Issue Number: 113
Exhibitions The ancient gods in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg have been liberated from their plinths by Antony Gormley RA in his new show. By Alastair Sooke
Force II, 2011, by Antony Gormley, with the Statue of Omphale from The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg. Photo Yuri Molodkovets ‘The problem with classical sculpture,’ says Antony Gormley RA, striding through the resplendent galleries of the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, ‘is that we think we know it already, and so we find it very difficult to look at. But there’s no point in ignoring something that already exists.’ He pauses at the threshold of the museum’s famous Hall of Dionysus, and gestures through the doorway. ‘All art was contemporary once,’ he says, with a flourish.
Before us is one half of Gormley’s latest exhibition, ‘Still Standing: A Contemporary Intervention in the Classical Collection’. Nine antique marble statues, hand picked by Gormley from the Hermitage’s capacious holdings, have been artfully arranged beneath the coffered ceiling of the grand gallery with its glowing red stucco walls, designed by the nineteenth-century German architect Leo von Klenze.
The second half of Gormley’s exhibition can be glimpsed in an adjoining gallery: 17 cast-iron figures, based – like so much of his work – on the artist’s own body. These complex agglomerations of rusted blocks of metal, however, represent a departure: they look pixellated, their outlines disrupted, as if a squadron of cyberspace sentinels was materialising before us. They stand in striking contrast to the idealised human forms in the Hall of Dionysus and open a dialogue between ancient and modern.
Gormley is not the first contemporary artist to show work in the Hermitage – Anish Kapoor RA and Annie Leibovitz have already shown there. But Gormley is the first to be given the run of the place to this extent, exhibiting his own art alongside pieces from the existing collection, which he has subtly rearranged. To be trusted in this fashion is not only an honour for the British sculptor, who won the Turner Prize in 1994, and became a Royal Academician nine years later. It is also a sign of increasingly cordial relations between Russia and Britain, which had been strained in recent years.
While Gormley’s pixellated figures seem to articulate the chronic uncertainty that afflicts our own age, it is the artist’s intervention in the Hall of Dionysus that intrigues me. Gormley suggests that, for many of us, antique sculpture has become a too-familiar feature of the world’s top museums and is increasingly overlooked.
Gormley has set out to change that by freshening our perceptions. ‘I want you as a viewer to be in the same position regarding these sculptures as their original makers,’ he tells me. To this end, he has pulled the statues out of the niches in the gallery where they are usually displayed and placed them in the centre of the Hall. He also removed their plinths, and ordered the construction of a specially raised floor, so that the visitor can encounter these statues at eye level.
Venus gazes at Dionysus as he raises his cup in the foreground, while the Soranzo Eros (third from left) looks longingly at the helmeted Athena (far right) in Antony Gormley's rearrangement of the classical statues in the Hall of Dionysus at the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg. Photo Yuri Molodkovets.
The effect is subtle but transformative: it isn’t often that we get face to face with the gods and heroes of ancient Greece and Rome. I’m not sure that the gods themselves are used to being treated in such a manner, either: next door, sculptures relegated by Gormley from the Hall of Dionysus are huddled together, like D-list celebrities struggling to gain access to an exclusive nightclub.
‘I’m questioning the language of the plinth – all those implied values that suggest we are mere mortals because we are down below,’ Gormley says. ‘I like that familiarity with things that were supposed to be grand, great, or holy – the realisation that actually, they’re all human inventions, even if they were supposed to represent gods. This is about democratisation.’
In this respect, ‘Still Standing’ builds upon an important aspect of Gormley’s career. Since the early 1980s, he has created work beloved by a large audience – appropriately enough, given that he often cites the mantra of Gilbert & George, who once said that art should be for all. The Angel of the North (1998), Gormley’s monumental sculpture towering above the A1 near Gateshead, is seen by 33 million motorists every year. More people recognise it than they do St Paul’s Cathedral.
Antony Gormley’s cast-iron human forms, made in 2010 and 2011, create a striking contrast to the classical statues in the adjoining Hall of Dionysus. Photo Yuri Molodkovets.
More recently, Gormley mounted the One and Other project in Trafalgar Square – inviting members of the public to make art on the fourth plinth in the north-west corner of the plaza for an hour at a time, over 100 consecutive days in the summer of 2009. It was another object lesson in ‘democratisation’ – elevating ordinary people onto a prominent plinth, on which one might expect to encounter bronze statuary commemorating generals and politicians. Alluding to one of the square’s traditional functions as a site of protest, Gormley invited the public to reclaim a space of national significance, in order to collapse the difference between ‘them’ and ‘us’.
While ‘Still Standing’ continues the artist’s career-long broadside against representations of power, though, it encourages viewers to interact with ancient sculpture in other ways, too. Off the plinth, these works are stripped of narrative and mythological meaning. One notices chips and cracks, the joins where they have been restored. ‘I want you to be aware of the fragility of these pieces, as bits of marble that have been knocked about a bit,’ he explains.
Bringing the gods down to our level imbues them with vulnerability. ‘Look at this youth,’ he says, pointing towards the Soranzo Eros which has been positioned so that he stares with lovelorn longing at a nearby statue of Athena. ‘I’m aware of how delicate and vulnerable that forefinger is; or this arm as a free object that could so easily be broken.’
He pauses. ‘I’m very aware of that history when I make work of my own. The attempt to make images of the human body that will outlive the human body – that’s a fundamental urge.’