The Royal Academy’s retrospective of Antony Gormley’s work is an awe-inspiring, immersive experience that brings the outdoors inside, writes our illustrator Sara Rivers.
Crouched against the stone courtyard, near to the entrance of the Royal Academy, an infant greets us. The tiny sculpted figure looks fragile and vulnerable in the bustling courtyard, surrounded by the grand eighteenth-century architecture. People gather around, stooping low to take a closer look at the embryonic sculpture. This marks the beginning of Gormley’s show, the starting point where his exploration of the human body begins.
This diminutive human is a glimpse of what awaits us inside. It is Gormley signalling where he’s coming from as a sculptor and where we all begin. Like much of his work, the latest exhibition at the Royal Academy is about the body in space and time, unfolding the intricacies of internal and external bodily spaces, and how inner and outer interact. With the spaces – occupied and created – of bodies at the forefront of his work, Gormley enables the viewer to experience themselves, their bodies, their emotional and imaginative responses to their own and other human forms, as part of the work.
In the first gallery is a figure in building blocks; that is, brick-like units which build and mirror a human-like form. Each humanoid unit relates a different position or bodily gesture, and is placed randomly around the room. Some are seated, others recline; one crouches in a corner, another against a wall, while we, the viewers, walk amongst them, trying to figure out how our bodies make the same shapes. Children playfully mimic these formations and patterns, treating them like giant Lego or robots made for their active fascination.
Already we are embarking on a journey that Gormley has constructed and laid out for us. The figures are an everyman: easily related and relatable. And we are following Gormley’s creative process room by room, as he awakens our senses and encourages us to see afresh. The second gallery uses both floor and wall space to make a different note of sculptural and graphic forms. An orderly line of round stone-like units mark growth patterns over time, while what appears like an enlarged finger print – or perhaps the growth ring of a tree – is inscribed onto the opposite wall. In this room, the piece that draws the eye is Mother’s Pride, a piece where slices of white bread are grouped in such a way as a canvas or, again, a grid structure might. Encased inside is the outline of a falling body, which has been bitten out of the bread (by Gormley himself) to produce this vacuous shape of a human form. Again, negative space is used to suggest embodied feelings and experiences. The room is made up entirely of early works, many of which feel experimental, and all of which are crafted with a hint of wit and humour thereby returning us to the child-like playfulness and perception experienced in the first gallery.
The next gallery entitled Clearing proves to be the exact opposite. Standing at the doorway we are confronted with a room filled from floor to ceiling with spirals and coils of aluminium tubes that circulate and rotate in chaotic folds, encasing and enclosing. The viewer is left with the task of finding their own path through, only to be met in the next room by one life-size body tightly packed with vertical and horizontal bars. The head is slightly bowed as if in humility towards or contemplation of the myriad lines. It is a bold suggestion or conceptualisation of what may lie beneath the skin, and what holds everything upright.
Gormley takes us through room after room of bodily questions, but none are so wonderfully posed as the galleries that display his graphic work. It is here, in a collection of numerous drawings contained in small notebooks and standalone sheets of paper, that the genesis of his thinking is made visible. One series, made in black pigment and linseed oil, contains a directness, an alert, raw aesthetic beauty, that leaves the viewer pondering about existence, humanity, and the development of Gormley’s work, which we are told has occurred over four decades.
Much of Gormley’s oeuvre poses the same questions, whether it’s in two, three or fourth dimensions of time. We see that he is continually finding new ways to entice the viewer into the realm of the body, the spaces we frequent, inhabit or even neglect (much of Gormley’s human-looking sculptures are placed outdoors, on beaches, hills, cliff-tops, roofs and ruins – very rarely are they made for or do they remain indoors, let alone inside a gallery space). But the exhibition is also about the transformation of space through sculpture and design, and many of the galleries are turned into immersive works themselves.
This is especially evident with Gormley’s Cave, an abstract space that the viewer is invited to walk through, in or around. I chose to go through the cave and, with all its platonic and womb-like references aside, I focused on the actual experiential process of moving through it. I entered an almost black space and for a few seconds disorientation sets in, as I felt my way around, holding onto the sides. But I then perceived a feint glimmer and a larger space opened out, with light subtly pooling through the echoing place behind. This is clearly reminiscent of the birth canal or an emergence from the earth, with all the wonder and fear such events might conjure. But it’s also an example of how Gormley rebuilds and reveals the space as it could be – or as it really is. What is more, the cave operates as a literal and metaphorical turning point, situating the viewer as the subject of his work.
Again, Gormley uses the empty “negative” spaces of the Royal Academy to provide a new sight, a new vision, a new lived and embodied experience. Filling the last gallery with an expanse of clay and sea water it is the smells and humidity of three essential elements (water, earth, air) that informs our perceptions. We look at this quiet contemplative piece and see the reflection of the gallery with its imposing doorway and decorative ceiling, and what Gormley calls an ‘invasion of the inside by the outside’, as we peer into the open space.
At the Royal Academy, Gormley has made us feel, on some primordial, traditional and yet unconventional level, what is inside our bodies and what affects them as we move. He is able to make us switch from the external artist’s creation to our own perceptions and responses; and it is this which gives presence, awe and the sense of not just being a viewer, but a person alive, aware and a part of the world today.
Antony Gormley will be on show until 3rd December 2019. For more information or to book tickets, click here.
- Antony Gormley, Lost Horizon I, 2008. 24 cast iron bodyforms, each 189 x 53 x 29 cm. Installation view, ‘Antony Gormley’, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 21st September to 3rd December 2019. PinchukArtCentre, Kiev, Ukraine © the Artist. Photo: David Parry / © Royal Academy of Arts.