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  • Writer's pictureShlomit Oren

The Human Body As A Place - Gormley At The RA

One of the best exhibitions currently on show in London is Anthony Gormley's at the Royal Academy. I tend to like this venue and their 2020 program makes me want to visit there at least every three months (Lucian Freud, Marina Abramovich and many more).

Gormley is a well-known and esteemed British artist whose main focus is in the human body, but not in the creation of a specific and identified realistic model. For Gormley the human body is a place - a place of emotion, consciousness, experience, memory and imagination. The body is the vessel that contains all of these and in that sense it is universal, even if Gormley usually uses his own body to create the molds.

In this exhibition Gormley aims to make the visitors go through a journey, in which we explore the objects around us and our reactions to them. The exhibition becomes a physical experience.

Antony Gormley, Iron Baby, 1999
Antony Gormley, Iron Baby, 1999

Even before entering the building, in the courtyard leading to the Academy, at the foot of the central statue in the square, Gormley places a sculpture of a tiny baby. This is a life-size iron cast based on the artist's six-day-old daughter. It is very easily missed in this big plaza, but once you have seen it you cannot ignore it. This is not a hollow bronze sculpture, but a full cast of iron, "same as the material from which the earth's core is made of", Gormley says. This density combined with the energy potential that it holds make it a metaphor for humanity as well as planet Earth.

Antony Gormley, Slabworks, 2019
Antony Gormley, Slabworks, 2019

In the first hall there are 14 sculptures made of metal bricks scattered throughout the space. These structures echo the shape of the human body in various postures. It is easy to imagine the man leaning against the wall, the one curled in a fetus position or the one sitting in the corner. In the second hall there are early works by Gormley dealing with energy within each and every one of us: the image of a falling man, head facing downward drawn with bites off white bread slices (personally it reminded me the images of people falling to their deaths on 09/11); or the changing shape of an apple from seed to ripe fruit, documented in a long line of lead objects, Within each of them, an apple is trapped in a different stage of development.

Antony Gormley, Mother's Pride V, 2019

In the following room you will find one of the highlights of the exhibition: An 8-kilometer aluminum coil that Gormley set loose in the room, allowing it to occupy it, limited only by walls and floor. The result is a "drawing in space" as the artist calls it. It is chaotic and beautiful. Visitors are urged to pass through these coils to continue into the next room. This may sound like a simple task, but since the metal coil is not arranged and organized, each visitor has to find their way, to choose the obstacles they are willing to face, just like in actual life. Watching the behavior of the people in this room is an experience in itself: jumping and frolicking children, seniors looking for a safe path with care and determination, others taking selfies or videos. A kind of human encyclopedia. This work challenges the boundaries of sculpture: the metal and the people both populate space and interact with each other.

Antony Gormley, Clearing VII, 2019
Antony Gormley, Clearing VII, 2019

Matrix III is also an installation which occupies an entire room: a huge cloud of iron is suspended from the ceiling, slightly above visitors' heads. The cloud, six tons in weight, is built from 21 room-sized cages made of iron mesh used in construction for concrete reinforcement. They intersect at different points, paused above the ground. The margins look like a sketchy drawing which get denser towards the center, but the core, the size of a typical bedroom, remains empty – ‘the space for dreaming’ Gormley calls it, like the eye of the storm.

Antony Gormley, Matrix III, 2019

Gormley shows us that he can also draw. In fact, all of his sculptures start as paintings. Painting is his way of thinking and he draws every day. The display of Gormley's sketchbooks is a brilliant curatorial decision, enabling us to follow the creative thought process and crystallization of the images leading up to the art works presented in the surrounding spaces. Some of the drawings are very delicate and moving, and the intimacy of this part is in stark contrast to the scale of the other works.

Antony Gormley, Lost Horizon, 2008
Antony Gormley, Lost Horizon, 2008

Gormley’s most famous series is the hollow iron castings of his own body, which he has placed in various places, most often in open air, where they interact with the landscape and the surrounding environment. These hollow bodies are human and non-human at the same time. In this exhibition they are placed on the floor, walls and ceiling in a way that destabilizes visitors' perception of space.

Antony Gormley, Cave, 2019
Antony Gormley, Cave, 2019

The Cave sculpture is of architectural dimensions and densely fills two large rooms. Cave is actually a hollow structure of a human figure that is coiled into a fetal position. Visitors enter through the legs and exit through the head. Inside it is very dark and dense. Few rays of light penetrate and help you navigate. When I visited there was a long queue of people waiting to pass through the sculpture, so we were very close to each other. I guess going into it alone is a whole different experience. Gormley challenges our visual and touch senses and gives us a multifaceted experience, so to speak, using very simple means. Incidentally, the weight of the work required strengthening the foundations of the long-standing building.

Antony Gormley, Host, 2019
Antony Gormley, Host, 2019

The last installation work made quite a bit of noise prior to the opening of the exhibition: Gormley filled an entire room with seawater and wet clay. These stand in stark contrast to the ornamented gilded ceiling and walls. The water make the air moist and thick and the clay smells heavy. Unlike Gormley's sculptures, in this work the artist does not form the material, there is no material manipulation here. On the contrary, he lets it occupy the space. On the one hand this work can bring thoughts of flood and imminent destruction, but on the other, it is the cradle of creation - a state of chaos, water from which the earth will be separated and from which man will be created.

For the purpose of installing these two last art works, the Royal Academy needed to massively reinforce of the rooms’ foundations so that they could carry the weight and be fully sealed. These were done during the grand renovation of the Royal Academy building and cost quite a bit of money, which called for public criticism. However, the infrastructure will enable other artists to create exceptional installations in this space and give the Royal Academy technical advantage over other institutions.

Antony Gormley's sketchbooks

The fact that Gormley bases his work on his own body almost exclusively makes him a kind of narcissist to many. Even if you subscribe to artist's point of view that the sculptures represent the everyman, it is first and foremost a man's body, and in a very distinct way. In fact, his work shows no women. For me personally, this causes little discomfort, and despite the aesthetic and intellectual stimuli I found in the works, I found it difficult to emotionally connect to them (except for the baby sculpture at the entrance).

Nevertheless, Gormley's work holds distinct material aesthetic and at the same time it is conceptual, something not many artists achieve. It makes his art multifaceted without flouting any of the aspects, physical and conceptual. It is amazing how the human body, such a well-known and worn subject, takes on a different form as it carries a different idea, yet maintaining an identifiable artistic distinction.

The exhibition is on display until December 3. Make sure you also visit the self-portraits exhibition of the one and only, Lucian Freud. Pure pleasure is guaranteed.

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Dec 02, 2019


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