The early work of Antony Gormley
It was through his early study of Ernst Gombrich that Gormley grounded his vocation for art. Gombrich exerted considerable influence on Gormley and showed great interest in his work. For both Gormley and Gombrich humanism, the definition for human condition, is central to their work. Gombrich found much late twentieth century art impossible to understand or accept and the fact that he chose to interview Gormley is significant.
Departing from the use of traditional materials for sculpture, such as marble or bronze, he uses a plaster cast of his own body to produce a body-cast covered in lead or cast in iron.
The aim of Gormley's work is to unite the internal world of the mind and sensations with the external world of feeling. His figures engage in a stillness and slowness and it is through their physical presence that Gormley tries 'to make concrete that life that goes on within the head'
'I want to deal with existence and I want to use my own existence.'2
Antony Gormley was the youngest of eight children, born to a religious Catholic family. He was educated at Ampleforth College and Trinity College, Cambridge where he read Part 1 in Archaeology and Anthropology followed by the new History of Art Part II Tripos. He encountered the contemporary art through Mark Lancaster and Michael Craig-Martin, who were both at Kings College. He also met leading British and American artists such as Keith Milow, Richard Smith and Barry Flanagan.
Between 1971 and 1974 Gormley travelled through Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and finally Sri Lanka. In India, and under the studies of Buddhism and Vipassana meditation, Gormley would experience a different outlook on life. It was here that Gormley met a Burmese teacher called Goenka, who would become his guru. Goenka was a successful business- man who taught Gormley practiced techniques of meditation not as a religion but as a form of healing and a method of self-transformation, which focused on the connection between the mind and the body.
Joseph Beuys was the 'most important artist to have been alive in my own time.'3 On his return in 1974, Gormley enrolled at the Central School of Art for a three- year degree course but Gormley left after a year and went to Goldsmith's School of Art in 1975. He went onto complete a further two years at the Slade School of Fine Art in 1977. This enabled Gormley to work in both artificial and natural materials both essential to him and his process of making.
'Gormley has described his sculpture as 'a tool to link the inner and outer worlds.'4
Over the last two decades he has worked with a variety of materials some traditional and others experimental for example: bread, semen, blood, iron and steel. In the 1980s Gormley was the only artist who was making moulds of his own body. Jacob Epstein's approach to sculpture with his focus on human values encouraged Gormley to produce figurative sculptures which would convey feelings corresponding to his own experiences. Gormley's sculptures express themselves through their powerful physical being and their presence in the space that we share with them.
'British Sculpture in the Twentieth Century' at the Whitechapel Art Gallery London curated by Nicholas Serota, showed a series of work but perhaps the most substantial piece was Bed, (1981)importantly marked out his way of thinking about the body in art. Gormley was not trying to represent the body inhabiting space in this instance, but rather tried to create a feeling of becoming his body by the process of looking. Bed was made from two piles of bread the size of a double bed from which Gormley proceeded to eat the volume of his own body 'out of the bread' consequently Bed becomes a negative space.
In the 1980s and into the 1990s Gormley turned to lead because of its practical and versatile properties. Three Ways: Mould, Hole and Passage 1981, comes in three different parts and explores a range of different bodily positions, which are not representations of the actual body, but materialisation of that inner space of the body. The lead cases were made from plaster casts of the artist's own body and show the simple and direct way in which Gormley approaches his work using his own body as a material, tool and subject matter. Thus by using his own body as the instrument of creation he becomes witness to the actual sensation of experience by being present in time and space of making. By making a mould of his body he believes you can 'materialise the sensation of that inner space of the body.'5 By this Gormley is explaining the fundamental aspects of his work, that the spirit cannot be separated from the body. He is concerned with the 'deep space' of the interior of the body and how the shell of the body encloses an inner space and how at the same time we are contained within an even bigger space, the universe.
Vipassana meditation which Gormley studied for two years in India, is based on attention and awareness and encourages the idea of 'sati', or mindfulness which invokes an unselfconscious awareness of the present moment. Through this technique, the individual must acknowledge and pay attention to the ways in which ideas and sensations appear and disappear in the body.
Gormley has often spoken about the influence of Vipassana training on the making of his sculptures. It is during the process of casting that the technique of meditation is essential; throughout the process he must remain entirely still and in the same position.
The process of applying faceless lead skins without facial or bodily features dissolves any idea that the body cases could resemble Gormley's own identity. The cases are not representation of Gormley instead: 'the leaden men become universal figures of humanity, free from time, place, or other cultural attributes, and devoid of individual personalities.'6 As a result his works act as an invitation to respond to the body in space, reflecting on the space we occupy, and not necessarily the figure's representation as a likeness to something.
Having broken down his own boundaries and those of the individual, Gormley wanted to tackle the more complex issues surrounding a community. Between 1983 and 1993 when Gormley was producing Field a dramatic change was noted in Gormley's approach and direction to his work. Field was made up of thousands of little clay figurines hand-made by the public. The aim of the project was to re-establish a relationship between the Gateshead community and art.
'The spiritual quest is something we're all on whether we like it or not.'7
It was through the creative process of sculpture that Gormley found 'as a means to talk about the spirit…a visual means to refer to things which cannot be seen'.8 By using his own body as a physical means he feels able to explore and find answers to the physical and spiritual mysteries between mankind and the natural world. Although Gormley claims to have rejected the doctrine of Catholicism it is evident through his works and his writings that his religious upbringing imbues his work. Yet Gormley consistently tries to assure the public that he does not want his works to be seen as religious symbols of faith or statues, he argues: 'They don't represent a particular person in a way that statues do, and they don't represent a particular ideology, or history, or narrative. They're about possibility and about potential'.
Works such as Flesh 1990 and Untitled (for Francis) 1985 both draw reference to the central image of Catholicism: the crucifixion. Untitled (for Francis) is the most overt of these whose title refers to Saint Francis of Assisi, and the figure holds the traditional pose associated with stigmata. The figure accordingly stands with piercing through his hands, feet and chest representational of the wounds of Christ. It can therefore, be argued that the piece was an attempt to re-enact the crucifixion of Christ, a re-enactment that 'unites physical suffering with spiritual renewal and redemption'.9 In an interview however, Gormley stated: 'I think the fundamental image of Christianity, I have quite a lot of problems with, because it is to do with the denial of the body. I think that the Crucifixion in some senses is also an expression of the fear of the body in general, as a sexual object.'10 Gormley argues, that by turning to the body he hopes to find a source, 'that will transcend the limitations of race, creed and language, but which will still be about the rootedness of life'.11
1. E.H. Gombrich in conversation with,'Antony Gormley', Phaidon Press Ltd, London, 1995. p.8
2. Antony Gormley in Kerry Rice, Some of the Facts: Notes for Teachers, (London, Tate Publishing Limited, 2001). P.16 3. Antony Gormley, in Thomas McEvilley, 'Seeds of the Future: The Art of Antony Gormley', in Pierre Theberge (ed), Field, (Stuttgart, Oktagon Verlag, 1993), p.90
4. Ian Tromp, 'Antony Gormley's Quantum Clouds,' Modern Painters, Spring 2000, Volume 13, Number 1.
5. E.H Gombrich, op. cit, p.10
6. Thomas McEvilley, op. cit, p.70.
7. Interview with Paul Valley, Antony Gormley. The Independent Review, Tuesday 20th April, 2004.
9. Iwona Blazwick & Simon Wilson (ed), Tate Modern Handbook, (London Publishing Ltd, 2000) p.163
10. Joan Bakewell, Belief & Religion: 'Antony Gormley', BBC Radio 3, 5th January 2006. www.bbc.co.uk/religion/programmes/beliefs/scripts/antony_gormley.
11. John Hutchinson, op, cit, p.140