It is an unforgettable sight that, even after the removal of the statues, will survive for a long time in the minds of all those who have seen it: Antony Gormley Gormley's hundred iron statues rising from the sand along the long coastal strip until they stand in full length on the wet, ribbed sand, staring at the horizon in silent expectation.
The artwork is called ‘Another Place’. It has already been shown on other places, but is now set up on occasion of 2003 Beaufort in De Panne at the Belgian coast. There, it strangely merges with the seaside visitors, equally spread alongside the entire coast, although in far greater numbers. And although they do not stand motionless: they lie or sit, walk or run. But seen from a distance - a perspective that imposes itself on the coast of De Panne, which is broad and not broken through breakwaters - also the living people are turned into motionless silhouettes. Hence, the life-sized statues would easily merge with the living seaside visitors, were it not that they slowly rise up from the sand, in contrast to the seaside visitors, who move horizontally of the surface of the earth.
Until we realise that it is the statues that are placed on a horizontal plane, as opposed to the seaside visitors who are walking on a gently sloping plane. It is not the statues that ascend to the heavens. Rather do the seaside visitors descend to the depths of the ocean.
From which depths do these statues arise?
And foremost: where does their creator come from?
BRANCUSI ON HIS HEAD
Judging from the works that Antony Gormley(°1950) made in the late seventies, just graduated from Goldsmiths College (1975-1977) and the Slade (1977-1979), you would never have fancied that the man would ever make such a thing like ‘Another Place’. Following the example of Carl André, who upset the English art-world with his rows of bricks in the Tate in 1976, he arranges pieces of bread or series of hemispheres on a row, recomposes a trunk sawn into slices into a concentric pattern or into a row of decreasing piles of slices. A similar concentric pattern is cut over the rings of a tree-stump or cut into a boulder, strongly reminding of fingerprints. (For a survey of his works: see Antony Gormley)
But Antony Gormley is too much of a sculptor to bring such minimalism to a head. He prefers to understand it as the completion of the essentialism that led to the ‘sleeping muse’ of Brancusi. And such approach opens a more fertile perspective: awakening the muse that Brancusi had sent to sleep in an egg. The rebirth of the human figure out of the bricks, as it ware. First, the surface of the egg-shaped stone is inadvertently turned into magnified skin through cutting concentric figures in it (series ‘Skin’, 1978-79 and ‘Touchstones’, 1981-82). In the series ‘Heavy Stone’ (1982) and ‘Grasp’ (1982) it is hands that embrace the stone. And in ‘Man Rock’ (1982) the hands eventually grow into a full body that envelopes the stone as if they were its skin.
Also within the framework of the rigid pattern of repetition or progression, inherited from Carl André, the figure continues to loom up. In ‘Natural selection’ (1981) Antony Gormley replaces Carl André’s abstract bricks with concrete objects, from weapons, through utensils, to vegetables and fruit; or in ‘One apple’ (1982) with a series of apples decreasing in size. And even the purely formal principle of progression is lent a figurative freight, as when in ‘Land, sea, air’ (1982) a kneeled figure first bows its trunk, than holds it upright to eventually stand up; or in ‘Three places’ (1983), where a reclined figure first lifts its trunk to eventually stand upright.
But it seems as though Antony Gormley recoils from the resurrection of the body. He no longer confines himself to fit the figure from without in the progression of a row, but also submits it to a rigid geometrical composition from within. In ‘Desert’ (1983) a figure lies prostrate with the belly on the ground, its left arm stretched at right angles. The series ‘Untitled’ (1983) comprises a figure standing upright with the arms at right angles to the front (‘Diving figure’). In ‘Fill’ (1984) a figures lays prostrate with both arms stretched sideward as a cross, and in ‘Reach’ (1983) a similar figure lifts both arms, at right angles with the body. The intention is clear: a body cannot help to adopt an attitude and gestures. And to prevent it from beginning to tell a story, it has to be disciplined geometrically.
But even though the gestures and attitudes are essentially negative, the geometric discipline of the organic lends them an unknown expressive freight. Which undoubtedly will have inspired Antony Gormley to make a further stride. In works like ‘Rise’ (1983-1984) the head wants to release itself from the rigid grip of a body that lies supine with both arms stretched alongside it. In ‘Vent’ (1984) or ‘Address’ (1984) the right angles are replaced with a symmetry in three dimensions of the gently sloping axes of trunk, legs and arms. The figurative freight is further enhanced when in ‘Peer’ (1984) a penis in erection and a gently inclined head, that looks down on the phenomenon with some amazement, come to join the balance of symmetries. Of this brand of already more mature sculptures, the model of the 100 casts of ‘Another place’ is a direct descendant.
‘WE ARE THE HOLLOW MEN…’
But the body of the muse awakening from the egg, cannot really break loose from the geometry wherein it is caught. It is not allowed to adopt gestures and attitudes, let alone facial expressions as the visible appearance of an invisible inner self.
For instead of infusing it with a soul, Antony Gormley is filling it with ‘inner space’. To Antony Gormley the sculpture has to convey the experience of how it feels to be in the world within the confines of a body. No inner world as a soul, hence, but as an ‘interior’ in the literal sense: a space enclosed by the skin. The idea of such an inner space derives from the visual representation of the body as an object in the world when we are falling asleep or meditating. Then, we experience our body merely as a series of tactile impressions on the skin, the border between inner and outer world. Since we are still visually oriented, we imagine an inner space according to the model of outer space. And since we are not moving any longer nor manipulating objects, we are no longer surrounded by outer space, to which we have anyhow closed our eyes. We get the impression that our body has become weightless and seems to expand until it finally comes to coincide with space as such.
Already as a little child Antony Gormley was fascinated by the death-mask. And what interested him was not so much the attempt at catching the soul of the deceased in the expression of the face, but rather the pure expansion of the flesh, its outward pressure on the plaster – as if the mould was a vagina containing a swelling penis or a womb enclosing a growing foetus. And that reminds us of the fact that the skin contains no inner space whatsoever, but flesh and intestines. Antony Gormley’s lecture of the death-mask reveals the function of the dawn of such inner space: as the interiorisation of the external visible space, it is the pure negation of the organs contained by our skin as well as of the immaterial soul that we equally locate within our skin, behind the eyes as the mirrors of the soul.
That is why Brancusi’s muse, nearly awakened from her egg, is promptly covered by another shell: Antony Gormley’s sculptures are moulds of his own body. He describes how he has to adopt a rigid pose until the hardening plaster of the mould takes over. In such happening-like ritual are condensed, as in a symptom, the ascent of the body and its descent alike. For Antony Gormley is not interested in the content of the mould, supposed to soon rise up as a cast, but in the mould itself that contains the body as a void. It is turned into a second skin, like an Egyptian sarcophagus: a ‘body case’, made of pieces of lead welded together (Night, 1983; Box, 1983). As heirs of the rigid geometric composition, the welds form a pattern of horizontal and vertical lines over the ‘body case’. Instead of being the visual appearance of an invisible interior, the statues are turned into boxes containing an inner space. They do not show any expression (except a geometrically disciplined one). And they seem to have no skin either. No organic life shimmers through it – we know how much Hegel descried the presence of the ‘Geist’ in the shimmering through of the veins. And even less does the surface invite to touching. Apparently, Antony Gormley is not aware of the irony when, in an attempt to stress that he is out at the invisible interior of his sculptures and not at their outer appearance, he provides all the works from this period with the title ‘lead, polyester and… air’. Which does not prevent that, the lead over the flesh sometimes shows a sensual quality, that only belies his explicit intention.
By the way: the ‘inner body’ has its expansion in common with the penis or the vagina, whose erection, according to Freud, causes the ‘dream of flying’. The inner life of the ‘Geist’ transformed into the 'phallus’ rising up. Or: the resurrection of the body replaced with the erection of the penis. This gives a rather sinister overtone to the idea of the reduplication of the artist in the beholder - the passing on of an experience. The living body enclosed in the mould, that is – bearing in mind Freud’s reduction of the body buried alive to the foetus in the womb – a re-experiencing of the existence as a foetus in the womb. And according to the equation of body and penis: an endeavour to escape death by begetting oneself in the womb of the mother. Although Antony Gormley spares himself even the detour around the mother by making a mould of himself. Which sheds a new light on the function of sculpture as the ‘passing on of experiences’: a nearly concealed form of cloning one’s own self.
The resurrection of the figure in sculpture avoided, then, through the dawn of ‘inner space’. Although such inner space cannot appear but in the body in which it is enveloped. In an effort to avert the danger that the soul would come to inhabit this envelope, Antony Gormley goes even further than containing the expression in purely geometrically determined poses. He increasingly conceives his bodies in terms of the penis, that flaccid envelope that hardens under the pressure of the blood. The erectile body appears first as a penis that emphatically protrudes from the body ('Peer', 1984; ‘Well’, 1990). But soon also other parts of the body seem to have become erectile. In ‘Tree’ (1984) an extremely long neck protrudes from the trunk of a sculpture; in ‘Field’ (1983-84) the arms of a standing sculpture reach to the walls; in ‘Home and the World’ (1986-87) the trunk ends up in an extremely long bar, and in ‘Case of an Angel II’ (1990) it is elongated wings that extend to the walls. Eventually the whole body is turned into one single erectile organ: it expands in all directions into a balloon-like profusion, into a conglomerate of bubbles clinging to one another ('End product' and 'Still Running', 1990/93). In a remarkable reversal, the inner content of the body is turned into its outer envelope: the model used for the construction of its expanded version is literally buried in those sculptures. Inner space outgrowing the body as a tomb for the very same body that once contained it: this process lays bare the true nature of inner space as the negation not only of the flesh and the soul, but also of the body’s surface as the outer appearance of the spirit.
The natural relation between interior and exterior seems to be restored in works where the body itself is visible again, but where real space seems to take over the function of inner space outgrowing its container, even though the pneumatic expansion of the balloon is then replaced with the angular coordinates of the exhibition space. In those works it is as if the geometric endo-skeleton that structured the figures from within, is prolonged in a surrounding exo-skeleton. In ‘Sic’ (1987-1989) a kneeled figure is fixed at the rectangular vertical wall as a right-angled console. In ‘Testing a world view’ (1993) a trunk at right angles on joined legs is fitted into ever changing coordinates of the cubic space. The same is the case in ‘Drawn’ (2000) where a trunk on spread legs is fitted into the corners of the space. Whereas in the works with spread arms and wings, space was rather a kind of extended niche that had to contain the forces radiating from the sculpture, in these installations the sculptures are rather exemplifications of the forces radiating from the room: they threaten to be reduced to a mere function of the very space that once had been a function of sculpture.
The dissolution of the sculpture in the space surrounding it is completed when the room is replaced with blocks of concrete wherein the body of the artist is contained as a void, like the bodies of the inhabitants of Pompei in the lava. The series begins with ‘Flesh’ (1990), a concrete cross that looks like if it walked right out of Flanders Fields, and culminates in the accumulation of concrete blocks reminding of a soldier’s churchyard in ‘Allotment’ (1995).
With Antony Gormley Gormley, the body is only allowed to resurrect in function of the space it contains within and the space containing it from without. In itself, it will never be allowed to come to life and to begin to speak through adopting expressions, gestures and poses. Instead of a sensuous apparition of the idea it is reduced to an element in a concept.
THE REBELLION OF THE MASSES
But there is still a third way out to nip the rebirth of the figure in the bud: multiplication. No better way to divert the attention from something than to let it submerge as an element in an encompassing whole. Whereas figuration first slipped through the net of the elements in Carl André’s row, the thus reborn figure is neutralised again through letting it dissolve in the very same row: a mass of figurines moulded in clay (‘Fields’) or a series of iron casts (‘Another Place’).
But first a detour. The way to repetition leads over mirroring, a more restricted form of multiplication. In ‘Sculpture for Derry Walls’ (1987) a figure is carrying its mirror-image on its back: a kind of reversed ‘Kiss’ of Brancusi. The supine version of this dorsal mirroring reminds of Rodin’s ‘Fugit Amor’. And those forebears remind us of the fact that also the formal principle of mirroring has its figurative roots: frontal symmetry is the primeval form of the spatial relationship between lovers. With Antony Gormley Gormley, such symmetry is formally eroded and negated through reversal. Somewhat nearer to the mark, although this time negated through a dorsal approach, comes ‘Holding onto the future’ (1987-1988). Only in ‘Meaning’ (1988-1993) do the figures lie frontally upon each other, as if in a lying version of Brancusi’s ‘Kiss’.
But how much even here Antony Gormley’s sculpture recoils from being a sensuous surface, is evidenced by the fact that the heads and bodies are sheer volumes that interpenetrate one another, rather than faces with kissing lips kissing or bodies with a sensitive skin. Not only lips and skin are thus circumvented, but also penis or vagina. And that goes especially for the 69-mirroring in ‘Present time’ (1987-1988), a stretched version of Rodin’s Fall of the Angel: not only has the encounter shifted one phase, it is also rendered impossible in that it is headless trunks that are joined. The same goes for ‘Bearing II’ (1995), a reissue of Rodin’s ‘Je suis belle’, the perverse lecture of which is immediately negated in that the trunk of the figure below bluntly penetrates the abdomen of the figure above. With Antony Gormley Gormley, the encounter of two sensuous surfaces is replaced with the merger of two inner spaces. That is why the formal principle of the mirror cannot be elevated to more complex forms of symmetry, as they are imposed by the fact that what is mirrored is an opposition: that between man and woman. Containers of inner space are mere mirror-images of one another: casts of the one and only Antony Gormley– mystic clones. And at the same time we understand why the motif of copulation, when reduced to mere mirroring, has inevitably to unfold to its essence: the endless mirroring of iteration. The sexual freight, already denied in the obliteration of the sexual surface, is further hollowed out in that the couple dissolves in the endless repetition of the one and only. Which is sealed in ‘Word made Fresh’ (1989) where a figure is curling up – presumably sucking its own penis. With hindsight, we understand that Antony Gormley’s problems with precisely the very copulation that suited Rodin and Brancusi so well, may have lain at the roots of the advent of the erectile inner space, that is now leaving room for the multiplication of the figure.
Carl André’s row back again, hence. But the repressed erotic élan betrays itself in the fact that the row is no longer rigid: the sculptures are never arranged in a row, behind or next to one another, as if they were soldiers, let alone in other formations of military geometry such as the platoon. Iterative, hence, but not linear. Only in ‘Fields’ (1989) are the figures arranged in the familiar concentric circles. Still in ‘Mind-Body column’ (2000), the sculptures are arranged in a this time vertical row, as in Brancusi’s phallic columns. But already in ‘ Three Way’s’ (1982) and ‘Islands’ (1082) the erectile row is replaced with a random arrangement. And in ‘Man asleep’ (1985) the multiplication of the figures takes the shape of a chaotic procession of little figurines moving away from a leaden sculpture, whose dream they seem to embody. And how wet that dream might be - how the avoided couple bereft of its sexual organs is resurfacing in the flow of sperm – is apparent from ‘Night and Day’ (1987) where a tube - a late echo of Carl André’s row – is spawning a stream of homunculi, those little men whom the Greeks thought were hidden in the sperm, and who are made visible in Antony Gormley’s ‘Chromosome’ (1984): two figures lying next to each other as a pair of chromosomes. In the following versions the penis is left out altogether and the focus is on the rampant abundance of sculptures, numerous as the progeny promised to Abraham: ‘Field’ (1991), ‘Amazonian field’ (1991), ‘Field for the British Isles’ (1993), ‘European Field’ (1993), not to mention ‘Asian Field’ (2003) on diverse locations in China, comprising 120.000 sculptures figurines! The erectile penis that first took the shape of the expanding inner space of the body, now appears under the guise of the – although numerous and germinating – seed. Such blowing up of the human figure has to end up in the further dissolution of seed into genes. With the homunculus as a catalyst, the sexual love of the couple is thus transformed into the – although purely additive – communal love of the undifferentiated mass.
But also the communal aspect of ‘Fields’ is only allowed to break through in a crippled form. Just as the body recoiled from developing to the seat of the soul, and just as the couple did not unfold to a unity of opposites in copulation, just so does the group not grow out to the harmonious unity of the combined opposition of the sexes and the generations. What we get to see is the pure addition of sexless and generationless beings. And even though, in the already cited ‘Fields’, those gnomes are gazing at the beholder, shrugging shoulders in solidarity, in ‘Total Strangers’ (1996) and ‘Another Place’ (1997) the mass is dissolving in a sum of atoms drifting apart in the empty space.
But we still owe it to the erotic impulse that the multiplied figures are part of a mass and do not dissolve into purely formal elements in a purely formal order. And nobody will deny it: while the gestures of the isolated figures were nipped in the bud and the lovers were reduced to communicating vessels, the mass is allowed to freely speak out. The effect of those numerous figures covering the entire floor is more then ‘speaking’. Only the amorphous mass is granted what the figure and the couple were deprived of: the ‘theatrical’, as it was from way back to be seen in the freezes or the tympanum of the Grecian temples, or in the portals of gothic cathedrals. It is only because in the West the domain of sculpture has slowly been narrowed to the ‘figura’, whereas the ‘compositio’ was referred to painting, that ‘figuration’ is allowed to break through on the level of the mass: as long as the figures do not pose as actors, Moses receives his due.
The ‘narrative’ element that has been banned from the isolated figure breaks through, not only in the theatrical arrangement of the figures, but even more perhaps in the scene on which they appear: their décor. More and more Antony Gormley comes to place his sculptures in a space inhabited by living humans: as if they leave the world of art, although they thereby do not step from a real pedestal, but rather free themselves from their geometric embedding in a space consecrated to art. In the beginning they enter urban environments as in ‘Sculpture for Derry Walls’ (1987), ‘Open Space’ (1991/1994), ‘Man (iron)’(1993) and ‘Total Strangers’ (1996). But eventually Antony Gormley seems to resolutely prefer open nature, like land-art. This culminates in ‘Havman’ (1994), staged in a Norwegian fjord and in ‘Another Place’ (1997) where 100 iron figures are lined up along the coast, as now in De Panne on occasion of 2003 Beaufort.
It seems as though Antony Gormley is avoiding the dialogue between real people and the statue through using water as a threshold. In ‘Another Place’ the relation fluctuates according to the rhythm of the tides. At low tide people walk amidst the sculptures, but when the tide is coming in, they are swept from amidst the sculptures and driven to the beach.
But there is more. The places where these sculptures appear are part of an earth’s surface that has been inhabited for millennia, traversed by hunters, ploughed by farmers and excavated by miners or just used as a battle-ground during war. Therefore, every place on earth is saturated with history. The ‘Angel of the North’ (1995) is elevated above a deserted coal mine. The exhibition of ‘Asian Fields’ (2003) in China cannot but remind of the thousands of terracotta warriors that came to us from the primal beginnings of the Chinese empire, but also of the insurrection on the Tienanmen square, especially since the terracotta sculptures are posted in the nearby Imperial Palace.
‘WE ARE THE DEAD…’
(‘In Flanders Fields’)
And that certainly applies to the disposition of ‘Another Place’ in De Panne on the Belgian coast.
Already in their natural environment are the sculptures integrated perfectly, just like formerly the statues on squares or in buildings. For, the beach in De Panne is not only broad, but also long: no curves are breaking the coastline and no breakwaters are spoiling the panorama. So that from the no man’s land between France and Belgium the numerous walkers and seaside visitors appear as black silhouettes on the wet sand in the twilight zone between sea and mainland. And most striking is that remarkable sense of immobility: although all those people walk along the sea, or move back and forth between the sea and the beach, they all seem to be immobilised. Ever since my earliest youth that sight is stamped on my retina. When I saw Antony Gormley’s ‘installation’, it seemed as if that sight suddenly stood magnified there, right before my eyes, in man sized, immobile statues.
But, as already mentioned, in contrast with the real seaside visitors and in contrast with the former versions of ‘Another Place’, the statues are not standing on the ground. No doubt, Antony Gormley will have been puzzled by the fact that in former versions the farthest sculptures stood submerged in the water, while the nearby ones were merely about to paddle. It then will have dawned on him that the beach is not a horizontal plane, but a sloping one. And that will have inspired him to dispose the statues on a horizontal plane, parallel to the surface of the sea. When the tide is coming in, they elevate themselves above the surface of the water. But when the tide is low, they seem to rise up from the sand. Would we complete their movement, they would gently rise above the water – hang in the skies, like Antony Gormley’s sculptures disappearing with their heads in the ceiling (‘Learning to think’, 1991), or better still: the sculpture that is hanging under a vault like Jesus Christ on his cross in former times (Object, 1999). But when the tide is low, the reminiscence of the statues, protruding on equal heights from the water, conversely reminds us that the seaside visitors are standing on a sloping plane. Such balancing of the surfaces on the rhythm of the tides is already a rather sophisticated form of integration of the sculptures in their environment.
Which at the same time snatches visitors and sculptures alike from the real world. So that wholly naturally, a perspective on a historic dimension is opening up, wherein this seemingly timeless - and carefree - landscape is situated. For behind the dunes are the polders with the soldier’s churchyards of the ‘Great War’. And down the coast in Normandy, soldiers were moving in the opposite direction during the landing in Normandy. Together with the sight of the thousands of ships in the sea and the thousands of airplanes in the air – whose movement equally seems to be immobilised through distance – this vision seems in fact the completed version of the installation on the beach in De Panne, although in reversed direction.
This association is not a mere fancy of our own mind, it is firmly grounded in Antony Gormley’s oeuvre itself. We already pointed at the counterparts of the leaden ‘body cases’: the concrete blocks wherein the body of the artist is contained as a void. ‘Flesh’ (1990) is a concrete cross that just seems to have walked out of Flanders Fields, were it not for the body of the artist, standing with stretched arms, contained in it. In ‘Allotment’ (1995) similar concrete blocks are arranged in rows, just like the graves on a soldiers churchyard. The endless repetition of the (hollow) crosses on the churchyards in the polders thus finds its echo in Antony Gormley’s (full) casts on the beach. And that causes a further irrevocable association: it seems as though the full casts are escaped from the hollow moulds in the crosses behind the dike – as if Antony Gormley’s statues are risen from the dead. They are standing there, gazing vacantly into space, not knowing why they have been awakened. Until it dawns on us that they are not staring right to the horizon, but at right angles of the direction in which the sun is setting in the West: at the rise of pole star in the North. And that is where, according to psalm 48, is situated Mount Zion, the city of the Great King. From where, in the end of times, he will descend to pass his Last Judgment on the resurrected from the dead.
Thus, the sculptures are embedded not only in their natural environment, but in ever deeper layers of the collective consciousness as well. At first glance they seem to have become the real monuments sculptures once were. The expression, banned from the figure, hesitatingly resurfacing in the addition of the figures to a mass, is now allowed to come to full bloom on the scene of a landscape saturated with history.
Were it not that the sense wherein they bathe is merely a - non-compelling - construction in our mind: it is not embodied in an inescapable apparition there before our eyes. The sense of Antony Gormley’s sculptures is bestowed on them from the crosses in the polder behind the dike, conceived as being hollow against the background of Antony Gormley’s oeuvre. Therein, the resurrection of the figure, even in the accomplished form of the theatrical mass on the scene of history – as the resurrected from death – differs fundamentally from the resurrection of Michelangelo’s slaves from the marble: whereas their apparition will be completed when all the marble is cut away, Antony Gormley’s sculptures acquire their full meaning only when submerged in the spiritual dimension of the spirit.
That is why Antony Gormley’s statues have rather something of the Parthenon, of which Heidegger in ‘'Der Ursprung des Kunstwerks' philosophises: 'Das Tempelwerk fügt erst und sammelt zugleich um sich die einheit jener Bahnen und Bezüge, in denen Geburt und Tod, Unheil und Segen, Sieg und Schmach, Ausharren und Verfall die Gestalt und den Lauf des Menschenwesens in seinem Geschick gewinnen'. (Further in this work, written in 1935, it is phrased somewhat more explicitly: 'Indem eine Welt zich öffent, stellt sie einem geschichtlichen Mensentum Sieg und Niederlage, Segen und Fluch, Herrschaft und Knechtschaft zur Entscheidung...'). Sculptures threaten to become pure – although figuratively freighted – memorial stones that replace the advent of the apparition through the flaring up of the spirit in the surrounding landscape. Somewhat like the historic requisites in Danto’s ‘Gettysburg Battlefield’. And it is typical of the state of the arts in the twentieth century that, with Heidegger, meaning is flaring up around the temple rather than within it: with Hegel the image of the God loomed up in the interior of the temple. And that the temple has in common with Van Gogh’s shoes in Heidegger’s ‘Ursprung des Kunstwerks’: both are mere envelopes of man. In that sense also Antony Gormley’s figures, even though they are full as Antony Gormley’s casts in De Panne, are sheer empty shells - moulds, wherein Antony Gormley hopefully once will make the statue arise.
THE ANGEL OF THE NORTH
I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High.
Yet thou shalt be brought down to hell, to the sides of the pit
Isaiah XIV: 14,15
That very North of Mount Zion, where all the resurrected of the dead are staring at, made me immediately think of that other sculpture, that made Gorley famous to a wider public: the ‘Angel of the North’ in Gateshead on the Tyne. Also that sculpture is embedded in a landscape saturated with history: at the one end of the wall that the emperor Hadrianus had built across the isle, not far from the place were nowadays a ‘Millennium Bridge’ has been built over the Thyne. And on the very place where up until recently coal, that antiquated black gold, has been dug up…
All the more since also that sculpture is about to ascend to heaven. Although the ‘Angel of the North’ will never succeed with those stiff wings of his, even though they have the wingspan of a Jumbo Jet. And that goes especially for its protoype, exhibited within the confines of a gallery, just like the hollow cast of the body of the artist in its concrete block (‘Case for an Angel II, 1990). That the flight of our angel, the immeasurable erection of its wings notwithstanding, is irrevocably curtailed, sheds a new light on those ribs wherein its trunk is caught like a woman’s waist in a boned corset. They immediately made me think of the equally laced up ‘moules malics’ from Duchamp’s ‘La mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même’. It is well known how this work circles around Eros, that other winged being. Or shall we – bearing the swan in mind with which also the Jumbo Jet is irrevocably associated – rather write: that other winged organ? The curtailed flight - or erection – of an organ, or: how expanding space is caught within the confines of the figure’s surface that it was suppose to transcend. That makes apparent how in Antony Gormley’s ‘sculpture’ the rebirth of the figure is aborted. For in its colossal dimensions ‘The Angel of the North’ cannot but remind of other statues such as the 80 meter high Christo Redentor of Paul Landoviski, whose equally stretched out arms are blessing Rio’s heathen beaches from 1931 onward. Or – when we let its arms vary according to Antony Gormley’s cherished coordinates – of the countless statues that ever since the Statue of Liberty or Lenin are pointing to democratic or socialistic utopia’s. Receding further in time, we stumble on the David of Michelangelo, from where we are referred to the colossal statue of the emperor Constantine, the prefigure of all Western imperialistic dreams – religious as well as political. And behind this shadow, still more impressive colossuses loom up: those of the pharaohs and their Gods alongside that other river, the Nile in Egypt, nearer to the origin of civilisation. But also in those parts north of Hadrian’s wall, giants were roaming around. Take Condatis, governing over the confluence of the Tyne and the Tees, assimilated with Mars by the Romans, just like another horned war god: Belatucadrus. Not to mention Hresvelgr in the Norwegian mythology, a giant that dwelled in the utmost North and the movement of whose wings unleashed storms over the world. Which reminds us of another statue of Antony Gormley’s: the if not colossal, still huge ‘Havman’ (1994), posted in a Norwegian fjord. Not yet hindered by stiff wings or a squeezing corset, he is allowed to freely render the expansion of inner space…
And then it dawns on us that, in contrast with the identical casts in ‘Another Place’ or the gnomes in ‘Fields’, we are not dealing here with an ever expanding mass of hand sized or man sized figures, but with one single colossal figure. Multiplication seems to have made room for expansion, if not of an inner space, then certainly of something far more spiritual: power! For this colossal statue seems to be the failing leader - or at least its messenger - at which the many anonymous hordes staged by Antony Gormley seem to look up. And the questions remains which leaders have come to dwell there, in that North of Antony Gormley’s, during the course of time. Also here the power of the image is emanating from the historical layers into which the statue is imbedded. And, especially since the last offspring of those statues with the arm lifted up has been toppled before the eyes of the entire world, that cannot fail to stir some musings about all the ‘non-dit’ that lies dormant in all that ‘non-figuré’: the real abyss at the sight of which the visual arts increasingly recoil…
That is why the slaves no longer rise up so effortless from the marble as in Michelangelo’s times…
IN THE MIST
And that is also why it must not surprise us – Antony Gormley would not be Antony Gormley when the counter-move failed to appear – when also the spirit of the site is neutralised through a renewed formal violence. Already in his ‘Fields’, Antony Gormley had countless figures made through assistants according to a basic scheme. For ‘Asian Field’ (2003) he had 120.000 hand sized figurines made by 300 people of all ages from the Hudau District in Guangzhou. Apart from the contempt for the sculpture that is evidenced through such relegation, it also testifies to an effort to replace the creation of the privileged artists with that of ordinary people, whereby the creation is at the same time rooted in the local community. But, such integration is of a totally different nature than the way in which ‘Another Place’ is integrated in De Panne, or the ‘Angel of the North’ in Gateshead. As Antony Gormley phrases it: "Field is part of a global project in which the earth of a particular region is given form by a group of local people of all ages. It is made of clay, energised by fire, sensitised by touch and made conscious by being given eyes." Nothing shows better how formal violence proceeds. The living community that inhabited a site for generations, is replaced with a sample of the population. Instead of building walls, ploughing the earth, excavating the underground or digging trenches ‘they sensitise the earth by touch’. And the resurrection of the miners in the pit or the soldiers in the trenches is replaced with ‘making the clay conscious’. That does not prevent that Antony Gormley’s description of the project will not suffice to smother the associations that irrevocably will loom up in many a mind when Antony Gormley’s ‘Asian Field’ is shown in the Imperial Palace next to the Tienanmen square on occasion of the campaign ‘Think UK’…
The statues seem even to be further embedded in the community when Antony Gormley proceeds to make 300 concrete chambers for 300 living inhabitants of Malmo (Allotment). This time the inhabitants are allowed to do more than merely mould the clay: their very body is eternalised in the work of art, albeit as an empty space in concrete blocks. This approach is refined in ‘Domain Fields’ (2003, Baltic). How much the rebirth of the figure is curtailed, even in the evasive shape of the mass, may appear from the fact that Antony Gormley further reduces the living community to ‘a complete cross-section of the public from age 5 tot 95’. And the counter-move is completed in that their casts only serve the construction of sculptures as an accumulation of bars in stainless steel. The parallel with the ‘letters’ of DNA catches the eye, even though we have to deal here with three instead of four building blocks: bars in the height, the breadth and the depth. Just as the ‘letters’ of the DNA produce the enormous diversity of living beings, so the bars produce the diversity of figures in the human mass. The figures are no longer variants or repetitions of each other: they have become rows again, this time composed of bars. And just like the figures are dissolving in bars on a lower level, on a higher level they merge in a kind of amorphous cloud: in that they are now bereft of any expressive surface altogether, they seem to dissolve into a kind of mist cloud or energy field – rather like a blown up plus-minus painting of Mondrian or the accumulation of tiny strokes to milky ways in the paintings of Tobey. The reduction of the figure to an accumulation of an – albeit complex – row of bars thus leads to the dissolution of the group as well. And, again, a parallel with the way in which Dawkins replaces the group and the individual with genes, imposes itself. And just as with Dawkins the group and the individual are promoted to vehicles of the genes, just so does the figure’s surface first dissolve into a mystic ‘inner space’ to finally, through a detour over the erectile penis, scores of sperm and pairs of chromosomes, end up in what with Antony Gormley is called ‘quantum clouds’. Genes would be more in line with the expectations created through this dizzying blowing up of the human figure. And at the same time provide a more becoming term for what Antony Gormley used to call ‘body cases’, but with Dawkins is christened: vehicles of the genes.
Whereby Antony Gormley, rather than sealing the rebirth of the figure, out of fear of the dangers contained in the figure, prefers to regress to the numerous anti-mimetic trends against which he first seemed to be reacting. With concept art he has not only in common that his work, especially from ‘Domain’ onwards , threatens to evaporate into a mere shadowy concept, just like the body into Dawkins genes, the mere blueprints of the body, but also that it is increasingly executed through volunteers. From the happening, Antony Gormley inherited the involvement of the local population in the creation of the artwork. And the use of identical bars joined to complex rows is an plain relapse into minimalism.
Thus, the awakening of the muse that Brancusi sent to sleep in the egg, does not lead to the resurrection of the image that with Michelangelo lay dormant in the stone. After first having been reduced to invisible inner space, enveloped through the surface as a sarcophagus, it developed into an equally invisible void in a concrete block, to finally be dissolved, after a detour through the multiplication in the mass, in an accumulation of bars. Thus the resurrection of Antony Gormley’s statues in De Panne ends up in a veritable fall in the gene-pool, that new sublunary domain where the gods, banned from heaven, threaten to find a new home.
That does not prevent Antony Gormley’s contribution in De Panne to tower above the other contributions to 2003 Beaufort. That is why we only can hope that ‘Another Place’ will be allowed to remain there: it will probably never find a better resting-place. Although there will have to be found a good method for stopping the – up to now eloquent – rusting away of the iron – a heritage from the predilection of ‘land-art’ for transience. For the sea will certainly further erode the statues, seaweed will overgrow them and mussels will attach themselves to them – in so far as they will not slowly but surely sink in the sand, just like the bunkers of Hitler’s Atlantikwall...
© Stefan Beyst, April 2003
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Background to this text: stefan beyst: theory on art