Lost in space

Sculpture 2 - Richard Cork on how Antony Gormley continues to push the boundaries

Outside the entrance to White Cube, a naked figure leans his head against the gallery's facade. He looks mournful, his iron body streaked dark orange by exposure to the London rain. Life-sized, and smoothly modelled, he will be familiar to anyone who has seen Antony Gormley's earlier sculpture. But this dejected man has no place in a show dominated by the new developments transforming Gormley's work.

The main arena contains only one piece: a large installation called Clearing. Its title may reflect that images of human figures have been wholly excluded from the room. Instead, rods of raw metal curve across the doorway, forcing us to duck if we want to go in.

Clearing is not an arbitrary departure. Ever since Angel of the North asserted its monumental presence on a Gateshead hilltop in 1998, Gormley has been divesting his figures of their solidity. Quantum Cloud, still in situ near the Millennium Dome, exchanged bodily bulk for a mass of glinting particles. Gormley was fascinated by the realisation that bodies need not be made. Instead, he began conjuring them from a series of voids, in works so reliant on contour that they seem akin to drawing in space.

Yet Clearing goes much further. Its seven kilometres of spiralling aluminium rods contain not a hint of figurative form. Once the work has been penetrated, we quickly become part of it. It surges above us, and at every turn we collide with and trip up on its treacherous lines. Once we start raising our hands to brush them aside, it is tempting to shake the rods and discover how pliable they are.

Clearing, you soon realise, is more ambiguous than its title suggests. As the whirling lines crowd in on us, it is impossible to tell whether the installation is exuberant or trapped. Sometimes the rods seem to revel in their ability to flout the confining geometry of the gallery's interior. But then we notice that the vitality of these lines is tamed by their encounters with the walls. They are flattened there, and we begin to read them as patterns that can be scrutinised from afar. Suddenly we feel outside the work; yet this sense of perspective soon gives way to a renewed awareness of our own bodies, caught in the middle of a flailing linear maelstrom.

So we almost become ready-made figures in Gormley's work, releasing him from the need to make them. But unlike the iron man stranded outside the gallery, the people making their way through this tortuous labyrinth are perpetually on the move. Looking around, I noticed my fellow visitors responding with wonder. They gazed up, down and around in the same awed way in which viewers react to a cathedral.

Gormley could never be described as a blandly optimistic artist, and the smaller white room upstairs offers little comfort. Although three figures occupy the space, they are not modelled in a reassuringly organic manner. They are made instead from hundreds of steel cubes, jutting out in different sizes like geometric buildings in a modern metropolis. Despite their severe architectonic structure, this trio soon assert themselves as bodies in space. One, standing rigidly upright, is viewed from behind. He stares resignedly at the wall ahead of him, like someone condemned to await public shooting by an execution squad. My pessimistic interpretation of this figure may have been affected by the unmistakable dejection of a crouching man nearby. Positioned with his back against the wall, and both arms resting on tightly drawn-up knees, he resembles a prisoner.

In an interview, Gormley has made clear that images of the inmates incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay influenced these sculptures. Still, the three figures should not be limited in meaning to this one disturbing source. Gormley's sculpture has always dealt with Everyman rather than individuals, and the occupants of this upstairs room should be seen as embodiments of the human condition. The crouching figure may look despondent, but he also seems poised and stubbornly expectant, as if he trusts that his oppression will give way to a more hopeful alternative. Is a similar hope harboured by the other man, who is stretched out on the floor with both hands resting on his chest? We cannot tell. He seems incapable of movement, and the way he rests on his back adds to the overall aura of stillness.

All the figures inhabiting this space seem burdened by their bodies. And the geometric units Gormley has devised as his formal language increase the suspicion that they are suffering from acute depersonalisation. Here, in the early years of a new century, a major figurative sculptor gives vent to grave forebodings about the future. No wonder the oxidised iron man outside the gallery appears so disconsolate, resting his head on the wall as if to acknowledge an overwhelming sense of bafflement, helplessness and frustration.

Antony Gormley is at White Cube, London N1 (020 7749 7450) until 29 May