Antony Gormley has spent his career investigating the relationship of the human body to space. Through his fertile imagination, this has proved to be a seam that he can continuously mine, whether using his own body or those of others, in order to explore questions of where human beings stand in relation to nature and the cosmos. His latest exhibition at White Cube Bermondsey uncovers new ways to probe these fundamental issues.
“The responsibility of the art of our time is to reflect on and provide instruments for examination and self-awareness” Antony Gormley
He is doing so at a time when human beings are predominantly urban dwellers in industrially manufactured habitats, and when, Teresa Kittler writes, there is a broad “cultural acceptance of the rights of money, goods, ideas and tourists to travel – a phenomenon accelerated by new technologies” at the same time as national governments are controlling or denying that same right to migrants. In this exhibition, Gormley uses the industrial processes that produce clay blocks, concrete, iron and steel to create works that examine the dynamic tension between our need for refuge and our need to roam.
Much of this is explored and discussed in a revelatory film by documentary filmmaker John O’Rourke, which offers an unprecedented glimpse into Gormley’s artistic practice and his relationship with processes and materials. Over the course of several months, O’Rourke gained exclusive access to the artist’s fabrication sites across the UK, including his studio in London and foundry in Hexham, resulting in fascinating insights into the processes used by Gormley and his teams. However, the greater value of the film lies in the insights Gormley provides into his own work and the context he shares for their inspiration. Few other artists are as articulate about their work as Gormley; memorable phrases abound as he narrates both the conception and realisation of these works.
A line of eight Retreat sculptures extends from the outside in and then through the length of the Bermondsey Gallery. Each is cast to the scale of the artist’s body in 55 mm thick reinforced concrete and contain small square orifices at the position of the mouth, offering visual access to a body-sized void within. Gormley has said: “The only place where we can find true freedom is within the infinite darkness of the body available to us once the body is still. These works evoke and embody the space we all enter when we close our eyes. I consider this the most pertinent and potent space of personal freedom, and these works celebrate it.”
The expanse and scale of Resting Place reminds one of Gormley’s Field works as both are “renditions of collective space”. However, as this installation is wholly formed of differently sized blocks, it appears first, in Gormley’s words, as a builder’s yard, then as buildings – a dense urban landscape – and only latterly as bodies at rest. Unlike the Field works – organic shapings of earth so that none are the same – the building blocks for Resting Place are regularised, prompting reflections on the place of rest within industrial processes and urban spaces. There are 244 body forms, each in a different posture or pose – prone, splayed, foetal – but all in repose. Significant amounts of work, movement and activity have been exercised in order to create this room full of resting figures, which we, ourselves, navigate on our feet, moving among the still and sleeping figures to observe the repose of others in our spare time.
As a public space through which we walk, Resting Place equates most closely to our navigation of rough sleepers on the streets of our cities, linking this work to his Sleeping Place works, which demonstrate the minimum space necessary for a person to establish shelter and were inspired by the repeated sight all over India of people asleep covered by thin cotton saris or dhotis in the streets and on railway platforms.
The ‘Weave Works’, of which there are six forming the Test installation, are composed using X, Y, and Z coordinates that map space in three dimensions, enabling the creation of orthogonal, latticed cast iron bars that form skeletal bodies. Not free-standing, unlike most sculptures, these are positioned in relation to the walls, floor and pillars of the Gallery, a reminder of the extent to which we are conditioned by the spaces in which we live and move and have our being. “We make a world, but then that world makes us,” as Gormley reminds us, and so this installation draws attention to the extent by which we are contained by the spaces we inhabit.
Stand is nearly 5 metres tall and is made from a Jenga-like stack of Corten steel beams. It is a monumental monument to human beings but resists any clear identity, being a challenge to those monuments which memorialise an identifiable past. This monument is what it is, content to be an abstract sculpture equating to a human being but formed of manufactured materials and industrial processes. Stand is the work that most obviously utilises qualities intrinsic to sculpture – silence, stillness and materiality – to allow visitors to become more aware of their own freedoms of movement and mind.
Bind is three thick ribbons of rolled black steel that extend from the floor, ceiling, and walls, converging in the centre of the room to create a cruciform body zone of tangled orthogonal lines. With Bind, Gormley argues, “We are becoming aware of our own freedom, of our own movement, of our own trajectory through space and time”. His hope is that in the encounter with stillness that a sculpture such as Bind provokes, we will project onto its embodied space our embodied memory.
Gormley states, “The responsibility of the art of our time is to reflect on and provide instruments for examination and self-awareness”. These works argue that, as he says, “The mind can only be free if we still the body”. The intrinsic qualities of sculpture are qualities that enable awareness. In providing these particular instruments for examination and self-awareness at this time, Gormley wants us to question how we “reconcile self-interest with massive inequality” and “recognise that we can’t go on with business as usual”.
Body Politic: Antony Gormley, 22 November 2023 – 28 January 2024, White Cube Bermondsey