THE INTERVIEW
Antony Gormley

Antony Gormley
Photographed at
Pier 2/3, Walsh Bay, Sydney

Antony Gormley, born in London 1950, came to prominence in the early 1980s with his body case sculptures. For 15 years he has been working in various regions around the world on what he calls the Field project. Using local clay he allows local people to form surrogate populations, small figures that become a kind of self-portraiture. Asian Field, his installation at Pier 2/3, Walsh Bay, for the 2006 Biennale of Sydney, was made by 500 assistants out of 125 tonnes of gritty brick clay in Xianxian village, Guangzhou in 2003. He spoke to Harvey Shields the day before the opening of the Biennale.


Harvey Shields: I would like to address the question of your work in relation to the space it occupies. You have probably answered lots of questions to do with this particular work and how it relates to the architecture, but I would like to backtrack a bit and talk about your earlier pieces, which were also to do with occupying space. They were works isolated in the space, whereas this work, which is called a field, is more of a collective and occupies the space in a totally different way. Can you pinpoint that moment of transition when you moved from one notion to the other?

Antony Gormley: I don't think it is so different really. When I think about Room (1980), which is just a set of my clothes expanded to make a kind of barbed wire fence; chopped into continuous strips about 8 mm thick and then unpeeled like an orange, expanded to become an enclosure....

…was that in a gallery?

Where I showed it first was in an old industrial building, and I still think of that as a very important early work, and the point that I'm making is that it was exclusive. I made this enclosure that was like a boxing ring that you couldn’t get into, and it was the space of a personal life that was made into an architectural space.

 


Room 1980
Socks, shoes, pants, trousers, shirt, pullover, vest, jacket, wood

 



This work (in the Biennale) is about space and exclusivity, which is also what the body case works were about, a personal space, which is void, absolute, and exclusive. You can’t get into it but in a way you’re invited to think about the space that is hermetically sealed inside there.

So it is the reverse of traditional sculpture where the cast is discarded to leave the positive, for in your work you have kept the negative and people are invited to think about that space within the cast.

That’s true, and I think that has always been the thing, how do you make this void have resonance.

 

 

 

Three Ways: Mould, Hole and Passage 1981
Lead/fibreglass/plaster
Mould:60 x 98 x 50 cm
Hole:62 x 123 x 80 cm
Passage:34 x 209 x 50 cm



Asian Field (detail) 2003

 

I saw the piece of yours in the Art Gallery of NSW.

Oh yes, the very first one (of the Field series).

Just as you said, as you walk through it there are these faces looking at you and there is a plea coming up from the faces.

Yes a big plea.

I started to think back, to come up with a progenitor, and I came up with Iberian sculpture which Picasso and Braque collected. I went back and looked at a few examples, and I looked at their expressions and they had a very similar expression to your faces. The Iberian figures are votive objects and they seem to be looking heavenward, looking for an answer. It is very interesting that these two great modernists picked up on that, especially Picasso who started to incorporate the eyes into his painting.

Yes the Demoiselles has two references doesn’t it?

African…

…yes, African and then there is early Iberian, almost Iberian/Celtic kind of eyes. The eyes for the Celts were very, very important. You can think of the Janus heads and that thing about looking, looking to the past and looking to the future.

I would like to think that I have completely escaped from the obsession of Western art with stylistic developments. What this work tries to do is say, I am going to build my right to exist as if no art has ever existed, and I am going to argue for my own existence by arguing where art fits within human need. This work is about survival of consciousness and the survival of matter.

In a way this work (Asian Field), is a confrontation between the space given to the viewer’s body and the space given to the artwork. The artwork is a total infection of the space, total occupation…

Yes, one becomes totally excluded. You can walk up to it but then it completely takes over, you the observer, are no longer important.

Well you are important. You are where all those gazes want to be. They want what they haven’t got, which is life and you haven’t got what they have, which is this space. There is a kind of exchange of lack.

So they are looking at you looking at them.

My feeling is that this is real space that is in a way made into a picture, or made into a place of reverie that then wants to haunt you, wants to infect you.

 


Iberian Bronze Votive Sculpture
Origin: Spain
Circa: 600 BC to 500 BC
7 cm high



Asian Field 2003
Clay from Guangdong Province, China, 210,000 hand-sized clay figures made in collaboration with 350 people of all ages from
Xiangshan village, north-east of the city of Guangzhou in south China.

 

It’s individual consciousness as well as collective consciousness. I see in the work a whole lot of individuals, all crowded into the same space, shoulder to shoulder. They are all different heights, with individual characteristics, each one being hand-made. Is that why you went for the very hand-made feeling?

It is very important this. I’ve used all the resources of mass production to undermine the central ethos of mass production, which is that you can make lots of the same thing without variation. This is 125 tonnes of clay that would otherwise have become bricks, which are only of value because they are absolutely the same.

Which is a contradiction. We are all individuals but at the same time just another brick in the wall. By thinking about building material you’ve produced a whole lot of individual votive objects.

I wonder if they are votive objects. I think they may be. What’s extraordinary about Cycladic work is that nobody knows what the hell it is, but one of the reasons they are so powerful is that they are both like dolls and like gods. They have the intimacy of something that naturally fits into the hand and doesn’t demand, as it were, a plinth or a base, because they are not meant to stand, they are made in the hand and in a way belong in the hand. This work (Asian Field) shares similar aspects with Cycladic sculpture, that is, it is to do with the relationship with the hand. When you say votive that is very interesting because on one level I would like to think it is absolutely anti-religious and yet, because it deals with destiny, or it deals with a possible future, a notion of the unborn, it has a very powerful spiritual dimension.

I don’t think you can avoid it. By looking at it, it really entraps you in this thing that there is some sort of higher consciousness going on.

When you say votive you see, we go in there in the position of God. They are beseeching, not so much penitent, but seeking some form of…

…recognition.

…yeah, recognition, acknowledgment, justice, whatever. There are so many things. On one level I feel I don’t have the right to interpret this work because the whole point about making it was that it was supposed to be an open work and that it was supposed to be collectively generated. It doesn’t belong to me; it belongs to everyone, everyone who made it…

…but you’re the consciousness that brought it together.

Yes I can’t deny that responsibility. I constituted the thing, but I know that there is a sense in which this is a kind of Last Judgement and that it is about how the works of man fit within whatever that hierarchy is between matter and consciousness. I would love to think that it was the Guernica of global warming, but that wasn’t my intention.

But you do hold out that people will come to their senses and see that we are living on borrowed time or that mankind is moving towards some form of apocalypse. I always say that we are the smartest of the animals but not quite smart enough to avoid destroying ourselves.

We are still bloody animals. We are still fixated on a Darwinian kind of drive pattern. We don’t understand that the moment of enough was a long time ago already. It’s really weird that with all our technology, with all our instruments, with all our intelligence, still we’re really basic. Injustices continue as if we were just animals and our predatory nature and our territorial nature are stronger drives than the intellectual determinants or whatever the soul part of the human being is. Why does that not prevail, why can we not be confident that human beings can evolve into a higher form, well ‘higher’ is a bit problematic, but anyway, maybe more sensitive forms? It’s extraordinary, I don’t understand it because it’s not as if we haven’t had such extraordinary advantages.

We haven’t learnt how to eliminate wars, confrontation, poverty…

…we haven’t accepted responsibility for providing justice, basic justice…

…getting back to sculpture…

…much safer.


Cycladic Sculpture
Origin: Greece
Circa: 2600 BC to 2400 BC

I was just in the Art Gallery of NSW and they have one of Marini’s horse and riders. (Marino Marini: Italy, b. 1901, d.1980, Rider, collection the Art Gallery of NSW). I was thinking of your work in relation to Marini and I was wondering whether he was ever an influence or even someone like Elisabeth Frink (British b, 1930 d. 1993).

There is something that I like about Marini’s making the equestrian knight somehow a victim of his own identity. Penis, horse, stubby arms, in a way an unstable symbol.

Slightly skew-whiff.

Yes about to fall, a sort of lost cause, Don Quixote figure, and there is something about that that I like. I like his early or maybe not so early Pomonas, but he is not really my thing. Frink…there are certain aspects of Frink, her politics for example which interest me, but there is also…I don’t know, out of all of those geometry of fear people I love the early Kenneth Armitage, friends together in the wind. It was a very, very brief period though, maybe 1952-54.


Kenneth Armitage
Friends Walking 1952
Bronze, edition of  6
h: 55.9 cm


Marino Marini
Pomona 1949
National Galleries of Scotland
I think I also read somewhere you were really taken by Rodin’s Age of Bronze, that somehow that distilled the figure for you, but after that you say he sort of lost it.

Yeah. I don’t know, I have been to Meudon (Rodin Museum at Meudon), for the first time and really looked hard. I think I was a bit hard on Rodin; I sort of accused him of oily sexuality.

That’s a very British attitude.

Yes, very British, but anyway I think it was a bit unfair, because I think he did have extraordinary empathy with women, while being very predatory. The thing about the Age of Bronze is very, very simple. It is the first step towards the de-emblemising of sculpture. So you take the spear away, you take all the attributes away and you end up with just the body, and what is extraordinary about the Age of Bronze is that this is a body that is in a moment of self-consciousness. That clasped hand that is brought to the top of the head, the closed eyes, the arm that would have been holding the spear, and then the title. So here is a moment of personal realisation, which cannot be disassociated from the idea that here is man who in the sense that he has thrown aside his spear has thrown aside the identity given to him by the nomenclature ‘soldier’. So maybe this is a moment of self-possession. That’s the personal story, and then there is the reference to a bigger issue, how humans have evolved, moved from the Stone Age to the Bronze Age etc. The model, the soldier back from the Napoleonic wars or wherever, becomes a carrier of figure ideas about human destiny, without any of the accoutrements. We can say that that is one of the things that sculpture has always done but before Rodin it was done in a rhetorical or in a collective narrative way.

So he is capturing a moment of consciousness, and of course the gesture is very important.

The gesture, which is taken away. You would expect the gesture of a soldier to always be bodily energy expressed outwards, to be an effective masculine hero, doing stuff. The Age of Bronze is the reverse of that. It is an internalised moment, in a way a withdrawal, and this is a collapse if you like of all of those duties, which sculpture had to carry for so long, particularly in the 19th century. It is what Michelangelo did much earlier in terms of how he rinsed in a way, the tawdry religious significance out of something like a Pietà and replaced it with really profound meditations on some of the things we’ve been talking about, of consciousness and matter, which is a sculptor’s obsession really. Thinking about Michelangelo and Rodin, you think how lucky you are, that you don’t have to bother with patronage in the way they had to. They had to side step the patronage in a way in order to make the work that they had to make, and we are in a curiously blessed period where real artistic research can go on without the imposition of patronage.

Well there are Biennales like this one.

One has to be so careful of culture, which can become just another zone of over production.

There is one piece in the Art Gallery of NSW (the Art Gallery of NSW is one of the venues for the 2006 Sydney Biennale), done by a Chinese female artist I think, where you walk through this labyrinth of hanging silk then you emerge into this zone of barbed wire and the artist has written down a quotation that goes, “Culture is to a Nation as a lover is to a Married Man”. To me this is too simplistic and retrospective. One can always make didactic statements about dichotomies of power, but does that necessarily make for good art?

It is dangerous isn’t it, there is always that temptation to make a shortcut in terms of what you’re doing is trying to tell you, and you end up believing that there is such a thing as a kind of issue that a work can encapsulate. In fact the thing has to be an emergent thing and that’s the beauty of art, that somehow if you stay with it long enough, things begin to occur. I’ve been making these Fields since 1990 and I still don’t really know what they are, but they came from a very real crisis in my feeling about what I could and should be doing, and I still don’t know. My wife gives me hell about these things, saying, what are you doing going around the world when you should be in the studio, and in many ways she’s right. But actually just spending two or three days sitting there, again just touching the work, being with it, I’ve still got a lot to learn from this piece.


Auguste Rodin
The Age of Bronze 1876
bronze
Brooklyn Museum of Art



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