Chilly Tingling

Head down to Piccadilly and then walk along to the Royal Academy to take another look at the Antony Gormley extravaganza-fest in which the artist has been given free rein to fill all thirteen rooms of the main gallery area with a mix of prints, sketches, notepads and, of course, sculptural works – that range from pea-sized to hand-held, and man-sized to monsters so XXX-Large that they dig into the very fabric of the walls that just about manage to constrain them. And if all that weren’t enough, there are also three or four would-be spectacular shockaroos – room-sized installations, or maybe architectural interventions is a better term – that seek to disturb and disorient the visitor by utterly transforming the familiar convention of the gallery surroundings into a sequence of separate, uniquely immersive viewing experiences. While not forming a precise, directly chronological retrospective of the artist’s very successful professional career, there are nevertheless works from across just about all of the periods of Gormley‘s working life, whether reviewed, revised, revisited or redeveloped, and that, in summation, reveal the consistently inventive imagination of this consummate conceptualiser and formidable fabricator.

In fact, I’ve now seen the show a couple of times but not yet got around to blogging about it, for reasons partly logistical and partly aesthetical. Originally, I’d intended to include a review as part of the recent blogs about Mona Hatoum‘s show at the White Cube and, having missed that opportunity, with Ai Weiwei‘s exhibition at the Lisson Gallery. The logic being that there’s a sort of natural resonance between the three artists, in that they’re all at the more intellectually teasing end of the Conceptualist wing of the current arty party establishment machine. Gormley and Hatoum also share a slightly obsessive interest in what might be called Body Art, with the former forever making moulds of his own handsomely shaped figure and casting them as metal monuments, and the latter happy to introduce bits of hair, finger nail clippings and other personal detritus into her work, as well as enjoying, or should that be enduring, a complete endoscopic examination of her innermost gristly bits and bobs videoed for the entertainment, or should that be endurance, of her artistical support base. And while I don’t think that the rotund Chinaman has ever made any actual corporeal castings of his own fabulous form, he does seem to exhibit a keen interest in examining aspects of his own autobiographical experience that suggest a certain shared susceptibility towards tendencies of a narcissistic nature. He was, of course, also recently honoured with the opportunity of presenting a full-scale Royal Academy one-man show – the successful result of which helping to propel him towards truly international superstardom. Anyway, in the end, prolixity got the better of me on both occasions and scribbling out my discursive thoughts about the works of Hatoum and Weiwei meant that I ran out of space before getting round to adding Gormley into either mix. Hence, he’s had to wait until now for his assessment reckoning although, at least, it does means he gets the full blog to himself, which I’m sure he would both appreciate and expect.

Unfortunately, the other reason for the blogging delay is that I have to admit that, being a bit of a fan of the man, I was rather looking forward to the Academy‘s exhibition, yet came away somewhat disappointed that the show wasn’t better than it was, could and, perhaps, should have been. And, naturally, I always feel a bit procrastinational when obliged to be the bearer of sad news especially, in this case, when I still think that the show is very worthwhile taking a look at. I’m sure it will surprise and please many visitors and is likely to create a whole new phalanx of supporters from among those not so familiar with his output over the years. It’s just that I suppose I had greater expectations and instead of the starred first, that I was hoping for, feel a bit let down walking away with just an upper second, when really I suppose I should grateful for even that when so very much of the art I get to see and write about seems to struggle to even achieve a dull third.

As already indicated, I’ve followed Gormley‘s career for quite a while and, indeed, think the first time I saw any of his output must have been about 35 years ago in The British Sculpture Show, a revelatory (for me, anyway) exhibition that brought together the works of fifty or so youngish contemporary artists and then spread them out across the Hayward and Serpentine Galleries, as well as their surrounding green and gray environs at the Southbank and Kensington Gardens. I suppose the overall stylistic theme was a sort of localised spin on the Italian Arte Povera movement, by which I mean that most of the artists included in the shows had long ago rejected the old-fashioned concerns of recreating the representational poses of poignant pietas and reclining nudes through moulding clay or carving wood and stone, and were now much more interested in experimenting with formalistic combinations of so-called non-traditional pre-fabricated materials that could be bought bought form the hardware store or other commercial outlets. It’s so long ago that I can only remember a few of the works from that show: David Mach‘s famous full size model of a Polaris submarine made from car tyres; Tony Cragg‘s wall piece map of the British Isles composed of hundreds of brightly coloured plastic fragments; and some of Richard Wentworth‘s small assemblages made out of string bags full of lightbulbs – and I couldn’t really swear that either of the last two works were actually in that show or maybe appeared in other exhibitions from around that same time. Either way, I’m pretty sure that there were also a couple of Gormley‘s full-sized humanoid figures made from lumps of lead or pewter or some such dull grey material. That exploring the shape and structure of this simple elemental form – his famous mummified metal man – should have produced such an abundance of interesting artworks over the subsequent several years is impressive testimony to Gormley‘s prodigious inventiveness.

Not that the artist has stuck just to metallic manifestations. Not long after seeing that Hayward show I can also recall coming across a piece by Gormley at the small but influential Coracle Press Gallery which was renowned for showing exciting cutting edge Conceptual works from a small space out in the wilds of Camberwell. This time the work consisted of a neat grid of dozens of slices of plain white bread pinned in regular rows to the wall of the Gallery. A potential piece of impressive Minimalist Art then defiled by the artist having bitten out sufficient sections to reveal the unmistakeable silhouette of a man. It struck me then as rather neat and amusing composition, a piece of simple Surrealism that made me smile at the sheer Wonderbread wonderfulness of its conception.

Now that I seem to have started strolling down an artistical memory lane I guess I may as well continue trying to bring to mind other Gormley-related recollections which, like many other people, would doubtless include the memory of peering out of a car window to glance at his monumental Angel of the North sculpture sited on the approach to Gateshead. And while most public sculptures tends to be pretty awful, either because they’re just third division art (that appalling heap settled outside Hammersmith tube station comes to mind) or else premier league quality works that are hopelessly mislocated in utterly inappropriate settings (Henry Moore‘s wonderful Large Spindle Piece dumped, maligned and mistreated amid the clamorous clutter of the Kings Cross station concourse). By contrast, the Gormley folly looks just great either in passing or up close and natural. And while I’ve not yet got around to visiting Another Place at Crosby Beach, this seems to be another one of those very rare public artworks that’s received the ultimate accolade in that, as far as one can tell from the occasional vox pop surveys that one reads about, the local residents actually seem to like it. It remains on my bucket list but I have, however, already managed to see the Gormley mini Poundland-version in Margate, which consist of a single solitary figure stuck in the sand looking out at the fluctuating tides. And while that description makes it sounds a bit obvious and even corny, stood up close and next to this lone stranger, with the waves pulsating all around, it really does seem to work its magic and create some kind of ambient contemplative aura of mysticalness. Unless perhaps that chilly tingling feeling I felt surging up my spine was a result of the seawater gradually seeping into my unsuitable broguish footware – no matter, the sculpture certainly left an impression one way or another.

Another successful piece of Gormley‘s large al fresco expressionism that’s worth taking a look at is, I think, still sited next to the O2 Arena by North Greenwich tube station, where it was erected as part of the millennial celebrations, that curious chronologic marker that seems to be racing back into history at such an alarming velocital rate. Yet again, the Quantum Cloud, was a statue of a humble everyman, but this time created from a million carefully placed interlocking rods of steel. And, yet again, it somehow seems to have been able to engage the attention of all who come across it and make them pause for thought whether they recognising or acknowledging it as art or not or, frankly, not giving a subatomic toss either way. Which, again, I think is probably a pretty good measure of its success.

At which point I suppose balance requires me to say that I think that even Gormley suffered a bit of a flop when he took over the site of the famous Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square and instead of sticking a bit of his own art on top of it, settled for trying out some kind of ill-conceived experiment in democratic nonsensicality. Basically his idea was to just let anyone who wanted fifteen minutes of lame fame to get up on the granite dais and give them a temporary platform for making some statement, however artistic, aimless or random or whatever. I think the problem was that none of these non-professionals had anything very much of interest to say or do and we would have perhaps been better off had Gormley himself stood up there and explained what was meant to be going on. Indeed, such is his erudition and eloquence I’m sure he could have kept pontificating for the whole six month period all by himself, notwithstanding that some people (or so I am advised) apparently find his ocassional oratorical pronouncements a bit smug, irritatingly self-assured and altogether too clever by three-quarters. As it is, the idea fell very flat and it has to be marked down as a rare misfire from the master.

Bringing things a bit more up-to-date, I’d better mention the solo show he had at the Hayward in 2007 where I can remember walking through the cloud chamber that he’d constructed. The room was filled with a fog of dense water vapour that was just like an old style pea souper, which meant that it was impossible to see for more than a foot or so in any direction as one tentatively plodded a course across to the other side. I’m not entirely sure that such experiential artworks really justify their usual extravagantly expensive installation costs but they seem to generate an undoubtedly welcome broad, cross-generational appeal, as the current very similar work by Olafur Eliasson at the Tate Modern confirms. A rather better work associated with that show was Event Horizon which consisted of a dozen or more of those familiar Gormley metal replica clones stuck on the roofs and gulleys of assorted buildings surrounding the Hayward. Again, I’m not quite sure quite why it seemed to work but scanning the architectural horizons searching and finding these distant replicas of the artist all gazing eyelessly back just seemed like quite a fun thing to do.

More recently, Gormley has had another couple of good shows – a 15-room labyrinth at White Cube with each space filled with yet more variations on the architecture of the human body shape and then a room at Tate Britain packed with a collection of studio maquettes constructed for various projects over the preceding twenty years. All of which leads up to the current Royal Academy blockbuster which includes examples covering much of the work referenced in my very mini-biographical roundup above (for a full retrospective review, Gormley has an extraordinarily comprehensive website at So, why did I find the RA show a bit disappointing? Well, I suppose I felt the specially commissioned larger installational work – the room filled with spirals of wire, the empty one with the reflecting pool, the other empty one with just three perpendicular wires not quite meeting, the large one with the massive suspended cages, and the tiny tunnel through to the giant metal man – just didn’t seem special enough and all fell a bit flat. But, having said that, there’s still eight other rooms filled with dozens of other clever and attractive historical works to see – certainly enough to confirm Gormley‘s status as the country’s leading sculptor.

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