The 70-year-old on why sculpture is deeper than other art forms and of his dream to make a work beneath the Gobi Desert
Sculpture has rather occupied the limelight of late, what with the Royal Academy threatening to sell off its Michelangelo tondo, a Victorian slave trader being toppled into the Bristol docks, Maggi Hambling’s nude tribute to Mary Wollstonecraftinflaming the feminists and new plans for a monument to Virginia Woolf afoot. Lockdown Britain is abuzz with discussion of sculptural works.
Is this a good thing, I ask Antony Gormley, whose works are probably the most popular and best recognised in the country (although they, in their time, have also caused controversy). What is his take, for instance, on Hambling’s vilified “nude of Newington Green”?
Gormley is quite possibly our nation’s most articulate sculptor. He is notoriously capable of belabouring his listeners with long disquisitions. I wait on the end of the telephone line, pen poised to make notes. I can imagine him, sitting there in his rural Norfolk mansion, the lean 6ft 4in figure that has lent its dimensions to so many of his creations clad in its habitual T-shirt, pale chinos and desert boots. I am prepared for the outpouring. Yet the answer when it comes is unexpectedly brief. Gormley isn’t going to enter into debates about public statuary. “The statue,” he says firmly, “is only one form, and in my view quite a minor form, of sculpture.” Sculpture, far more interestingly, he says, is “about thinking through making”.
It is this process of “thinking through making” that he — in conversation with the art critic Martin Gayford — examines in a new book. Shaping the World: Sculpture from Prehistory to Now takes its readers on a fully illustrated journey across time and space. It is a volume about relishing not just the range and variety, but also the power and possibilities of the discipline it discusses. Ancient Egyptian effigies, Aboriginal rock carvings, Buddhist stupas, Chinese grottos, North American totems, Italian renaissance marbles, Soviet propagandist bronzes, contemporary installations and performances, not to mention a couple of dozen of Gormley’s own creations — all are included.
Sculpture can grow out of anything, from the very landscape that immerses us to the movements that we make. Tino Seghal manages, Gormley says, to get rid of the physical object altogether. “He gives his performers a certain set of rules — choreographed algorithms he has devised — in which to modify their behaviour and thus somehow infect the energy of the collective space. The object disappears and so does the distinction between performer and audience.
“The reason I chose sculpture as a vocation was to escape words. In the beginning was the thing,” Gormley says. Sculpture is “about having a sense that through tactile manipulation we are having a conversation with time and the world”. And, he explains, given that the oldest sculpture in his book, a stone bolus that would fit into your palm and was no doubt passed from hand to hand, is about 1.7 million years old, “that conversation probably started to happen before language”. This, Gormley says with what sounds like a smile in his voice, rather puts fashionable chatter about feminist nudes into perspective.
Gormley says, “There’s a much deeper, longer and richer story to sculpture,” which now, in our digital age, he suggests, may be unprecedentedly important. “We live in a culture addicted to spectacle. We are mesmerised by a proliferation of images and our hunger and greed for them, images which are instantly made and instantly obsolescent. Sculpture can make a stand against this.
“Sculpture doesn’t need the protection of a frame or a wall or a curator,” he says. “It can live in the elements, like a tree or a rock. And that potential to become a part of the world, rather than being a picture of it, is why its so important.” Sculpture “throws us back into our own physical experience”.
This palpable experience is crucial right now when, even as we reach the point when we are able to read the book of life, we are burning it. Sculpture “grounds us again in the fact that we a part of the world, not apart from it”, Gormley says, quoting David Attenborough, who, in his opinion, “arrived late at the urgency of the threat of extinction and the absolutely disastrous situation that our species and indeed the whole biosphere is in”. Sculpture can tap into a “very deep basal consciousness that has been there since early in hominid evolution”. It can offer us an “intrinsic understanding of our connectedness with matter”.
Gormley, who turned 70 this summer, has spent much of this past year reassessing his position. Lockdown, he thinks, has offered “an extraordinary moment of pause. We have to use it well . . . to reconsider what our values are and how we conduct ourselves from this point onwards.” He and his studio team have been monitoring and trying to ameliorate their carbon footprint by using recycled metal, for instance, or investigating how to make alloys in less wasteful ways. “It’s been a really positive time for us in spite of the difficulties.”
This pandemic, he hopes, “will teach us to go a bit slower and notice the incredible miracles that are happening moment to moment around us”. And prominent among these miracles, he suggests, are those that we ourselves can perform.
First, he explains, there’s that “amazing experience of living with partners that we haven’t been with seriously because we’ve been rushing out, fulfilling obligations that came from outside ourselves and outside the intimacy of relationship”. And on top of that there’s the way people are discovering their creativity, “reading books more, using their kitchen tables as studios. Rather than being passive consumers of culture, the whole nation is becoming practitioners and participators. Our creative selves and productive imaginations are being reconnected . . . Whole areas of synaptic activity are reviving themselves in this pause. And the idea that actually this period of reconsideration of everything could also be a threshold through which art, once again, becomes part of the everyday lived world rather than being coralled within institutions — well, that’s wonderful.”
He brings an all but euphoric outpouring to a suddenly self-conscious close. “Sorry, this is in danger of turning into a lecture,” he says with a laugh. “But I do think that the fact that people exposed to a situation that they could never have imagined have adapted so extraordinarily well gives cause for optimism. We can change. We know that. Because everything is impermanent. Change is the only permanent condition in our lives.”
Sculpture, Gormley says, is “a small concrete example of that change. It is benign, hopefully. It doesn’t destroy anything by arriving in the world, but it changes it. And it opens up an avenue of possibility. And if you can do something that is not exploiting a situation but simply adding a layer of imaginative experience to it, I think there is hope for us and for our continued dialogue with the biosphere.”
Gormley takes his work Another Place — the hundred cast-iron, life-size figures that stand sentinel along two miles of Crosby Beach in Merseyside — as an example of how sculpture can speak to the future. These figures, he explains, are “not just in the world, but in an extreme, elemental part of it, a tough working landscape with massive sewage pipes going into the Atlantic, and wind turbines, and huge piles of scrap being collected and shipped to China”. Into this industrial landscape he puts these “industrially made fossils that ask, ‘What is a human being? What is our relationship to time and space and the rising sea? What is our imaginative relationship to that which lies on the other side of the horizon and why have we always sought to colonise and find new territories to exploit?’ ”
This work “doesn’t attempt to mandate, or triumphalise”, Gormley says. “It simply occupies a common ground. Anyone who cares to can simply go and walk and wonder, and hopefully find a space in which we can consider our responsibilities to our common future.”
And what about his own future, I ask him. As he embarks on his eighth decade he must be considering what more he would like to achieve, what commissions he would most like to win. “I am very aware that I’ve had a lot of amazing commissions in this country,” Gormley says. He is working on a sculpture to occupy one of several empty niches on the west front of Wells Cathedral in Somerset and has been trying to imagine “what it would actually feel like to be 4m above the ground in a narrow but windy niche, exposed and nauseous and unsettled by vertigo”.
However, he says he would be wary of taking on any more big commissions in this country. Not, it turns out, because he thinks he is too omnipresent, but because he feels that works he has done still continue to do the jobs they were made to do. He takes the Angel of the North as an example. He created it to stand as “a marker of the transition between the industrial and the information age, between heavy industry and the lightness of cyber communication”. As far as he is concerned, it still fills that role.
However, Gormley does have a dream. “I would like to make a work that is to do with our collective human future globally. I want to make a space that realigns us and realigns our relationship with the sun, and I would like it to be permanent,” he says. He imagines this space as being underground, in the middle of the Gobi Desert, he suggests, or maybe Azerbaijan; “Somewhere where there has been massive amounts of oil extraction.” This space would “in some sense mark the end of the oil age or at least our departure from that addiction. Its magic could be that it could bring together the defence forces of the world — of Russia and America, Syria and Turkey, for instance — for creative purposes.” And together they would make “a place in which our kind could just think about its responsibilities to the planet and to the future of living things.”
This space, Gormley says, would be “a pantheon for the 21st century . . . a sort of chamber of the United Nations with maybe a central oculus 30 or 40 metres across that would track the passage of the sun across the floor”. It would not, Gormley insists, be about giving us “some spectacle that turns us into dumb awestruck idiots”. Rather, like any piece of great sculpture, “it would work as an earthing device that allows us to sense our own beings in time and place more intently”. Engaging us “physically first, then emotionally, and then hopefully intellectually, it would reroot us in our experience. Make us think and feel.
“Sculpture can simply be in time and place and engage people in being in time and place,” Gormley says. It all comes down to something profoundly simple. “I can talk and talk,” he says, “but I don’t think that anyone should listen to what I’m saying. I think they should just go and spend some time with the work.”
Shaping the World: Sculpture from Prehistory to Now by Antony Gormley and Martin Gayford is published by Thames & Hudson (£40)