The Hermitage sits on the banks of the Neva in St Petersburg like a great iced cake, a brilliant piece of toothsome Baroque confectionery. And today an English sculptor called Antony Gormley will bite off a great slice of that cake and claim it, albeit temporarily, as his own in a new exhibition there called Still Standing: A Contemporary Intervention in the Classical Collection.
Two entire galleries have been under Gormley's firm control for some months now. The lighting has been changed, venerable objects have been shifted in and out. Even a floor has been raised. In the first of Gormley's two rooms, the Dionysus Hall, he is showing his own selection – there are nine pieces in all – of Greek and Roman antiquities from the Hermitage's permanent collection, and in the Small Classical Courtyard he is displaying 17 sculptures of his own. It is the first time a living artist has been allowed to intervene with the Hermitage's collection in this way.
The Hermitage is by no means an institution that is satisfied to look backwards. Mikhail Piotrovsky, its director, would argue that this has always been the case. Was not Catherine the Great an astute collector of her contemporaries? And so it was with the tsars, too.
Fast-forwarding to 2011, the Hermitage has great plans for the future. It still acknowledges the importance of engaging with the art of our times. The General Staff Building on the other side of Palace Square is currently under refurbishment. When it re-opens, it will show the art of the present and the recent past. Many artists from the post-war period have shown here already. In the autumn of 2009, Charles Saatchi displayed works from his vast and ever changing collection of new British art. But what Gormley has been allowed to do here is a little different, both more wayward and more ambitious in its scope. What is more, this is the very first time that a living artist has been given free rein to meddle to quite the extent that Gormley has been allowed to meddle.
How did it come about? I caught up with Gormley in a St Petersburg apartment one evening this week. He had just hurried in from the drizzle. He'd had a bit of a frustrating day. When he'd got to the rooms where his works were being displayed, he'd found them locked. This being a state institution with inflexible rules, there was nothing he could do but fume and stamp and then turn tail and come back again tomorrow. For all that, he was in a buoyant enough mood.
Yes, he told me, he had certainly not expected to command quite so much space. In fact, Dmitri Ozerkov, curator of contemporary art at the Hermitage, and Piotrovsky himself, had offered him much less at the start. But Gormley, ever verbally persuasive, had had conversations in the director's office, around a majestic green baize table, loomed over by a great 16th-century tapestry, in the presence of precious green maiolica vases, and he had held out for more.
In fact, he tells me, the initiative to re-display selected objects from the department of Greek and Roman antiquities had actually come from the senior curator of that department in the first instance.
"Eventually," he tells me with no small degree of self-satisfaction, "they offered me two entire galleries. One was completely cleared, and 85 per cent of the work was removed from the other. Twenty-two plinth sculptures were got rid of altogether, just five were left behind."
Gormley has done two quite different things with these spaces. The display of works in the Dionysus Gallery in the department of classical antiquities is unlike anything seen in this space before. The difficulty with the Hermitage for any living artist coming to it with fresh eyes, Gormley explains to me, is that it presents itself as nothing more nor less than a rigidly stratified museum on the Enlightenment model. This is a building whose architecture dominates its objects, almost fixes their meanings. Gormley wanted to loosen all that up. So the architecture, and the relationship between building and objects, had to be changed somewhat. It had to take a step back. "Yes, I wanted people to be able to engage with the statues as objects, to stop people thinking of them as belonging to a rigid and remote hierarchy."
So what did they let him do?
"We raised the floor in order to disguise the plinths. By doing that, we brought the statues down to a more human level. They became things to which people could actually relate. They were no longer remote, decorative elements within an awe-inspiring architectural setting. There are relatively few of them in the Dionysus Hall, and they are now visible in the round, not set back against the wall. You can wander through them."
Having successfully disguised the marble plinths by raising the floor, that floor was then skimmed with grey linoleum. "It's grey, school lino," Gormley points out. The result is as pleasingly strange as it is intriguing. The gods – Athena, Dionysus and others – drift by in a kind of casual processional. One seems to give the other the eye. They become almost sexualised. The installation shots I am staring at as we speak on the telephone show me people, young and old, walking up to these statues as if they are about to have a conversation. These things are no longer set apart from us or pushed to the edge. They are no longer raised up, unreachable objects of veneration.
"The problem with this museum," he explains, "is that it has barely changed since 1820. Sculptures are shown close to the wall, on plinths, in an utterly regimented way. In my fourth-plinth project in Trafalgar Square, I raised up everyday life, for an hour at a time, to the level of a statue. Here at the Hermitage my aim has been to bring the gods to earth, to liberate them if you like – you see Eros looking like a love-sick child staring at Athena, that august matron.
"I wanted these antique statues to be seen with fresh eyes, as things which exist out in the world. They have had so much context imposed upon them, so much meddlesome museology. If you bring them down from their cabinets you can see, immediately, how lucidly casual the drapery is... What you also notice when you get up close to them is that they are confections, fabrications, all made, repaired, re-made. A nose has been broken off. Replace it with another then. There is nothing pure about these things. They are something other than what their original makers intended. Their placing here, their treatment, everything about the way they have been treated and displayed, has been bound up with the establishment of the great, 18th-century aristocratic collections of which they formed a part, some desperate search for the ideal, abstract notions of status, and what it means to be civilised... These works are fictions, fabrications, collages if you like... I wanted people to see all over again, with new eyes if you like, pieces which they were all too accustomed to both seeing and not seeing."
So much of the past, and how Gormley strove to reinvigorate it. But what of his own work? To discover Gormley's own equally extravagant sculptural fictions of the present, visitors will need to go to the Small Classical Courtyard. Gormley's choice of his own works is curious in the extreme. There are 17 pieces in all, and they all belong to a series of what can only be described as pixellated body images, rendered blockishly and brutishly, in three dimensions, brown, roughly finished, rusting.
"Seventeen solid iron blockworks" is how they are described, bluntly and unashamedly unprettily, in the press release. Most of them are variants upon the standing human figure. One is lying. Another curls in on itself, foetally. A third is huddled up, self-protectively. They look unsettled, robotic, perpetually on the brink of cataclysm or – perhaps even more unnerving – self-discovery. What is most apparent to the onlooker is how aggressively at odds they seem to be with their neo-classical setting, all these tall and serenely beautiful columns. Why these particular pieces then?
Gormley positively wanted such violence to be on display here, he tells me with unbridled passion.
"I had been thinking about Tatlin and Malevich, those pioneers from the Bolshevik years, and how in their works they brought the reality of industrial fabrication and mass production to the fore. I wanted to place brute material within a neo-classical interior. I also wanted people to think about the fact that the majority of these sculptures are standing. We take that for granted. Why should we? Looking itself needs to be an act of interrogation. Although these works are held in an orthogonal grid, they are not centralised. No matter how crudely pixellated the forms may seem to be, the fact is that they issue from a real, lived moment. They are not identical. Each one is forensic evidence of a particular body at a moment in time.
"Above all, I wanted people to think about three things simultaneously: their factual reality as objects, the nature of idealisation, and the material from which they are made. These are works which are oxidised, exposed to the elements..."
What a marvellous talker is Gormley! I am thinking this to myself as I find myself being partially washed downstream by his easy eloquence. No matter how good or bad the work may be, the ability to talk it up to this degree must surely take you places. To the Hermitage on the banks of the Neva, for example. Would he regard this as the greatest adventure of his life?
"Well, I haven't had much of a crack at such traditional museums before... One of the nearest, I suppose, is when I exhibited works at an archeological site in Calabria which dated from about 400BC. I displayed work on plinths that hovered above the forum... This is certainly the most august institution I've dealt with so far.
Jeff Koons recently did a similar intervention at Versailles. He placed his work in a setting that was frozen in time. I ask if Gormley saw that show, and if there were any parallels to be drawn between what Koons was doing there, and what he is trying achieve at the Hermitage. Or was the work of Koons radically opposed, in certain important respects, to the spirit of that place? The reply to those questions, when it came – and there was an uncharacteristic degree of hesitation – seemed to descend from a fairly lofty height.
"I didn't see it, no," he said, "but I would imagine that a collection of carefully placed shiny objects displayed in a perfect Baroque interior – two versions of kitsch – might be quite comfortable, both being sophisticated exercises in contemporary opulence...."
The truth of the matter is that Gormley is not a man whose work feels at home in opulent interiors either, generally speaking. His works often seem to engorge rooms or to be on the brink of escaping from them – think of Field, for example (thousands of small terracotta figures). His body casts are seen at their best in cube-like, featureless spaces, leaning against walls, or suspended part-way up them. Perhaps we are most accustomed to associating the sculptures of Antony Gormley with unusual or far-flung places, which have to date included Australian salt lakes, remote stretches of shore line, the tops of buildings, motorways, and even the flooded crypt of Winchester Cathedral... This is when these lonely, silent witnesses really come into their own.
"Yes," he readily agrees with me, "and there is such pleasure to be gained from putting sculptural forms on a skyline or out in the street, and then in trying to judge how people's behaviour is modified by that sudden encounter. It opens a window onto normality." You could then argue that what Gormley is doing at the Hermitage is not so much making an exhibition as creating an argument which serves as a challenge to traditional kinds of museum-making. He sees very clearly the kind of institution that the Hermitage is, and he wants above all things else not so much to praise it and to be aligned with everything that it represents, as to storm through its doors and remake it in his own image. There is too much looming, domineering architecture here, he seems to be saying to the viewer. The works themselves simply don't stand a chance. They are little better than a sideshow. What really matters is the triumphalism of this great institution.
I wondered aloud how he would be able to judge the response of visitors to this exhibition at the Hermitage (mounted in association with the British Council). He told me something quite surprising then – as much of a surprise to him once as to me. At least, that's how it seemed to me from the way he said it. "Dmitri Ozerkov told me that the Hermitage employs psychologists whose job it is to monitor the behaviour of visitors to the museum."
By the end of our conversation, he is a little weary of being interrogated, I feel, and a little weary of the business of explicating his own work too. "I talk too much," he laughs, "there are always too many words to be spoken, too many things to be written, too many SMS messages to be sent. The whole point as a maker is to create things that don't talk. The act of creation, that is getting back to what I really do. I make a new object, I bring it into the world. But immediately, there are challenges. I don't know how to speak to it, I don't know what to do with it. I am committed to, part of me wrestles with, the language of high modernism, I reflect upon what Mondrian had to say about pure perception, the pursuit of formal purity – red, yellow, blue – the creation of the orthogonal grid, but I also know that it has to be applied to the human body."
So Gormley too, in his own practice, is perhaps replicating the dilemmas of a great museum such as the Hermitage: how to be true to the lessons and the spirit of modernity, while at the same remaining faithful to the time-honoured idea of the body as a subject for sculpture, the body in space and time, the body ever ready to be interpreted as a space or a place, that which will enable you to describe an inner state.
Like the Hermitage, he looks both backwards and forwards. Like the Hermitage, he is Janus-faced. Indeed, there is nothing more relevant to the dilemmas of the maker in the pell-mell present than an image of that old Roman god who faced in two diametrically opposed directions at once. Meanwhile, back in the Dionysus Hall, young Eros has just made a proposal to matronly Athena...
Still Standing: A Contemporary Intervention in the Classical Collection, The Hermitage, St Petersburg (www.hermitagemuseum.org) 24 September to 15 JanuaryReuse content