan of the works of Alighiero Boetti, I couldn’t help but notice some similarities between Gormley’s sculptures and works like “Io che prendo il Sole a Torino il 19 gennaio del 1969” (Me Sunbathing in Turin on January 19, 1969).
Works like One Apple from the 1980s emphasize Gormley’s interest in the themes of creation and development, not only of human beings but also of nature. The work consists of 53 lead forms that record the growth of an apple from the initial stage of the seed to the mature fruit. The same apple that is famous in our imagination as the fruit of Eve’s sin from which man originates.
Fruits of Earth
And still on the theme of the origin of the Earth, an interesting work is certainly Fruits of Earth. To better understand this work, we must take a step back in history. While one of the main themes addressed by the generation of artists following Gormley, such as Eliasson, is that of climate change, the main theme of the 90s was the Cold War and the possibility of seeing oneself and the world disappear due to nuclear weapons. So in this work, Gormley puts together what were then the three fruits of the Earth for him: a machete, a revolver, and a bottle of wine.
Even in his early works, the theme of the presence of the human being cannot be absent, as in works such as “Mother’s Pride,” where a body is recreated through slices of toast that appear to have just been consumed.
A crucial point in the works of this artist that I have always loved is the interaction with space through the artworks. This is the case with Clearing VIII, for example, where the visitor is invited to cross a tangle of tubes to move from one room to the next. Every step runs the risk of tripping or getting trapped in the net, but at the same time, it is an opportunity for choice where everyone is free to create their own path and therefore be themselves, without right or wrong. Choosing a path, however, will require physical and emotional involvement.
In the exhibition, the achievement reached just outside of this artwork is a room that is completely empty, almost void, with only a sculpture at its center. The stylization of a human being looking towards the floor, as if not wanting to meet the gaze of the visitor. This is the first true sculpture of a human being encountered after the courtyard girl and almost seems like an evolution in its form as an adult.
Being able to go back again is not simple, but it’s worth it to enter another installation work: Matrix III. An immense cloud of iron, created with 21 cages, each the size of a room, interwoven to protect a central area at the heart of the work. Gormley calls it ‘The space of dreams’ and it has the same dimensions as a standard Western bedroom. The space that accommodates our body when, while dreaming, we are captured by the labyrinth of our mind.
The moment of dreaming, when our body becomes the space of our mind to recreate our own reality, is the theme of the artwork that I loved the most: Lost Horizon from 2008. Just from the title, it’s clear how the space in which these bodies are immersed is surreal. There is no gravity, and horizontal, vertical, and diagonal become just words. With our mind, we can go beyond conventional structures and create parallel worlds that belong to us during our dreams. So, when we close our eyes, we open ourselves up to a new world where we no longer need the horizon to orient ourselves.
Many of Gormley’s works consist of sculptures like those exhibited in the show, but in outdoor spaces. Most of the time, the model for creation is the artist himself, and based on the presence and position of the artworks in space, a real interaction between the sculptures can be perceived. If it’s a single sculpture, there will be a feeling of loneliness, but if it’s several sculptures like in this case, then the idea of collectivity and the bond of the individual with others will be highlighted.
Another kind of work on the theme of the human body is that of concrete blocks: Concrete Works from the 1990s. At first glance, these blocks on the floor do not seem to be anything other than what they are materially – concrete blocks. However, upon approaching them, one realizes the passage of man. Some of them are characterized by casts of hands, feet or other parts of the body. The passage of man is manifested through his prints but remains absent at the same time.
Looking at Gormley’s thousand notebooks, one might think that his works are based exclusively or mostly on drawings. In reality, this is not the case. It is said that there are no preparatory studies of his works, but rather that each individual piece is drawn outside of its context and then various parts are assembled, like pieces of an imaginary puzzle in the artist’s mind. Where the human body is always the main protagonist.
In the last room of the exhibition, a human figure disappears to give space to the visitor’s body. Through their senses, even from a distance of a few rooms, one can immediately perceive the presence of the work Host from 2019. It is a flooded room that cannot be accessed but can be observed from afar. At the end of the room, there is a door, an imaginary passage that we cannot cross but that opens our imagination.
Each element of the work, and in particular the water, gives a new sense to the room, which becomes damp and apparently uninhabitable. But it actually hides a secret. From this condition of flooding, humidity, and destruction, life is born in the water.
If you enjoyed our tour of the Antony Gormley exhibition, I suggest you take a look at my YouTube channel. After all, my museum and exhibition tours, both in London and while traveling, never end.
The exhibition will be open until December, so if you happen to be in London, this could be a great appointment to mark in your agenda.
Thank you for joining me and see you soon!