The body of Antony Gormley has become one of the most famous in contemporary art. Lead sculptures cast from his own form have shown him curled like a foetus or suspended from ceilings. In the most famous transformation of all, his torso provided the basis for the monumental Angel of the North that dominates the skyline of the North-east.
Now the piece that began Gormley's obsession with his body more than 20 years ago is to form the centrepiece of a new room of his work in Tate Britain.
The work, Bed, has not been exhibited in London since it was unveiled at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1981 when it sparked a flurry of interest in the young artist's work and confirmed his arrival on the contemporary art scene. It was an extraordinary feat of digestion in which Gormley, then 30, ate his own body volume out of 8,000 slices of white bread to leave the apparent indentation of his form.
The work began with him lying down on the floor and being drawn around. He translated that into a full silhouette and an impression of what he would make if lying in snow. Then he calculated the contours - working out that he would need to eat the slice of bread that was 11 slices down, for example, or the corner of the one that was four slices down and three across. "It was like eating to a score," he said.
Even before the end of the three and a half months it took to complete, the work had begun to go mouldy, and eventually had to be completely deconstructed so that it could be dried out and preserved by dipping in paraffin wax.
But Gormley admits it proved inspirational, acting as a turning point in a career that has seen his own body becoming his trademark. Even as the work of making and preserving Bed was going on, he created Mould, the first of his famous lead body casts, in which he captured himself in a foetal position.
That was to prove so seminal to Gormley's output that when Tate Modern eventually opened in the year 2000, it was one of the works chosen for the displays. It led to works such as Land, Sea and Air II in 1982 where figures, crouching, kneeling and standing, were placed on the seashore. And, most famously, there came the 65ft (20 metres) high Angel of the North which was unveiled in 1998. Even in much-loved pieces such as Field, which comprises hundreds of small clay human-like figures and has been reproduced in countries around the world since it was first created in 1991, the human form - albeit not Gormley's in this case - has proved central to his development.
Yesterday Gormley, now 54, described in detail how he went about making Bed. "Up to that time, I had made a number of constructed objects that were to do with things to hand such as Open Door, a four-panelled Victorian door. They were objects in a domestic environment that were to do with survival. Room was a whole set of my clothes cut into strips and made into an enclosure - that was the closest I got [to the human form]," he said.
"But Bed was the first time this trick of the body as an absent space occurred. Mould [then] came directly out of the idea that somehow the body is itself a transforming instrument. But when I made the first body cast I didn't know I would still be making direct traces of my own body 20 years later. I didn't know when I was making Bed what was going to happen next."
In the years since, it has been seen only rarely. Prince Charles was bemused by the work when it was exhibited at the opening of Tate Liverpool in 1988 and it has also been seen in Tate St Ives, but never in London since the show at the Whitechapel. Gormley, who has since gone on to win the Turner Prize, sit on the Arts Council and become a stalwart of the British art scene, gave the work to the Tate in 1995.
A spokesman for the Tate said yesterday that Gormley was a major British artist who had enjoyed massive public acclaim. "We felt it was important to show examples of his early work," he said.
Thus Bed is going on display in a gallery dedicated to Gormley as part of the annual re-hang of Tate Britain sponsored by BP. The other work on show is entitled Natural Selection and depicts a row of natural and artificial objects drawn from everyday life that progress in shape and size. All are encased in lead.
What was striking, Gormley said yesterday, was how they showed the continuity in his work. "The weird thing is that the basic issues in Bed - trying to use things that are everyday and ordinary and yet re-describe them in a way that makes you think about your place in the world now - are still in my work. You take this pure white chemically purified food stuff and you use it to talk about death. It was a heavily processed industrial product that has gone organic," he said.
Using his body for inspiration and as the building block of his work had become entirely natural, he added. "I don't see my body as anything special, it just happens to be the bit of the material world I can use most effectively because I live inside it. My body is my closest experience of matter and I use it for both convenience and precision. But it's as if it wasn't mine. There's an element of displacement that is very much part of the project. It's like somebody performing surgery in a way, the body becomes a place where things happen."
Asked whether his physical form had changed much in the two decades since he first immortalised himself in the name of art, Gormley said: "I've probably not changed as much as I might have done. I haven't got fat, but it might happen. I suppose it depends how much rushing about I do." He paused and thought about it a bit more. "I'm probably a stone and a half heavier," he decided.
But that is not the reason why, his own form will not be seen directly in a series of new works he is currently preparing for a new exhibition in New York in the spring. Acknowledging the danger of sounding "either trite or pretentious," he said the new pieces were about "the tense equations between being and nothingness". It is a continuation of the quest that could be summarised more simply, he said, by the question: "What the hell am I doing here?" Both Bed and Natural Selection seemed to him to address that question very clearly and could bear comparison with any of the works he has completed since, he said. "They are as good as I can do."Reuse content