Studio Visit: London, 4 November 2011
by Dr JANET McKENZIE
Sculpture studios are particularly fascinating places: factory-like yet traditional in terms of materials and processes, having more in common with the historic atelier such as that of Rodin or Brancusi, from which marvellous photographs exist, with assistants and large spaces, than an average modern-day studio. An artist of Antony Gormley’s remarkable productivity working on a large scale and operating out of central London, must it would follow, have a spectacular work space.
Designed by award-winning architect David Chipperfield, Gormley’s London studio is 10,000 square feet, on a 14,000 square foot plot. The interaction between inside studio space and courtyard is critical; the slab that supports the studio and courtyard has 140 tons of steel in the concrete to make it strong, allowing works to be placed and worked on anywhere. The main studio space is where a team of assistants who follow close instructions refine and complete sculptures at different stages of completion, the work having begun in a smaller workshop, where ideas are tested and where bodywork begins, and where moulds for casts are taken. The scale and professionalism of Gormley’s studio harks back to traditional ateliers or foundries, workshops that employed assistants and trained apprentices. Visiting with photographer Nick Howard, the weather conditions were important; in spite of a grey forecast, a blue sky on a clear autumn morning made the visit quite perfect.
Our meeting was prompted by a new book: Antony Gormley: Drawing Space, published to accompany a major exhibition in Rome, October 2010–June 2011, curated by Luca Massimo Barbero and Anna Moszynska, at MACRO – Museo d’Arte Contemporanea. The book examines the role drawing plays in his creative process and practice. A separate studio for drawing, where our conversation takes place, is sparse and well lit. The relationship between drawing and sculpture is particularly interesting in contemporary art practice; Antony Gormley is one of the most eloquent artists when it comes to articulating ideas that pertain to individual perception, collective needs, intellectual processes, or the applications and development of a visual language to assuage the spiritual or emotional privations of the modern world.
Drawing, as the most direct form of expression, with a history going back centuries, and which has enjoyed an unprecedented revival over the past 10 years, is indeed an appropriate means of traversing the critical storms and culs-de-sac that have created barriers for the comprehension and enjoyment of much contemporary art. Drawing has been described eloquently by the poet Seamus Heaney as an art form that occupies a “placeless heaven” freed from the literal.1
It is a basic human instinct to make marks, to draw, to write. It could be perceived as ironic, that charged with the knowledge of new technology and the multitude of new forms and attitudes, that artists have chosen drawing in manifold forms. With powerful strands running from cave art through 19th-century academies, that a significant number of artists have recently chosen drawing as their primary activity; at the same time many artists have virtually abandoned it. At once private and portable, essentially preliminary or diaristic, drawings continue to provide an immediate form of expression, ideally suited to modern life, travel, allowing a greater independence from conventional studio spaces. The conceptual and the subjective, arguably the most vital components of contemporary art practice today - connect in drawing more forcibly and more appropriately than in any other form of art.
If the basic definition of drawing is “the record of a tool moving across a surface” (John Elderfield, The Modern Drawing, 1983), then perhaps the most interesting thing about drawing – as distinct from other forms in plastic arts – is the very directness of the transmission, be it impulse, feeling, perception or concept. Drawing reveals the subtlest movement, the most clinical analysis, a most precise drama. Modern drawing gives room for alternative reactions – functions assumed by different signs are at once explicit and suggestive. In this sense drawing is as much a record of the subtler elements in our culture as any written or verbal record.2
Antony Gormley’s work is included in The Drawing Book (2007), by Tania Kovats (editor). In the section, Investigating the status of drawing: In parallel: Drawing and sculpture, he suggests that, drawing might have a clearer place in the working method and intellectual processes of a sculptor than a painter. He says, “The process of drawing helps the sculptor to synthesise their ideas and feelings; they are in control and contact with the material, which they can modify, correct or discard in a moment. And it offers the freedom to experiment”.3 Gormley’s own definition, written as early as 1979, is still a useful one, and although there are areas in common with other artists, Gormley is precise and original in his use of written and visual language, and concepts of the spiritual.
"What is drawing for me? It’s a kind of magic, a kind of necessity. Drawing is an attempt to fix the world, not as it is, but as it exists inside me. So the drawings are mental diagrams. You can condense things in a space that is infinite….Drawing is not so much a mirror, or a window, as a lens which can be looked at in either direction, either back towards the retina of the mind, or forward towards space. You could perhaps not look so much at drawing as through it."4
Compared to the very slow processes involved in making sculpture, Antony Gormley’s drawing offers the most immediate form of meditative responses to place, an intuitive exploration to one’s relationship with the wider world, creating a poetic and diverse range of images.
JMcK: I was looking through your works here to locate something specific to respond to, when I discovered that you went regularly to Argyll. Immediately a lot of the feelings and sensations towards your drawings made sense. I also travel regularly to Argyll and the Outer Hebrides. My family are from the Isle of Skye and went to Australia in 1861; I came back to Scotland. So when I read your description of your trips to Argyll I felt that these early drawings connected to the ideas that your work is known for. They address issues of human existence, one’s spiritual and emotional journey. They allude to how individuals relate to the wider world, and how from rudimentary beginnings humans have always sought to assert that identity through painting and drawing. Can you tell me about these works?
AG: I haven’t got rid of those works because they mean so much to me. Do you know Ardpatrick? It is a peninsula west of Tarbert facing the Irish Sea where you can see Jura, Colinsay and Islay; there are usually seals there, it is just an amazing place. You can feel that it’s been a site of human habitation, for maybe 5,000 years. There are remains still of the original Hibernian forest, an incredibly rich dense mixture of oak and dwarf birch, the rocks are granite covered in moss; a magical place. It is the memory as much as the being in a place, this is what drawing can do; you can use the moment of making as a journey, or a summoning up of a place and a feeling. It isn’t to do with accuracy, or anything to do with making a portrait of a place; it’s about reconnecting with the feeling of being there and how being and place cohere. Basically I am attracted to the bits of Scotland that are connected to Ireland, the Gorm of Gormley from my father’s family from Northern Ireland hailing originally from Denmark. I feel very attracted to those places that have this mixture of Celtic/ Viking potency, and realise the openness of the west.
JMcK: There is a sense, on the west coast of Scotland of a void; an infinite moving and swaying with gales and strong seas and a sense that if one kept sailing there might be nothing there.
AG: Yes, but the communities there always had boats and sailed west to Northern Ireland and then beyond. The feelings one has on the coast of Donegal or in the Boffins west of Galway is of the endless west. I think what attracted those 6th-century monks was the idea of being on the edge of the world. Feeling your existence in terms of space and maybe even of time at the very edge of being.
JMcK: I am interested in the whole 19th-century diaspora and the fact that is linked to a colossal act of faith that took people to the other side of the world. The journey was very often forced as a consequence of the Highland Clearances, made out of sheer necessity; constantly there must have been a sense of one’s relationship to one’s Maker through harsh conditions, the elements.
AG: I think that is what Another Place is about, which is now installed on Crosby Beach at the mouth of the Mersey. It was originally outside Cuxhaven, from there and Bremenhaven thousands left Europe for the New World between the time of the fall of the Weimar Republic and the rise of National Socialism in the last years of the 1920s and the early 1930s. Another Place came out of encountering the Wattenmeer, the tidal plane where the sea comes in over 7 kilometres of muddy sand at the rate of a fast walk. That work was all about the faith necessary to overcome difficulty but also to believe in the possibility that there was another place – the other side of the horizon where life could be better, where somehow one could live more freely. It was the utopian based on the belief that human life could be better somewhere else the same vision that caused the people of Jonestown in 1978 to commit mass suicide believing that they could be translocated to another planet; the vision of life on other planets has been a recurring dream of earthly life.
We are experiencing massive migration of a different kind today as a result of climate change, war, the failure of the human race to distribute resources justly. What motivated the Pilgrim Fathers and what motivated the most extraordinary diaspora across the Pacific Ocean from Polynesia towards Rapa Nui (Easter Island) where in the final part of the canoe journey of over 1,400 miles on open seas, from Mangareva via Pitcairn to Rapa Nui heading east? They had to be fuelled by belief!
Now in the time of media and the internet we know that there is no other place for human future. The implicit relationship between identity and place doesn’t work any more. My drawings could be seen as a romantic return to the relationship of being and place while admitting the loss of place. This pair of drawings is a response. One represents conscious moment of being at the point at Ardpatrick, looking out west. The other is of the hut at the point which is held down by steel ropes, rammed into the rock, to protect it against the gales. It is a refuge, like the beehive huts of the south west of Ireland.
JMcK: The tenuous relationship of the individual in the world is presented in moments of adversity, such as the individual in a storm, facing the sea, which has long been a metaphor in art and literature of the spiritual journey and one’s mortality. It is fixed in these drawings, more so inevitably, than sculpture or painting. Ancient forms built in stone that can be found in many parts of Argyll, represent the opposite instinct of vulnerability that is to protect, to nurture. Your study of Archaeology and Anthropology at Cambridge has clearly had an impact on your ongoing dialogue with other cultures.
AG: I feel so lucky in many ways about the shape of my life. That I was able to do Archaeology and Anthropology and then History of Art; it gave me a grounding that allowed me to see the peculiarity and particularity of Western ways, and of the limitations of our art. Art history can be a form of cultural myopia. To study Bernini, Borromini and Brunelleschi after looking at the Bororo, the Andaman Islanders, the Kula ring, the Anthropology of Mauss, Malinovski, Levi-Strauss and Mead gave me the grounding to see all social groups and cultural conditioning as partial and particular, and for that reason extremely interesting. As Grayson Perry said the other day at the British Museum, the art world is a small but distinctive tribe, within many others. If one is trying to make art that really fulfils the potential of art to touch all human beings you have to look beyond the immediate context.
JMcK: The drawings you have made in response to the Australian Desert and the west coast of Scotland have provided a nexus for me, with your art practice. Both places are challenging in their historical association with human adversity, loss and survival. In your hands through drawing and inspiring sculpture projects, they have been used to conjure powerful connotations of human existence in a crowded world. Both places can be seen to prompt a stark confrontation of self yet they are vastly different. How did you reconcile the temperate wetness of Scotland with the heat, the dryness, of Australia’s ancient centre?
AG: I think when one goes to the centre of Australia, one is going to connect with the opposite of what Argyll and such places provide. That is teleological time, a time before human times, that sense of geology. We were on the Yilgarn Craton a massive plate of archaen rock which formed part of the putative original Vaalbara continent formed 3.7 billion (3,700 million) years ago, almost as old as the planet itself (4.54 billion). It hums with a deep vibration. It is about going to the centre of things, to the core, to where things start to coalesce. I am attracted to volcanoes but there is something extraordinary about the flatness of Australia that comes from the same energy as volcanoes. My daughter Paloma and I were doing an aerial survey in a little Cessna plane, sweeping over middle-western Australia east and north of Perth. Australia [from the air] is like an Aboriginal painting: the bright, strong, clear light spots of salt lakes and the deep reds of the earth and purple bits where rocks burst through. What Australia does for me is connect me to the time before white folk, it reminds me of the age of the planet and how insignificant we are. Some of the most sophisticated intuitions are resistant to deductive, analytical reasoning. As city-based people, much as it is valuable, we will never fully understand it. You just have to sit under a tree in the Kimberley Ranges or listen to the locals talking like the rustling of leaves you feel there in the quiet almost lost but in a wonderful way. I wish I could speak one of the many languages of that continent. There is something incredibly touching about Aboriginal diction that does not seem to be about the forming of subject/predicate relations, but about something else – perhaps more about being than doing. I don’t know what this has to do with these drawings.
I suppose these drawings, were most probably made in the Lake District soon after returning from one of many trips to Australia. This was after the first really long trip there in 1989–90, over Christmas, when I made Room for the Great Australian Desert, and A Field for the Art Gallery of New South Wales (1989) and when I became friendly with Tony Bond, (Senior Curator of International Art at the AGNSW).
Tony Bond described Gormley’s 1989–90 projects in Australia:
In 1989 Gormley came to Sydney to install 'A Field for the Art Gallery of New South Wales' here at the AGNSW and to locate a reciprocal work in the desert, 'A room for the great Australian desert'. He had asked for a site with 360 degrees of uninterrupted flat horizon and red dust underfoot. I located a spot where I knew that the clay pans were extensive and the horizon was terrifyingly flat and low. Standing up there you are the highest object this side of the horizon. It is a vertiginous experience as if you could easily fall from the spinning globe. It was while camping out in this place that Gormley talked to me about Heidegger and the phenomenological problem of consciousness that always rests so lightly upon the material world out of which it has arisen and yet is always constructed as it's other. There could be no more dramatic and appropriate place for such speculations and for an artwork that embodied them. The work Gormley made for the AGNSW is a field of 1,100 little clay figures made from the red bull dust of the centre. The figures are arranged in two hemispheres mimicking the plan of the brain. There is a pathway down the middle to a central lobe where you stand. From this vantage point you become aware that all the figures have eyes that are focused directly on you. I immediately responded to this mass gaze with guilt felt on behalf of mankind that has so badly bruised the land out of which it arose. Others claim to feel godlike. Perhaps both are appropriate; to judge is to be judged after all.5
JMcK: I love the way that you have made organic, plant-like forms and in the drawing Commune IV (1991) the use of shadows of figures to define space – this is like a Wandjina figure. Where drawing has traditionally been perceived to be linear, you make drawings that explore an emptiness or unnavigated space; and then you make sculptures, like the marvellous recent Feeling Material, XXXVI (2008) that are exhibited in space, which can be termed “spatial drawing”.
AG: The time of the Commune series was a time of thinking about angels. The idea of protection for me; this is both like a robe, as in those beautiful Italian primitive paintings of Our Lady, where within her blue cloak she protects the whole of humankind. I guess it was something to do with that. It was a long time before I met a Boab tree, which was two years ago (2009) in the Kimberley region. They are fantastic aren’t they? They are to do with trees as persona they so seem like wise presences, that you want to go up and embrace them.
JMcK: Trees can conjure an affinity with all aspects of Nature: with habitats, birds’ nests, lifecycles. Returning to the actual drawn figures, created using casein and carbon, can you tell me how important life drawing has been in the development of this, a more conceptual figure?
AG: I have done a lot of it but I never really liked it. I had to get to know the model in order to have a form of conversation. At art school, especially the Central School of Art, London, I did lots.
JMcK: The image here, Under My Skin II (2000), has been created in part by harnessing the elements of chance and accident as the pigment reacts to the surface: it has an energy about it.
AG: For me this has to do with trying to transgress the boundaries of the body, it is a liberating process.
JMcK: Images such as Under My Skin and the Commune series of drawings, allude to how individuals and communities can live in the future. If drawing is the most direct form of expression, perhaps you are instinctively defining answers to such urgent issues?
AG: It’s a tricky thing because I do believe actually that the only sustainable future for humankind is within the urban grid and we have got to accept that we have got to make the density of cities more humane and functional. We can work towards buildings being self-sustaining, generating their own electricity and providing places for food to be grown. This is a fantastic opportunity and challenge. We need more strategies, like using the blackness of the tarmac for thermal gain, learning to power our lives directly from the sun. Perhaps we can learn from bees and other life forms that have learnt how to self-organise compactly and in concord with the sun. My drawings do not illustrate these issues.
JMcK: Perhaps not in a literal or definitive way, but they can be seen to imply areas of thought that are very important, as ways of seeing. The very act of looking and finding a conceptual and subjective response to being human is by virtue of its creative process an entity that lends itself to interpretation. That is itself a positive force for consciousness raising and in turn change.
AG: I am absolutely certain that the space of art becomes more and more vital, literally vital, in a time when politics is governed by an economy and there is a general political failure to provide morally justifiable structures for human life. I’m not saying that morally justified structures can be provided by art. It can provide a place where we can sense our own being more intensely. By attending to our own experience in this way perhaps we re-enforce the agency of each of us as participants in the creation of a world. In attending to our own thoughts and feelings catalysed by the field of art we make sense of the world and in the process create it.
JMcK: I still believe that the materiality of your artworks, the blackness of the black, the almost alchemical power of certain other materials to imply states of mind, to precipitate thoughts and associations, is powerful enough to stop, to meditate, to reflect about the issues you have explored. The viewer thus becomes a beneficiary of your creative practice, with collective application and potential.