Adventures in personal space

Antony Gormley has cast himself as the hero of his new exhibition - literally. The artist explains why he has made himself the subject of his ever-growing body of work
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The Independent Online

The first thing I see on entering White Cube 2, Jay Jopling's Hoxton gallery, is a goggled assistant carefully grinding away at Antony Gormley's foreskin. A Roman candle of orange sparks sprays from the sculptor's groin and across the underside of his leg, which is pointing rigidly at the gallery ceiling.

The first thing I see on entering White Cube 2, Jay Jopling's Hoxton gallery, is a goggled assistant carefully grinding away at Antony Gormley's foreskin. A Roman candle of orange sparks sprays from the sculptor's groin and across the underside of his leg, which is pointing rigidly at the gallery ceiling.

Across the room, a fork-lift truck is completing the task of installing another Gormley into the corner of the ceiling - a tricky bit of manhandling which is given an edge of tension by the fact that the man being handled consists of 630kg of cast iron and could quite easily kill anyone he fell upon. And then another Antony Gormley enters the gallery, this one upright and mobile and grinning broadly at the sight of his own unorthodox circumcision. Perhaps, he suggests, Jopling could bottle the filings and sell them as relics to artistic pilgrims. Fragments of the veritable prepuce - a steal at 20 guineas.

Jopling may need to recoup some of his costs, because Drawn, Gormley's new exhibition, is not one of those shows that comes and goes without leaving a mark. It consists of eight identical casts of Gormley's body, positioned so that they snugly fit the corners of the room - and since four of those corners are a good 15ft above the floor, the gallery is currently subject to some light engineering work - its pristine walls chopped back to a structure solid enough to bear the weight of these oddly racked figures.

"The idea for this piece is probably eight or nine years old," Gormley explains, "but it's been quite difficult to find a space that can hold it. Having made this wonderful gallery, Jay was a bit appalled yesterday at the fact that it was being destroyed... but he took it very well."

When the installation is finished, the walls will be immaculate again - and those eight geometrically aligned forms will be the latest addition to Antony Gormley's growing corpus.

It's hard to imagine that there's a sculptor for whom the phrase "body of work" is more appropriate, since for nearly 20 years now he's used his own rangy form as the armature for much of his sculpture - moulding its form in lead and casting it in iron. In many of the works his own anatomy is a concealed presence, encased within the final object, but this new exhibition marks a move to a more explicit rendering of the artist's frame and figure - the gentle Action Man protuberances of the lead-cased figures have been replaced by clinically accurate genitals.

But this is not, the artist is at pains to point out, a matter of self-exposure. Though he always insists on using his own body, that's because he wants to be directly in touch as the work is made: "The reason that it's important that it's me is that it comes from a moment that I've lived and therefore was experienced from within..." he explains. "I'm not saying there's anything special about that body or that life, but that it is an example of a common human condition."

But he's aware, too, that the new realism of these casts needs careful handling: "For the first time, it's very naked, very apparent... and that element of portraiture in a way had to be countered by something else, and in this it's countered by this absolute geometry... pushing these rather particular bodies into these very generalised, theoretical positions."

That the exhibition is called "Drawn" is telling - and not just because there's a sense that it could easily be accompanied by the words "hung" and "quartered". Gormley's talent first expressed itself in drawing (the artist Humphrey Ocean, who went to Ampleforth with him, recalls him as a drawer of precocious assurance) but, after painting some "bad, bad paintings" at Cambridge, he abandoned that particular branch of art. What, then, was so bad about them?

"They were uninformed by what I hope has now become the chief preoccupation of the work," he explains carefully. "The idea of indwelling or inner experience. They were about images, about trying to capture the likeness of something and the whole thing that I'm up to now is to get to the other side of appearances. Appearances belong to other people... my appearance belongs to you, maybe more than it does to me. What I'm interested in, in some senses, is making an account of how things feel, not how they look."

As he recalls it, he was wary of his proficiency, too: "I got good at the drawing and that was terrible... I had to do sculpture because I couldn't do it and therefore I had to find my way of doing it... and many people would continue to say 'That Gormley guy, he's only had one idea', and you know, I admit I'm still trying in my own way to reinvent sculpture in a very do-it-yourself fashion."

The remark is a rather characteristic Gormley blend of modesty and guileless assurance. He talks about his art with the zeal of a proselytiser. Although he doesn't seek to convert the heathen to a particular dogma, he clearly wants his work to work upon its viewers. So it isn't entirely surprising to find that his commitment to sculpture has a self-consciously vocational aspect. After leaving Cambridge, he went on the hippy trail in search of enlightenment and found one end of the thread in India, when he decided to become a sculptor. "I did dedicate myself to it," he says. "I had a very clear choice in Darjeeling in 1973 as to whether I was going to spend my life as a Buddhist trying to achieve some kind of truth that way, or come back to be an artist, and if I was going to be an artist I wanted to deal with reality in the same way that I'd learnt to deal with reality in meditation."

He isn't a Buddhist now in any formal sense, nor a Catholic, either, despite growing up in a devout Catholic family, and he is on easy terms with his loss of faith: "It wasn't a terrible realisation that God had abandoned me or that he didn't exist... I still feel, even though I don't believe in him, that I'm on rather good terms with God," he adds, laughing at the paradox.

After an unsuccessful period at the Central School of Art, he moved to Goldsmiths, the Sandhurst of British conceptual art, and he found its intellectual disciplines much to his liking. "You learned quickly that art was a way of making propositions - I think it was its conceptual base that was good about it, the way that everybody was encouraged to make propositions through an object, through an intermediary thing."

He found his own "thing" in his second year, and that it was the human body says something about his independence of mind, given the fashions of the time. "It was completely non-U," he explains. "Maybe there's no problem any more but certainly, in Goldsmiths in 1975, to work with the body..." A pause marks the enormity of that distant defection from the done thing. "I don't know whether there was a particular reaction. I suppose it was more a feeling of 'poor chap, he's lost his way'."

Gormley is in little doubt that he'd found his way, and what's more, a way that linked a conceptual frontier with an ancient artistic heartland. "I'm very aware of the fact that the body has been in art almost as long as the self-reflexive mind has been in the body... and I look at that work... I was terribly, terribly, terribly excited by that discovery from the Sinai of these tiny volcanic pieces of rock that look as if they might have been chipped into a human form 250,000 years ago, 10 times as old as early Palaeolithic cave art. And I think my work has a dialogue with that history while in many ways, I think, starting again."

It has demonstrated that it can converse with ordinary people, too. Gormley has some claim to have produced the most successful public art of our time - his Angel of the North, a vast steel figure in Gateshead, and Field for the British Isles, an installation of thousands of small clay homunculi which look up at the gallery-goer with a disturbing neediness, have found audiences far beyond the usual constituency for contemporary art. That's perhaps because, beyond the talk of "Heideggerian oppositions" and "axiality" (which Gormley is able to unreel when invited to), the work depends on an ancient and universal vocabulary - that of physical existence in the world.

The popularity of the work has provoked some attacks - the Gateshead Angel was described as "Nazi but nice" by one detractor, much worse by others. And you sense this occasionally tells on Gormley, although he is sanguine enough to offer examples of the insults. He once used the word "cute" about Field - and when I query the adjective, he disavows it with a grimace.

"It's a betrayal because I think it's my acquired distrust of sentimentality, or the potential for that... if I did say that in an interview, it was trying to protect myself from that kind of accusation."

He takes pleasure in the public response too though. "The vindication for me is that it seems to show that people need art... that there is a need for imaginative objects, you might say if you wanted to be safe - totemic objects if you wanted to be more contentious... Many people would say that it is an atavistic return to pre-modern aesthetics - or lack of them, maybe - but I'm not convinced that evolution is the only model, and when I see that 300 people pitched up to the Angel at the time of the eclipse, that gives me a certain thrill."

"Drawn" is unlikely to draw the crowds in the same way. Its "proposition" is more complex, its effect less monumentally overwhelming. But it essentially speaks the same language, one comprehensible to all of us. "I want people to use the spaces that my work activates to feel themselves again... it is not about representation for its own sake, it's about replacing representation with reflexivity," Gormley says.

These are less pictures, then, than mirrors - mirrors in which anyone with a body can see themselves if they look at the right angle.

 

Drawn by Antony Gormley, White Cube 2, 48 Hoxton Square, London N1, until 14 Oct

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