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Personal Structures BIBLIOGRAPHY

Being the Void: A Conversation with Antony Gormley


A Conversation with Antony Gormley

By Karlyn De Jongh


Through the above link, you can download the PDF of this publication

Antony Gormley (*1950, UK) makes 3-dimensional works that deal directly with the presence the own body. Gormley’s own body is the point of departure to discuss the human body in general, which he understands as a place of memory and transformation. Most of his early works are based on the process of casting; in these works Gormley’s body functions as subject, tool and material. His more recent works deal with the body in a more abstract or indirect way and are concerned with the human condition, these are large scale works and explore the collective body and the relationship between self and other.

Karlyn De Jongh: In an interview with Declan McGonagle, you have spoken about a transcendental or utopian reading of your work as being ‘too easy.’ What do you mean here by ‘too easy?’ How do you understand a transcendental reading? And how do you read your work?

Antony Gormley: Religious art and specifically Christian images of the crucifixion are icons of suffering which promise escape. I think we’ve evolved from that position of needing idols that give us succour. My works are instruments for spatial awareness. When I say ‘spatial awareness,’ I don’t just mean space out there; I mean a reconciliation of spatial proprioception with space at large. Sometimes I use scale, as in the Lelystad project in Flevoland, Netherlands, or with Field (1990), to open up a certain reflexivity in the viewer. This has nothing to do with the old economies.

KDJ: Do you think transcendence is always religious?

AG: That’s certainly the way that it’s conventionally understood. If we are thinking about transcendence in terms of displacement, I’m much more comfortable with the term. I’m interested in disorientation. One of the functions of using scale is a certain disorientation. But I have to say that I’m interested in those very deep relationships to image like the one that Gombrich mentions where we find it difficult to push a needle into the eyes of a portrait; the persistence of the attributes of power that we unconsciously give to the image.

There’s no question that the Angel of the North (1995/98) plays with a very atavistic and totemic idea of the image. At the same time, I would say that there are levels of irony involved in it. Not irony for its own sake, but simply irony in order to detach it from anything transcendental: the fact that this is an angel that will never fly and it’s made out of 200 tons of steel; an angel of a very material kind. The Angel is a good example of something that tries to refigure the notion of transcendence. The work is produced, like the iron castings using industrial production; it’s a very long way from the ‘incense and angels’ association.

KDJ: You just mentioned E.H. Gombrich. In a conversation with him, you stated that in your work you “re-invent the body from the inside, from the point of view of existence.” Would you explain what you mean with this ‘re-inventing’, and what do you mean with ‘existence’?

AG: The second question is the most important. The classical image of the male sculptor is somebody who does a lot. I try to do very little. I am not acting on the world; I’m staying with it at its moment of origination. Why should I act, as if this kind of determinism is the only way for sculpture to have a call on our attention? Can we start with being itself as the primary focus? Why act on a material that is outside of my own sense of being when the material question that I face everyday is embodiment?

We can leave aside the questionable notions of ‘I,’ ‘me’ and ‘mine,’ and instead ask: In this dual condition of being—both material and conscious—what do I, as a conscious mind, have to deal with? It is the materiality of the body. Can I as a sculptor deal with this as my first material? I think of myself as a sculptor, working from the core condition of embodiment. I’m not making another body; I’m starting with my own, the only bit of the material world that I inhabit. To that extent, I’m working from the other side of appearance. I’m not trying to make a copy; I’m not trying to reproduce an image. The work comes as a byproduct of a moment of being taken out of the stream of duration in which all conscious beings are living.

KDJ: Many of your works are casts of your own body. Casting is a process of adding rather than taking material away. How do you see the multiplicity of the casts you make of your body? How do you understand the casts in relation to your own existence? Are they extensions of yourself?

AG: It’s a trace. You could say there’s desperation as a result of being uncertain about the continuity of time. But it’s also an abstraction. By continually remaking the primary condition of being, remaking the body that I didn’t choose but I arrived with, the question of what that body is, is multiplied into something that is no longer mine.

KDJ: That you arrived with a body, does that mean you don’t see your sculptures as you?

AG: No. But my body isn’t mine, either. It’s a temporary tenancy. So, yes, I’m in this body at the moment, but I could be out of it as much as I’m out of any of those iron ones out there. But I think it’s a mistake to be saying ‘my body.’ We call it ‘my body’ like we call it ‘my house’ or ‘my city’; that’s a convention, not a truth.

KDJ: Is that the reason why you want to and also can incorporate the viewer, why a viewer can be the subject in your work?

AG: It’s good to hear that you, as a woman, suggest it is so possible. Some women have problems with the fact that this is a penis-loaded body. My reply is that the way I’m using it has little to do with heroism or the norms of maleness. In fact, the work questions gender determinism.

KDJ: If you cannot speak of ‘your’ body but only about ‘a’ body, does it really matter whether it is a male or a female body?

AG: There’s a very early work that I will never sell, called Seeing and Believing (1988). It’s a pregnant male body, a body without breasts that is pregnant. There’s a hole at the navel, you could say that this work deals with the notion of indwelling; that is, the idea that the body is itself the first form of architecture, the first shelter, and that all bodies come out of other bodies, it is the material condition from which we look out or we reach out through our perceptual bridges to the wider world; a receptive state.

I would say the work is very quiet. It’s not demonstrative even though there may be many of them. If you go to Rotterdam now, you’ll see that there are 21 sculptures standing on top of buildings, on the edge, between the earth and the sky, 4 others on the roads, asking where the mind might fit in a material world, or where the human project might fit. Horizon Field will be an installation of 100 figures at 2,000 meters above sea level in the Alps, stretching over 150 square kilometers; a much bigger field, where the work will literally disappear. We might start getting them up there this winter in order to benefit from the snow and winch them up on sledges: they weigh 630 kilos each.

I have made a number of these installations ‘at the edge’; in the sea, on the skyline of the city, and now in the mountains. They’re all asking the same question: “Where does this thing that we call a human body belong?” Maybe it doesn’t belong anywhere.

KDJ: How does your abstract notion of the body stand in relation to its physicality, to its being here-and-now? What importance does the physicality of your body have for you?

AG: You need the physicality of your own body to see it. I think that’s the point. If we go back to the first question, we could think that they are singular objects, like the piece that I’m making for Lelystad, Netherlands. But increasingly, the work is becoming a field phenomenon. Like the works you saw down in my studio, dissolving from a body defined by skin and a mass into a field phenomenon. Through the multiplication of similar elements, through which you make another kind of field phenomenon. In both you have to look around. If you look at this bubble matrix cloud—you have to really look around it. You need to use your own existence as the necessary register. The body that really counts is the body that has the mind in it. So in the end, the viewer does the work—and it may be more than 50 percent. Duchamp’s 50 percent may not be enough.

KDJ: You have described your work with the concept of ‘space’ and you just mentioned the body as a first form of architecture. In reference to your work, what do you mean with these concepts of ‘space’ and ‘architecture’? How would you explain ‘space’ and ‘architecture’ in relation to ‘body’?

AG: This is such a big question. Take for instance the Newton/Leibniz debate about space as the container of all things; as an almost god-like conditionality. Leibniz suggests that this space is not a basis, but simply the relation between objects. We don’t need to think about the ultimate conditionality, but infinity is the thing that gives sculpture its authority; the position of an object or group of objects has a relation not only with all other objects, terrestrial and celestial, but with everything that lies beyond the perceptual horizon.

I think the biggest challenge that I’ve faced for the whole of my working practice is how you reconcile imaginative space that is grounded in the body with space at large. In very simple early works, like Full Bowl (1977-78), there’s a void in the core. You get a sense of indeterminacy with the edge of this mass of bowls that could go on forever. It suggests that there’s a relationship between an intimate and an extending void. . .

The same is true of the relationship between the space that we enter when we close our eyes and space at large. When I am awake with my eyes closed and ask the question “Where am I now?” I am somewhere but the world as a visual object is not here. This space of consciousness is contained in a physical space. Those two spaces somehow have to be reconciled. The latest attempt that I’ve made to reconcile them is Blind Light (2007), where you get the same sensation but within light. If you went outside in the garden and closed your eyes in the middle of a starless night, you would be in a darkness inside a darkness. If you worked on it, it could be brought into some harmonic relationship. With Blind Light you walk across a threshold into a room with 7,000 lumens of bright daylight but you can’t see anything. You can’t even see your hands or your feet. You’re awake, you’re conscious, you’re in space, but the space no longer has any coordinates. This is the closest I’ve come to a physical reconciliation of these two spatial realities.

KDJ: When I first came across your work, I thought the relation between the viewer and your sculpture was in a way a hermeneutical one. But it has nothing to do with hermeneutics, has it?

AG: No, it’s the opposite of hermeneutics! All the art that interests me aspires to subvert the symbolic order. Our ability to read the world, to read objects, to put a name to a form, is so developed that you could say we don’t see anymore. We are blinded by our own vision, by our ability to ascribe quality, name, and function to everything that surrounds us.
This is what I understand by hermeneutics: our ability to turn physical material, perceptual reality, into symbolic understanding. I think for me Blind Light was an attempt to escape from that condition. You probably know more about hermeneutics than I do.

KDJ: The concepts of time, space and existence have been mentioned by you from a very early stage in your career. In your Slade Statement of 1979, for instance, you speak about time and say: ‘To act in time and be acted on by time.’

AG: That was a very long time ago. But it’s still not bad.

KDJ: I am interested to know how time is presented in your work. How do you understand this relation between your artistic acts and the influence of time?

AG: Well, because every work starts ontologically from this moment of lived time; a living body in a real time; in a particular space. The results of that ontology are then exposed. So you could say it’s a matter of biological time, industrial time and sidereal time. You make something that starts with this lived moment of human time, you translate it into an object that is made in industrial time—in other words, the time of mass-production. You then expose that to sidereal time by, for instance, putting these things into the liminal position of the beach, where it disappears entirely from view every 12 hours because it’s covered in sea. And then it re-emerges, and through this rhythm its material condition changes.

So what is happening to an object reminds us of having to be timely, but also of getting older; the wearing out, the falling off. Time is a substance through which we experience space, and it’s very active. I think this is something that I share with Olafur Eliasson. Take the general theory of relativity: we are only just beginning to really live space-time in terms of being able to physically understand that time is a dimension of space and space a dimension of time. Or the fact that something like cyberspace collapses space, and that we can talk to people at the same time, whether they’re in Beijing or Los Angeles. So the old idea about bodily locomotion as defining the duration between points has disappeared. This is why sculpture in its ability to make places becomes so important.

KDJ: You have mentioned your work as being ahistorical, but on the other hand, you say that time is actively present in your work. How do these aspects go together?

AG: I mean that I’m not a painter of daily life. I’m not an artist who wants to reflect this time in a mirroring manner. I’m very interested in time, but I don’t want my work to derive its value from where it sits in some historical continuum. It’s not my ambition. I would like the work to be useable as an instrument now and in the future. In a way, I’m trying to make something like an astrolabe that will function for as long as consciousness is around. I’m not interested in making an instrument that is going to be obsolete in five years because somebody’s invented a new chip. And I am not interested in making pictures of now but in engaging your now.

I’m intensely interested in history as a resource for the future that we might imagine. But that doesn’t mean to say that I want to refer to it directly. It’s very important that I’m familiar with it. We live in a time of the present-ness of history like no other. In a way, this puts a certain burden on us to make things that can have a dialogue with the depth of history. I’m basically telling you that I’m never going to be a fashionable artist—and I feel very lucky.

KDJ: Rather than mirroring it, would you say that your work is a product of this time?

AG: Yes, completely. You can’t escape that. But I’m not illustrating it.

KDJ: You have spoken about the current state of art and mentioned that you think art nowadays should have a residue of art history, but also be approachable for someone whose visual world is mainly articulated by television commercials, etc. In what way do your works reflect on both these worlds? Do your works demonstrate a certain truth about contemporary existence?

AG: I don’t have to do anything about it; to bear witness you have to acknowledge your condition. I’m living now, and the tools that I use—and I use them all—are physically and mentally different from the tools that my parents used or my children will use. Every room in this studio has a computer. We have programs and we’re investing in software that allows me to use digital technology at its most advanced. Even though it’s taken us 4 years to make, the work I’m making for Holland represents the very forefront of what’s possible in engineering terms. In all those ways I am absolutely of my time.

In a 1986 statement I say that I want the work to be “free from history.” You have to see that statement in the context of the 1980s when there was a lot of work being made that made very conscious reference to art history. It was art about art, and that is what I was trying to escape from.

KDJ: Earlier you mentioned the question of where the human body belongs and that it may not belong anywhere. How is this question of belonging related to the locations where you present your work? How important is location and the history of a location for you? Does a location affect your work?

AG: Completely. I try to start with the place. A body comes into it even if the body isn’t figured. Take for instance Another Place (1997)—the 100 works on the beach. It’s interesting that even though that has now found a permanent site on the banks of the Mersey outside Liverpool it absolutely came out of the Wattenmeer. I wouldn’t have made it without that really extraordinary place: the mouth of the River Elbe where the tide comes in over seven kilometers. The quality of light and the way that the sky is reflected in the earth conveys a feeling of being at the edge, and yet at the same time of being in the ‘now.’ It is not sublime and romantic in the traditional sense at all because of the big container ships that continually cross the horizon; the same as at Crosby Beach.

Anyway, I’m always juggling the moving place of embodiment and a particular place. There may be anxiety about the displacement of art from the structures of higher values. Some consider it a loss, but I think of it as freedom. We no longer need the frames, the plinth, the institution. Isn’t that the most wonderful thing to make something that simply can be? Whether it stands or lies or sits or falls, it’s just a thing that exists and endures in space and time, in darkness and in light, in rain and in shine: a thing in the world, really in the world. It needs no excuse; it needs no mediation; it needs no protection. For me, to be given a place is an amazing thing. If somebody says, “Here is a room, here is a field, here is a mountain, here is a city. Make something for it,” my heart leaps!

KDJ: Has your love for these locations in the open air anything to do with the natural circumstances?

AG: A space outside is at the top of my list of sites. To allow an object to be without shelter, to make something that shares the condition of a tree or a mountain, is a great inspiration. The condition of a museum takes the object out of its context, out of where it’s working, where it has a life, and puts it where it can be read. And the function of the museum is to catalogue and conserve objects that have ceased to have a life [add in AG’s comments]. If the museum and the ability of objects to be categorized and read becomes the matrix by which things are given value, we have lost our faith in the potential of art to affect life and even of the idea that human beings can have some part in evolution.
This is what worries me about our project—the human project—at the moment. Talking about hermeneutics, we are so involved in our ability to turn the object into a symbol that we no longer live directly. The power of art to break through the symbolic order, the inexorable process of things becoming words is its most critical function. I believe that dumb objects can catalyze our lives and allow us to sense existence more intensely.

KDJ: How would you describe the presence of your work in that respect? Does it confront an awareness of being, existing?

AG: I think so. ‘That thing exists; therefore, so do I.’ The only excuse for that sculpture existing is that it reinforces the existence of the receiver. I would say that the work is empty; it has little symbolic function, no narrative function. Its only power is, in a sense, what it makes the subject reflect or project. And the subject is always in the viewer. How these things work on place is that they are a form of acupuncture. They are simply a way of making place count. What’s already there is the thing that matters. I think that they are a reversal of the old obsession with figures and grounds; these repeated body forms are essentially void grounds, the place where somebody once was, and anybody could be. The work inverts the figure-ground relationship: the ground becomes the figure, and the figure becomes place or space; a void space where the viewer by implication could be one with himself.

Anyway, that’s my proposal. Whether it works is another matter. It’s interesting because I think people were very resistant to the work 20 years ago. Mind you the work has changed a bit: it’s gone from boxes to masses. But I think people’s reactions, people’s ability to use the work for spatial awareness, seem better now. Maybe it’s just because I have been doing it for longer. Or maybe the work is more direct now. Or maybe it’s because the lead pieces were so distant. The reactions of people to the Field works suggest that people are really inhabiting the space that the work activates in a reflexive way.

KDJ: From 26 March until 15 August 2010 your work “Event Horizon” is exhibited in and around Madison Square Park in New York City. Thirty-one life-size casts of your body will be placed on the pathways and sidewalks of the Park as well as on the rooftops of the Flatiron District. Most of these sculptures will be on rooftops. In an interview, Vito Acconci told me that in New York you are in close-up and that you rarely see buildings, that you need to be in Brooklyn to see the buildings in Manhattan. To what extent do you think people will be able to see your sculptures? And to consider or contemplate them? Or is the presence of your sculptures on these rooftops enough for you?

AG: Event Horizon is a scopic field, and the high density and height of the buildings of Manhattan obviously intensifies the tension between the palpable, the perceivable and the imaginable. However, we are seeking a method of positioning the sculptures as close to the edge of the buildings as possible. The work will enter into and out of visibility, and that is the point. The field of the installation should have no defined edges and the ambition is to play with the very particular topology of Manhattan, making people more visually aware of their own environment, and indeed the edge of it, above their heads.

What matters is the way in which the sculptures infect the collective space of the city. The work is an acupuncture of this space, and its subject  is not the sculptures but New York, its inhabitants, and how their perception of their environment changes as a result of these foreign bodies.It’s about the searching gaze, the idea of looking and finding, or looking and seeking, and in the process re-assessing your own position in the world. So we’re looking and seeking things that lie on the edge, and at the same time perhaps becoming aware of our status of embedment. In this installation of Event Horizon, more than any other, the occupants of the buildings around Madison Square will be aware of these liminal positions as they look from their windows.

KDJ: In the interview you gave for the book “Personal Structures: Time Space Existence” you have spoken with me about the placement of your work, that you like placing the body “at the edge” and that you raise the question “where does the human body belong?”. Why do you search these places that are on the edge? How does the ‘danger’ of being on an edge relate to your understanding of the body as the first shelter?

AG: The work treats both context and the body as a test site, and interrogates the unconsidered nature of collective space. In every installation of Event Horizon the nature of that space is different and indeed the subjective reaction of the inhabitants of that infection will be different.

KDJ:  In 2007 “Event Horizon” was in London, UK; in 2008 in Rotterdam, Netherlands. Now, in 2010, the work will be in New York City. What do these different locations contribute to answering your question about where the human body belongs?

AG: By being vertical animals, with the cerebral cortex as the highest point in the body, the human body has separated itself from most of the biosphere. That verticality is very much part of this work. It’s still asking the same question: Where does the human body belong, now that we have separated ourselves in terms of specification from those other, more enmeshed, animals? This pertains to our eco-niche as much as it does to our body-type. The human body is now detached and in some senses might belong more to space than it does to the earth. When Event Horizon was going to go to Moscow I was very aware of images of the astronaut around the city as being the imagined future realm of the human body.

KDJ: On 26 March is also the opening of your solo exhibition at Sean Kelly Gallery in New York City. One of its directors told me that you will be exhibiting the work “Breathing Room” in the main gallery and that a new construction will be created for their gallery space. You have said that the body is the first form of architecture. How does “Breathing Room” relate to the body? What is it that you want with this work? Is it also a body for you? Or is it about the encounter of the viewer’s body with the work? How does this “Breathing Room” differ from the one you created in 2006?

AG: Breathing Room starts an exploration of the living space enclosed within a room  and produces an object that is perhaps as ambivalent as the recent body-works (which are completely abstract). You are not certain whether you are looking at a drawing or an object, something  virtual or real, an object or a space. This is a kind of measure or trap that the viewer’s body is invited to go around and to enter. The work is always dependent on the proportions and overall volume of the room. At the centre is a cube space-frame which describes a thirteenth of the total room-volume. We re-stage it four times more, with each frame pulled along one axis. The viewer’s body is the subject of this spatial configuration, and can move around it, through it, and dwell inside it. The space alternates between very bright light that stays on for around one minute and a glow-time of about fifteen minutes. So the work alternates between a meditative and an interrogative state.

KDJ: You have described the body as a place of memory and transformation. In “One & Other” the transformation of the body seems literal: the body changes every hour. Is this indeed the case for you? Or do you understand ‘transformation’ in a different way? To what extent can you speak about ‘the body’ in this work? How important are the one-hour time slots?

AG: This was an exercise in self-representation, but also an exercise in interrogating the status of the statue; the statue that endures in time and in the elements. Now art is being replaced by life. But it also has to endure, in time and in the elements, so it was very important that it was a completely uninterrupted occupation of the plinth for the one hundred days. The idea of this was a slow frame change which nevertheless maintained a continuity. We started with the individual person, and ended up with some idea of the collective body. Every person who contributed to that time-line of representations changed it.

KDJ: It seems that several Plinthers see their hour in One & Other as a highlight, as an important moment in their lives. It is interesting to see what they do during their hour: many of them speak up for good causes, many are active and use sound. You have described you work as very quiet and contemplative. How do you see this living sculpture in reference to your other work?

AG: All of my work demands a certain kind of projection. You could say: How do we project our lives into the silence and stasis of sculpture? How do we use it as a focus for the things that we have and it lacks (meaning freedom of movement, thought and feeling)? And in a sense that’s exactly what One & Other became: this isolated and idealised space of public sculpture becoming the place of personal projection.

KDJ: In the interview you did with me last year, you said that you try to do very little (as opposed to the idea of the sculptor who does a lot) and start from your own body. In One & Other you seem to be there only indirectly. Why did you choose this position? How are you embodied by the man and women on the Plinth? How do you see the relation between yourself and ‘the other’ in this work?

AG: One & Other is an authorless work. There is no object here; I was only responsible for a frame, which I allowed life to occupy. It is my work, but it is also everybody’s work. We have to wait and see how this shift from object to space will pan out!