Antony Gormley is one of Britain’s most important contemporary sculptors, and installations of his work have taken place worldwide. For forty years, Gormley has found surprising and provoking ways of exploring the human form and its relation to space and time. Deeply charmed by the phenomena of the body such as the unseeable space the body occupies and its relationship to architecture, he creates works that replicate the memories of our bodies with sculptures that range from the semi-realistic to the semi-abstract. By analyzing the human body’s journey through light and darkness, he managed to create somatic narratives and placed them in the most unexpected and engaging locations around the world. “In this atmosphere of light there is a feeling of timeliness, of being outside industrial time,” he states. “Sculpture is a threshold to another attitude to time; it provides the invitation to escape mechanised time as we know it.”
Gormley was born in London in 1950, the youngest of seven children, to a German mother and devout Catholic Irish father, who ran a pharmaceutical company. He studied at the Central School of Art and Design, the Slade School of Fine Art, and eventually at Goldsmiths College, where he completed his Master’s in 1979. One of his first works, ‘Bed’, 1980, featured for the first time a cast of his own body, stretched out on a wooden bedframe and was displayed in a disused warehouse in East London.
Although his artistic career and reputation were quite unseen back then, after graduating from University, he started earning money from painting murals for May balls, night clubs and underground parties for which he was paid five shillings per square foot. “You could have psychedelic, tropical, or apocalyptic. And of course the bigger the better.” In three months had earned enough money to set off for India. Here are some highlights of his three years self-explorative journey: Contracted typhoid, studied meditation with a Burmese guru and considered becoming a Buddhist monk. Much of Gormley’s thinking around his perception of sculpture and the body can be traced to these years. Spirituality was the missing secret ingredient to the ultimate recipe for success.
‘It was Buddhism, rather than the Western canon, which gave me the idea of the abstract body,’ states Gormley. ‘It gave me the idea that you can make sculpture about being rather than doing, that you can make sculpture that is a reflexive instrument rather than existing as a freeze-frame in a narrative.’
His heavy interest in Buddhism is clearly represented in Room (1980), in which Gormley took his own clothes, cut them into continuous spirals of cloth, and formed an inaccessible enclosure within the space of the room by wrapping them like a fence or wall around four poles. In the following year, he began making sculptures by wrapping lead around a form produced from a mold of his own body, resulting in an organic shape sometimes rather like a pod or Egyptian mummy case marked on its surface by the rectilinear grid of welds.
In the 1990s, Gormley’s work became more focused on the relationship between the body and the environment, creating sculptures that are more site-specific and responsive to their surroundings. One of his most famous works, ‘Angel of the North’, 1998, is a 20-meter high steel sculpture of a human figure, located on a hilltop overlooking the city of Newcastle in the north of England. The sculpture was designed to respond to changes in the weather and light, creating an ever-changing presence in the landscape.
“Sculpture is silent, still, and in its best examples, it uses that quality to great effect in a world where everything is mobile. I think we need sculpture more now than at any other time, simply because it is a still moment in a moving world that asks the question, “What are you doing here?” You might also ask that question of the sculpture, but a good sculpture will always return the question to the viewer. The extraordinary thing about sculpture is the way it can communicate over vast periods of time, and I think art has always been an attempt to make a bridge with what lies beyond the horizon of perception.”
As beings with consciousness, we tend to contemplate the existential aspects of life. Our destiny lies beyond our knowledge and control. Nonetheless, some of us delve into these matters with a profound sense of inquisitiveness and determination. Only a handful of individuals have been able to leave a lasting impression on the way we understand life. Antony Gormley is among those exceptional few.