REVIEW / Fine figures of a man: Tom Lubbock on Antony Gormley at the Tate Gallery, Liverpool and Richard Wentworth at the Serpentine Gallery, London
Tuesday 07 December 1993
'Man' is both the operative and the questionable word. And how important it is that his own body was in there originally I'm not quite sure, because the figures do also want to stand in an exemplary way for the generally human. On the other hand, how far Gormley could have attempted that, how easy he would have found it to offer himself as an exemplary human being, if he'd been, say, a very fat man, or indeed a woman (of any size) is a moot point which his sculpture doesn't really address. But it should probably be mentioned, before going on to say that the survey of his recent work at the Liverpool Tate is a really impressive show, and not least because, at a time when there's a great deal of art 'about the body', usually of a vaguely paranoid nature, Gormley finds a way to believe in the human shape and to give it a new and positive presence.
A work called Testing a World View gives you one version of this. It uses a room and five identical figures in cast iron, each bent at the waist in a stiff right angle. You have five L-shaped iron-men, then, and they're placed about the room as if they've been casually tumbled around, and ended up in a variety of postures. One's on his back, legs in the air, another feet on the ground and head butting a wall, another stacked in an inverted V, another on his side and jammed into a corner. The effect is of a complete indifference as to what the right way up for a human body is. And the one obvious L-shape that's noticeably omitted - a sitting-up posture - is omitted presumably because it would have allowed the figure too much head-up self- command.
You might think the body is being thoroughly objectified here. But oddly enough, you don't feel this as a punitive gymnastic regime, a body compelled to hold impossibly uncomfortable positions. Gormley's bodies can't easily be objectified, or tormented, because they're not the strenuous, agonised, soul-breathing, freedom-loving bodies of traditional masculine statuary. Sculpturally, they hold a position somewhere between a figure and an object, between an image of a man and a model of a man. Humanly, this gives them their own freedom, a bit like the invulnerable comic bodies of farce - bodies which don't quite have consciousness, or which aren't divided from their consciousness. It's a sort of blessing.
A series of concrete blocks puts this a slightly different way. To get a picture of them, imagine a body entirely enclosed in a block of concrete, but just emerging from the surface at its extremes, soles of the feet, hands, top of the head. Then imagine the body vanished (this is roughly how they were made, a wax body melted out of from inside a concrete case), leaving only a block with man-shaped void inside, the holes where it stuck out - five little rings, say, which were once fingertips - the only clue to its presence.
Again, it sounds an objectifying or oppressive image, like a propaganda piece for Amnesty International. But again, oddly enough, it's not. You're not made to dwell on the thought of concrete overcoats, or of one those legendary motorway construction accidents, or even of a body squeezing out into freedom, which you might well, if the body had been left inside. Absent, it comes over the other way: not as imprisoned but diffused, making the concrete shell an extension of itself and giving the block soul. The body, it's intimated in these works, is an element in continuum, not essentially estranged either from its mind or from the world of matter. A consoling thought, which perhaps ought to be resisted - but it's unquestionably done with conviction.
The real coup, though, is Field for the British Isles: 40,000 pint-sized, red clay figures (to the eye, an innumerable quantity) occupying in close formation almost the whole of a long gallery. Moulded by a band of volunteer assistants, they're barely formed clods, each different but hardly individuated, with only a blob head and a pair of pencil-jabbed eyes to make them humanoid. It's true that the 'floor of a room filled with lots of the same kind of thing' has become an established artistic genre - but this is far and away its most breathtaking manifestation.
It's another half-life effect, like a waiting-room of the unborn. At the viewer's end, the gallery is partially closed off by walls coming in from either side, a bottle- neck which sets up an enormous pressure of population within the space the figures occupy. It also creates a threshold, at which this multitude suddenly stops dead, in a line, at your feet. They stand there, gazing up at you, obedient, expectant, appealing, implacable. It's a spectacle that redounds upon the spectator, precipitating every kind of mass-emotion, and the best new thing I've seen for a long time.
Richard Wentworth's show at the Serpentine Gallery in London strikes a very different note, though like Gormley's it concentrates on recent output. Wentworth is a household-objects-seen-from-an-unusual-angle kind of sculptor. He's one for picking up on the life of everyday, ready- made things, their poetry and symbolism, and bringing them out with a twist or juxtaposition: the contents of a hardware store transfigured by a 'Martian' eye.
Now I admit I've never got much of a kick out of his work, so it would be hypocritical to say that the present show is a dissappointment. But it seems all the same that, while Gormley's show could hardly have been better timed, getting the work at a moment of remarkable expansion, the Wentworth show on the other hand catches its artist just as he's gone into his boring period. The old light touch has lost itself somewhere. And one imagines the people at the Serpentine trying hard not to let their faces fall as the artist revealed what he'd be showing - what, we're not getting any of those nice ones made from aluminium buckets?
Well, they did get one nice one, an outdoor piece called Meal. A dozen over-size cast-iron trays and platters are found emerging at all angles from the gallery's lawn. I'm not sure what the pay-off is - the plates are growing like plants, or being swallowed by the ground, or is it that they make the turf look like a liquid surface which they're bobbing in? - but for some reason it clicks. That can't really be said for what's indoors. Take Balcone, a metal office desk neatly slotted through with a row of garden and farm implements, hoe, spade, rake, pitchfork. Theme-wise it sounds OK, the tools of two very different kinds of work. But visually it's pointless: the objects don't set up any echoes.
As to the three main exhibits - which are impossible to describe briefly, but they involve shelving-units, iron-mesh cages, mirrors, light bulbs, and flower-pots - even the gallery leaflet, which usually tries to be helpful, is pretty well baffled, and nobly resorts to saying that they're about bafflement - a last resort if ever there was one, and what's worse, probably true.
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