Antony Gormley: ‘‘If we lose our curiosity, we become less than human’’

The sculptor takes the NS Centenary Questionnaire.

New Statesman

What is the most important invention of the past 100 years?

I think penicillin, in terms of what it has done for the human race. But my second choice would be concentrated solar thermal generators. I think these are revolutionising our ability to make energy sustainably and I would put alongside them the need for continued research into tide power. We have got to get over our addiction to fossil fuels.

What is the most important scientific discovery of the past 100 years?

The Human Genome Project, as the most recent evolution of the 1953 Crick, Watson and Wilkins discovery of the structure of DNA and the double helix. But we have to put the woman back into that: Rosalind Franklin, who was never given a Nobel prize, was pretty poorly credited within the research that contributed to Crick and Watson’s model. The degree to which we share genetic material with all other living creatures is totally amazing. I think this re-emphasises the central issue facing humankind generally: how much is human nature part of nature?

What has been the greatest sporting event of the past 100 years?

It has to be the Paralympics. They have completely transformed people’s ideas about what a body is and how it can be celebrated.

Which work of art has had the greatest impact on you?

Walter de Maria’s 1977 work The New York Earth Room, in SoHo, New York. The work is a set of white rooms with light bulbs set into the ceiling, filled up to a metre deep in moist soil left simple, ungrowing. As you climb up the staircase, you can smell the earth. You come to a barrier that’s just a piece of glass, halfway down a corridor, from which you look down this gently rolling landscape of moist humus. 

Here we are confronted with this: the base material of all life, not as a picture, but as a reality. It is the most radical landscape painting that was ever made.

Who is the most influential artist of the past 100 years?

As a sculptor myself, and feeling that sculpture is the most profound way in which our prejudice about the world can be challenged, I think Richard Serra. His structures invite first-hand, somatic, haptic, direct physical experience, bypassing our way of constantly reading things.

And business person?

It would have to be Muhammad Yunus, the Bangla­deshi microfinance pioneer. If we believe in social justice and the sharing of resources, we have to believe that all people should have a chance to share the fruits of their labour.

And sportsperson?

Jesse Owens, because of the whole story of the Berlin Olympics, the way he dealt with that – and the fact that Franklin D Roosevelt didn’t ever acknowledge his extraordinary four gold-medal victories. He was an incred­ible man, an exemplar of sport as a bridge across cultures.

What is your favourite quotation?

Constantin Brâncusi: “When we are no longer children we are already dead.” I think it is true. If we lose our curiosity, we lose our ability to play, to want to be picked up, to have a race and be the first into the sea, to see things as if for the first time. We become less than human.

What is the most significant change to our lives you envisage over the next 100 years?

It’s got to be climate change. I think that we are going to see more than 100 million climate refugees by the end of the century. The most significant change to our lives will be the degree to which we are able to change our core beliefs, because economic growth has been the engine for the west’s industrial, city-based civilisation.

What is your greatest concern about the future?

That we won’t face these things and that we will be extinct in the next few hundred years – or sooner.

What will be the most dramatic development in your own field of work?

I think the most fantastic thing that has happened in art is that it is becoming everyone’s. That there is the taste for participation in art as a space of possibility, as a place where human things can be discussed and felt.

The tearing of fine art away from money and privilege, and the remaking of it as both a collective expression but also as a place of collective reflection – this has been the biggest change, I think. And the way in which museums have changed from being treasure houses to producing houses: places where things that had never existed before, never been seen or experienced before, are now being shared.