Industrialised bodies: a review of Antony Gormley at the RA
The Antony Gormley exhibition at the Royal Academy of the Arts has received some bad press since it opened on the 21st September 2019. While The Guardian’s Laura Cumming calls his work abound with “recycled ideas”, TimeOut’s Eddy Frankel claims Gormley’s 1999 ‘Iron Baby’ is “enough to put you off art forever.”
I don’t pretend to know a lot about art but I know it fascinates me and, while some of Gormley’s more experimental Early Works (including the silhouette of a man falling through a wall of white bread) leave me confused, others feel gritty, desperate, even violent in their pursuit to understand ones body and its place in the exploding cloud of the universe.
I mentioned Gormley’s ‘Iron Baby.’ In the courtyard outside the RA, there sits a tiny sculpture from 1999 of a curled-up infant made from iron. Based on Gormley’s own six-day-old daughter, he and others have compared it to a bomb. Small, dark, dense. Made from iron, it is both a human form but connected to the Earth’s core. It feels simultaneously vulnerable and dangerous which – if anyone has anyone attachments to children – feels pretty apt. On one hand, you almost want to pick it up and cuddle it until you realise it is rock hard, cold and – in a way – dead.
In the rooms upstairs, Gormley’s 2019 ‘Slabworks’ again place the body in relation to its own vulnerability. Industrial steel slabs are placed in fourteen sculptures depicting bodies in different positions. Some are almost erotic but others sink into the corner, desperate and tortured by something unspoken.
One of Gormley’s most interesting pieces is ‘Clearing VII’ or the exploding cloud I mentioned earlier. Forcing viewers to clamber through the sculpture, it’s no longer a singular structure but an ever-expanding 3D scribble only restricted by the walls and ceiling. It feels chaotic, childlike, disorientating and – maybe my hangover was also a factor – but it felt appropriate somehow in the mess of the world that goes on around us every day.
In another room, ‘Matrix III’ is suspended from the ceiling. Made from recycled industrial materials, this mesh of twenty-one cages feels like a thundercloud with a small void packed in the middle which Gormley calls ‘the space of dreaming’. It is ominous and overwhelming, like the sky is about to fall down. You feel at risk of being trapped both under the structure if it fell and simultaneously within that ‘dreaming’ void in the centre.
Elsewhere, an army of faceless figures confront you as you walk into ‘Lost Horizon I’. Gormley has worked with cast iron since the late eighties but this 2008 collection of ghostly figures reminds me of something like an army or an episode of Doctor Who where you half expect them to all come to life. Seemingly defying gravity, the figures seem to float, only attached horizontally by their feet to the walls or the ceiling. The world feels confused; suddenly every wall is the ground and we too are floating among this army of ghosts.
Much like ‘Clearing’, Gormley’s 2019 ‘Cave’ asks us again to walk inside the art. In one room, Gormley has created a hollow structure – something like a human body in the foetal position – that gives you the option to enter the body and work your way through the dark caverns inside or to continue in the light outside. There’s something womb-like about standing inside the darkness, working your way through the caverns, and simultaneously something divine about looking up to the top of the cave and seeing the light spilling in from outside. The body seems to have become the church and it is unclear whether we’re the offspring or the congregation.
While I don’t think it’s fair to write off Gormley’s art as lazy or recycled, I grant that his interest in the confusion and desperation of the human body is repetitive. However, his art is confronting and interesting – sometimes harrowing if it can touch a chord with your own perspective. It certainly did for me. Gormley’s presentation of the human body feels to me simultaneously infantile and vulnerable and deeply violent. There’s something erotic in his explicit honesty of the human form but it remains cold and industrialised in a way that can’t really be called sensual. It doesn’t really feel alive. There’s a bluntness and a savagery to his art; he doesn’t sugar-coat anything and maybe that bluntness can be misconstrued by some as laziness.