From Newcastle to eternity

His Angel of the North made him a household name, but since then, Antony Gormley's work certainly hasn't stood still. Paul Vallely meets the sculptor in his studio as he prepares for a new show, and is bowled over

For a man who doesn't believe in narrative, Antony Gormley has an awful lot of stories to tell. We are inside the huge white hangar that is his north-London studio, surrounded by a swarm of sculptures. From them, he will draw those that will feature in his major new installation, Clearing, at the White Cube gallery in Hoxton from tomorrow. Gormley looks up at a pair suspended from the ceiling, 30ft above us. They are tornadoes of continuous wire in wild orbits that, when the eye finally settles, resolve themselves into the shape of a man.

Not just any old man, of course. Like the vast majority of Gormley's work - including what is now probably Britain's most famous piece of public art, the 65ft-high torso of The Angel of the North; or the bristling force-field of 3,500 steel tubes that make up Quantum Cloud at the Millennium Dome - they are based upon casts of the sculptor's own body.

"The loops of wire contain the space that I once occupied," he says, with evident excitement. "They are the material equivalent of that space that we inhabit when we close our eyes - that darkness wrapped in lead and light." His sculptures are the residue of a real lived moment.

They are highly nervous works, I tell him. Yes, he says, and starts on about protons and electrons and black noise setting up eddies and harmonics in magnetic fields. No, I mean they wobble, I say. He laughs. "The breakthrough came when we realised that you could make them with a continuous line of wire. It made the work into something like a three-dimensional drawing," he says. But this is not the most exciting bit.

Next we come to three figures built up from individual cubes of steel. One stands, one squats and the other lies on its back, curled into a foetal position. They, too, have been pieced together inside Gormley-shaped moulds, but leaving spaces through which the whiteness of the walls shines. "The light is eating away at the edges," Gormley says. "It's the recovery of the body from the world of the pixel." I'm not sure what he means, but there is a tremendous suppressed power about the three figures. The stillness of sculpture should be like a seed or a bomb, he once said, and here you can see exactly what he means. Yet we are still not at the exciting bit.

After that, we go through a large storeroom. In one section, a number of spiky steel statues stand, jammed together like a crowd behind a barrier. They are awaiting repair after being damaged in transit on their way back from the Baltic arts complex in Gateshead, where they were among 250 sculptures cast from the bodies of local residents. "I was amazed by the number of people who volunteered," he says. "It's a very powerful thing - being moulded."

He should know. He has, over the years, developed a technique that involves smearing baby-oil all over his body, wrapping himself in clingfilm, and then being covered by his assistants in dental plaster. He then assumes the required pose until it sets hard - breathing through straws stuffed up his nostrils or a tiny mouth-hole. Then the mould is cut from him using chisels and hacksaws. From the mould, he then casts a "positive" of his body.

There is "nothing special" about his body, he insists, indeed, he describes it as peculiar and wonky. But if you translate the particular into the universal, then it becomes the body that lies within all of us. "The body is an instrument of extreme subtlety, that communicates whether we recognise it or not," he has said. "The body is a language before language." Yet even this is not the really exciting bit.

Before we get to that, however, there is something else to establish about the body. What, I ask, is the origin of his obsession? Was it because his mother was a physiotherapist? He laughs again. For a man whose seriousness about his art can swiftly zoom into oxygen-deprived stratospheric levels, there is an engaging playfulness about Gormley. "My mother was always very keen on callisthenics and healthy living," he says, falling into impersonation: "'Now dear, the tennis courts are booked... it's time to get the boats out... it's time for your swim...' She was very good at all that. She still is, even though she's 95."

Or was it to do with childhood Saturdays in the British Museum, where he became fascinated with a 6,000-year-old red-haired Egyptian mummy nicknamed Ginger? "Ginger was the morbid magnet that would make you rush through those dusty Egyptian galleries. He hadn't had the wrapping job, or his brains pulled out through his nose. He just looked like he'd gone to sleep, in the crouching position in which he'd been buried in a sandstorm. The sand had dried him out perfectly." There is, he supposes, "a lot of mummy in my work. I love all that stuff".

So, could it have been his horror at the boxing classes at his prep school that was the formative influence, seeing the human body defaced or violated at such a young age? "It was the collective humiliation of it - the whole school turned out to watch. It was an extraordinary thing. I think of the body as the most intelligent instrument that nature has produced, and we're only just, through neuroscience that is still neolithic in its crudity, beginning to understand the workings of it. The body is a miracle."

Gormley pauses reflectively. "When I made that first body cast, I never intended to get lost in that space, but I got lost in it for 10 years. Eventually, I began to realise what an obsession it was. And that's what led to making Field." Field is the collection of tens of thousands of tiny terracotta figures that have now been exhibited all over the world. It was, he implies, the complete opposite of his focus on his own body. "Not only was it made collectively, but it seemed to be collectively possessed. People everywhere seem to take possession of that work in a way that is quite extraordinary."

What this account omits is that Field is a work that is also made up of bodies. Lots of them. As were subsequent pieces, such as Allotment (1995); Critical Mass (1998); Mind-Body Column (2000); and Domain Field (2003). There is, however, a more important clue. Brought up a strict Roman Catholic, he attended the boarding school in the Benedictine monastery of Ampleforth. His religious background is little mentioned now since he has pretty much rejected Christianity, and yet, he admits, it has marked him, maybe even shaped him.

He still thinks very fondly of Ampleforth, though he assumes that the feeling is not reciprocated. "I don't think they like me too much. I think I've been too rude about Catholicism. I gave them a piece called Here and Here, and got a watery letter from the Abbot saying, 'thank you very much, but we'd much rather you'd given us something we could put in front of the abbey church'. I put it on Agar Hill, so you can't see it from the school at all. But if you're walking back towards the school from the bridge, you see it very clearly against the sky - a figure looking up to the heavens."

It was at Ampleforth that his artistic talent was nurtured. He speaks with deep affection of a priest called Fr Martin. "He was really good. He made you have to stand up for what you did, why was it the way it was, and how did you know it was finished." Then there was the lay art teacher John Bunting, "a carver, a very committed artist and a wonderful man, who introduced me to modernism - Ezra Pound, T S Eliot, and all that."

Antony Gormley has come out the other side of modernism now. "The heroic story of modernism I still love - the idea of trying to find a universal language that can somehow make art everybody's. But there was a curious puritanism in modernism that banished the body in favour of an exclusive exercise in formal structure, whereas I'm keen to bring back something anthropological." But definitely not the sculptural image at the centre of life at Ampleforth - the crucifix. "That image is like an internal tattoo on the psyche of the West. But it's an image of the annihilation of the body rather than a celebration of it. My work is an attempt to do something different."

After Ampleforth came Cambridge, but before art college, Gormley set off on the hippie trail to India, where he spent 100 days meditating with a Vipassana guru. He thought about becoming a Buddhist monk. "There's nothing very fancy about it. It's the technique of bare attention. It starts with awareness of your own breathing and then transfers the concentration to a pinpoint attention to the sensations from your body. You scan the body like a laser, looking at it from the inside. The process is very instrumental in what you see out there," he adds, nodding towards his workshop. "The spiritual quest is something we're all on whether we like it or not."

There is, in his work, a sense of aching after the transcendental. "When you stand beneath a mature oak, or look at a glacial lake, or at a mountain, there is a sense of being held in the presence of something that is greater in terms of time and more resilient in terms of space, rooted, present, and the present-ness of that perception enters into your being," he has written. "I think works of art aspire to this condition of present-ness and so can endow the viewer with this heightened sense of self."

There is something sacramental, too, about his understanding of the human body. He may have rejected Christian dogma, but he has not entirely abandoned the incarnational truth of a God who takes on human flesh. That's not only clear from his work but also from the way he talks about the volunteers who came forward to be cast in plaster for Domain Field. "Being moulded is quite scary," he says. "Your head is enclosed in plaster for an hour and it gets extremely hot. One woman fainted three times. It is a kind of death. In a casting, you are giving away your freedom of movement, all your freedoms. The paradox is that to be really free, you have to give a lot away. And you are putting yourself into somebody else's hands and accepting the consequences. It is an act of faith."

On top of all that, there is something monkish in his manner. His black jumper, cropped hair and gentle voice seem positively Benedictine. Only fingernails cut right back to the quick reveal his sculptor's calling, and even then... laborare est orare. And at lunchtime, he and his apprentices - he has between six and 10 at any one time - eat together around a huge refectory table, albeit one of dazzling white with a glass top. "I'm still very attracted by the monastic community ideal," he admits. "In some ways, I'm trying to recreate that in the studio. We work and eat together. It is a shared endeavour. Sculpture is always collaborative. More like farming or building. You need more than just one set of hands."

Which brings us, finally, to the really exciting bit. On through the storeroom, we enter another room. It is a white box. This is intriguing because Gormley once made a rather disparaging remark about white boxes, saying that art should get out into public spaces. Delicately, I remind him of this. "Art may not be robust if it can't exist outside the specialised environment of the art gallery," he says, "but the gallery and the museum are not a bad place to share and experience art."

Inside the room is the prototype for the centrepiece of the forthcoming exhibition. It will consist of 7km of black metal rod that arcs from floor to ceiling and wall to wall, creating a matrix that has neither beginning nor end. "It's called Clearing," Gormley says. It is a three-dimensional drawing with no focal point - and with no Gormley body anywhere in evidence. The core of the erratic spiral is empty. Is this a real departure for the Body Man? "There will be people who will say: 'What is this? There's nothing here except 7km of tangled wire..." says Gormley, pre-emptively.

But he cannot resist a clue. "Remember the debate at the end of the 17th century between Leibniz and Newton about the nature of space? Newton takes a theological view: space is infinite and a condition against which objects are seen; planetary bodies are the things that occupy space. Leibniz says, 'No, space is only the description of the relationship between objects: space is what separates the planets'. But then there is the Kantian thing, which is the truest, that insists that our experience of space is subjective. The way we deal with the endlessness of space is to project our own experience of space on to it."

"I've got to make a phone call," he says. "You stay here for a bit longer if you like."

As he leaves, he treads on the wire, setting up a bounce that slowly moves throughout the various trajectories of the metal. I remember something he had said earlier: "The most important narrative is the one the viewer brings." In other words, the spectator completes and, in a sense, becomes the work. Or, as Kant would have put it, the body is the instrument through which space is understood.

There's a Gormley-shaped hole at the centre of the bouncing wire. When the bounce has turned to a quiver and fallen into stillness, I leave the white box, too, and turn off the lights. As I do, I set the wires off again. I have left a me-shaped hole behind me. And there, in the darkness, is the sound of Antony Gormley having the last laugh.

Antony Gormley's 'Clearing' is at the White Cube, 48 Hoxton Square, London N1 (020-7930 5373), from tomorrow to 29 May

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