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3 April 2019

Antony Gormley on 2,000-year-old genitals, arts cuts, and the Angel of the North

The artist discusses the need for greater creativity in the modern age, sculptural outreach, and why he always returns to bodies in his work.

By Michael Prodger

Antony Gormley has always put himself about a bit. His body, moulded and then cast in a bewildering number of forms – from the Angel of the North to the lone figures that eerily dotted London’s rooftops in 2007 – has become a familiar presence. Now he is having a moment. Ten of his cast-iron box figures currently stand at the top of the “Rocky steps” in Philadelphia, where a sweaty Sylvester Stallone once panted; a huge part-retrospective is being lined up for the Royal Academy in the autumn; one of his enigmatic body casts has been given leave to remain in the sea outside the Turner Contemporary in Margate for an extra year; and he has been loaned several rooms of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence to play with.

Not that all this activity is leading to sleepless nights. When I meet Gormley at his airy studio complex in the chi-chi apartment blocks, craft beer and artisanal burger banlieue north of King’s Cross in London, all is calm. Several of his many staff are having a lunchtime coffee before returning to their model making or computer projections. A polystyrene scale model of the RA’s galleries covers a worktop (with tiny versions of his sculptures and pictures in their allotted places). In the main studio space, a cross between an operating theatre and car body shop, a couple of works in progress sit untended and various wire body sculptures hang from the ceiling joists as though Hannibal Lecter had suddenly taken an interest in contemporary art.

Gormley himself, in working gear of T-shirt, jumper and chinos with a frayed hem, is thinking of a penis. It belongs to the Uffizi’s Roman copy of a 2nd century BC statue of a sleeping hermaphrodite and it will be the first thing visitors see when they enter his part of the gallery. “She, I’m sorry they, are very sexy,” he says. “They are offering their delightfully pert buttocks and alluring face in one direction and then, on the other side, you see a penis nestling. We’ve turned it round so you are seeing its penis first. In this time of what you might call sexual translation of genetic and biological sex, it is a really wonderful point of entry into the collection.”

One of Gormley’s six-foot bronze figures on the sands at Crosby. Credit: Coln McPherson/Corbis via Getty

He is putting one of his own works on the floor next to it and his reasoning reveals his distinctive turn of mind. The piece, Settlement, is a prostrate body formed of different sized blocks: “It basically says that the body is like a city,” he explains. “It’s an aggregation of cells that comes together and then falls apart.” But that’s not all, by a long shot: “It is putting mortality next to the questions about sexual givens, or sexual mades, with this common theme of the body as a landscape, something that is laid out before us, something that is waiting for our projection on to it.” That’s as may be, but it will take a fiercely committed and preternaturally thoughtful museum goer to unpick it all. And if the thinking behind his pieces can be knotty, so is the way Gormley talks: philosophical, complex and sometimes meandering, and requiring the listener’s full concentration. Woe betide anyone who asks him what the weather might be like: he is not a man who enjoys saying things simply.

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Another of his standing figures will be placed on the parapet of the Loggia dei Lanzi, lording it over the sculptures of assorted Renaissance masters such as Giambologna and Cellini beneath, and looking across the Piazza della Signoria to Michelangelo’s David. Is Gormley, I wonder, in danger of becoming a hostage to fortune by measuring himself against such figures? “No,” he says, “because I’ve redrawn the challenge, I think. I couldn’t hope to beat Michelangelo. I have enormous respect for him as a man who struggled with his manhood, struggled with materials, struggled with what to do with his energy and inspiration, but his way is very different from mine.” That is undoubtedly true, but how does Gormley see the difference? “What he had to prove to the world and to himself was that it was possible to reinvent the body as a kind of Neoplatonic proposal. I think the underlying assumptions were that you put the body to work; you search out its proportional mysteries. I’m interested in the body as a place, a kind of void that has not attempted to be a perfect copy or represent a drama or an action.”

Gormley’s bodies, and he always and only produces bodies, show no interest in storytelling: “I think my interest is to set aside the symbolic, the representational and the narrative for something reflective. I’m very keen on context, how this thing sits on the skyline, becomes a silhouette, a black hole in space.” It is not, he says, a black hole he sets out to fill, but one he leaves to the viewer.

Another Place, for example, his 100 cast-iron figures facing out to sea at Crosby Beach just north of Liverpool, was intended to evoke thoughts about “Western hegemony” and the idea “that somehow there is always a place where things could be made better, over the water, over the other side of the horizon, to the west. That’s where all of those bodies face. Liverpool is where a lot of Jews and others left for the New World.” But, as he admits, while some viewers’ minds turn towards such huge and ineffable concerns others like to use the figures “as targets for beach golf or for having their dog wee up against them”.

The gulf between his conception and others’ perception does not, he claims, bother him. As he says, somewhat purply, “I am very, very keen to banish labels and explanations and push these things out into the great ocean of time and sea.”

Indeed, one of the paradoxes of Gormley’s work is that he has been criticised for being simultaneously too cerebral, too technical (creating humanoid figures from steel bars, metal cubes, swirls of wire, polyhedrons et al requires complicated computer-aided design more akin to architecture than sculpture) and too approachable.

When the Angel of the North was being erected thousands signed a petition demanding a halt to construction. “Understandably people are worried about the new neighbours, particularly if they are 20 metres high and weigh a couple of hundred tonnes and they don’t feel they’ve been consulted,” Gormley says now. “But really quite quickly, from the moment the second wing was attached to the body, extraordinary things happened”. When the Angel was unveiled in 1998, the people of the north-east took the colossus to their collective heart. “This,” he says with a nice degree of understatement, “is unusual for modern art.”

Focal point: Gateshead’s Angel of the North. Credit: Stuart Forster/Shutterstock

What took place, he says, was something “pre-modern”: “The Angel became a focus for a community that had been told it had no right to have a future at all since the economic grounds on which it was constituted no longer existed.” It helped that he used the methods and materials that were familiar to the north east –­­­­­ ship-plate, ribbing, engineering, “everything that made the Tyne Bridge”. As a result, “It became a very important transitional object between the industrial and the information ages. It allowed people to say ‘We’re not on the rubbish dump. We are capable of not just making but also declaring our own future to the wider world.’”

It delights him that people get married underneath it and sprinkle granny’s ashes there, and even that, in the year of its installation, pranksters dressed it in an enormous replica of Alan Shearer’s Newcastle United football shirt. “That was an amazing, amazing moment. It was the work being accepted by a society in which football is the thing that gets people most excited.”

Gormley is an unashamed proselytiser for sculptural outreach, eulogising what happens when art gets out of its specialised zones – the studio, the gallery, the museum – “the institutionalised packaging of specialisation”, as he puts it. “I think that sculpture has the untapped capability to be collectively made, owned and engaged with. It doesn’t have to be privatised.”

He waxes just as passionately about the perniciousness of cuts in arts funding and the need for greater creativity in the modern age. He was a trustee of the British Museum and a signatory to a 2010 letter to then culture secretary Jeremy Hunt protesting against government cuts. He believes, “It is a sad business that our culture secretary continues to be perceived as the bottom rung of the ladder, that’s all arse about tit.”

His is a utopic view, which is not necessarily a practical one. “Pioneering creativity is most easily unleashed when people are given agency of their own imaginations and told that this has equal value to everything that has already been made and thought,” he says. “You can only do that by encouraging people to write poems, make music, paint, draw and sculpt.” What’s more, not to do that is “really, really stupid and shortsighted at a time when we are weighing anchor with our European neighbours and saying ‘Yes, we can be self-sufficient or we can make new relationships.’” It is hard not to be swept along by him (the skip-loads of bad art that would be an inevitable by-product aside), but less easy to agree that “none of that is possible if we are still encouraging numeracy and literacy over creative skills and original thinking”.

Another place: an Antony Gormley figure in the Uffizi Gallery looks out over Florence. Credit: Courtesy of Antonu Gormley Studio

Gormley is the product of a formidable artistic training. Born in London in 1950, the youngest of seven children, he attended a Benedictine boarding school in Yorkshire before reading archaeology, anthropology and history of art at Trinity College, Cambridge. He went on to study at St Martins, Goldsmiths and the Slade – a nap hand of art schools. Creativity was easier then he suggests: “You used to get thrown in at the deep end: ‘Here’s a pile of clay and wood – see what you can make’, and now you have to book your ‘realisation space’.” What’s more: “The students don’t look like art students any more, they look rich – well they have to be rich to afford art school.” Not that he’s doing badly: he owns a very grand Georgian house in Norfolk complete with deer park.

Gormley’s level of social engagement is in some ways surprising given that his art seems to speak most clearly of solitude; all those lone figures observing and never communicating. When I suggest affinities with Caspar David Friedrich’s Romantic period images of men staring into eternity or the desolate urban scenes of Edward Hopper, he’s not having any of it: “I’m not interested in that Hopper thing, in making images of alienation.”

Is he nevertheless a lonely man? “I don’t think I am,” he says slowly, “I really love company. I just have a hunch that in order to really sense our own distance, and indeed our own potential, you can’t be always chatting.” There is a reminder of the Buddhist monk he once thought of becoming when he states, “I’ve learnt to really value the necessary conditions of contemplation, that is an artist’s life: you purposely withdraw in order to create adequate distance to look at things. That doesn’t mean to say you aren’t participating but it’s a different form of participation.”

He needs to participate, since he employs 22 people in his London studio and another 20 at his second space in Hexham, Northumberland. Monkishness and being in effect the CEO of a decent sized business (and a profitable one: a model Angel of the North sold at Christie’s in 2011 for £3.4m) are not compatible. Besides, he says, “My life is intensely connected. I am constantly collaborating with writers, musicians, artists, foundrymen and I have three kids and a lovely artist wife. I’m not a very good candidate for the 20th-century existentialist version of the artist as lone wolf in an ivory tower.”

He is, then, an engaged artist – and his immediate concern is finding ever new ways of representing the body. His wife Vicken Parsons initially took the casts of his body, but having been encased so many times over the years left him with lead poisoning and a collapsed lung, so he’s now turned to technology. A scanner can do in minutes what used to take an hour and a half to mould, then another day and a half to put the mould together. “You can now get 30,000-40,000 coordinates from a scan of my body in a position I’m interested in,” he notes. When I point out that a romantic would claim there was something more authentic about a cast he demurs. “Certainly more pain.”

We are used to artists mining their own bodies, Marc Quinn’s heads made from his own frozen blood or Tracey Emin’s interminable solipsism, but Gormley’s use of his body is essentially public-spirited. “I would just like people to use the sculptures and use the spaces for lucid feeling that the work provides,” he says. “I’m not trying to sell anything, in terms of a view of the world.” l

Antony Gormley: Essere, supported by Galleria Continua, is at the Uffizi Gallery, Florence, until 26 May 2019:

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