Behind the scenes of our Antony Gormley exhibition

Published 9 September 2019

Six tonnes of steel mesh, eight kilometres of coiled tubing, a gallery flooded with sea water and a body that can be walked through: this autumn Antony Gormley RA transforms the Academy’s Main Galleries into a sequence of experiences that challenge the viewer. The show’s co-curator takes us behind the scenes.

  • “This is a very neat roof!” Antony Gormley exclaims. “Who looks after this?”

    The artist is on top of Burlington House, above the RA’s Main Galleries, looking down into its grand spaces through the skylights. It’s mid-April and, before the RA’s Summer Exhibition hang begins, Gormley and his assistant Ocean Mims have joined me and my RA colleagues to consider some of the logistics of installing his autumn exhibition, a project that, for the RA, is unprecedented in its complexity. We have been in the galleries plotting the positions of works, and now we are high above, scaling ladders and navigating tight walkways, in order to check the access to ceiling fixing points. 

    Gormley has stood on many rooftops scoping out sites for sculptures. The 31 standing figures of Event Horizon, created for his last major exhibition in London in 2007, could be seen from the terrace of the Hayward Gallery atop different buildings as far as the eye could see. The figures have since inhabited the skylines of Rotterdam, New York, São Paulo and Hong Kong. For all his global renown, the sculptor appreciates things that others might take for granted, like a well-maintained roof. And despite his access to extraordinary places, and his familiarity with subjects as diverse as Hindu sculpture and quantum physics, his curiosity remains unbounded. He can’t get enough of life. He is always asking questions. 

  • Antony Gormley, Iron Baby installed in the Annenberg Courtyard

    Antony Gormley, Iron Baby installed in the Annenberg Courtyard, 1999/2019.

    Cast iron. 12 x 28 x 17 cm. © Antony Gormley. Photo: Stephen White.

  • The days are beginning to lengthen and as the sun sets we admire the cityscape. Gormley checks in on his sculpture Cinch (2017), a stainless-steel-faceted body-form perched above the north entrance to Burlington Arcade, keeping a silent vigil over the daily routines of the street below. Conversation shifts between the practical and the philosophical, which, in the making of Gormley’s art, are inextricable. This is one in a long series of site visits to the RA. Over the past three years, work has been taking place to reinforce the galleries’ floors and walls in anticipation of his large-scale sculptures and installations; every possibility has been probed, testing the building’s capabilities, as if the Main Galleries were one huge armature for a sculptural experiment. Gormley has compared the challenges of any particular site to the resistance of marble for the sculptor who carves.

    “We’re trying to use the entire volume of the Royal Academy in a way that really makes the viewer’s journey through it intriguing,” the artist explains. “Every room is a surprise in relation to the room before, but together they make a collective experience.” The sequence of encounters with works both past and present is not a chronological retrospective, explains the exhibition’s co-curator Martin Caiger-Smith, author of the definitive monograph on the artist (published by Rizzoli in 2017) and a crucial figure in the shaping of the show: “Perhaps more than any exhibition to date, this Royal Academy show binds together Gormley’s most recent work and his earliest, emphasising the common and continuing concerns that have preoccupied him from the outset – with who we are, as bodies moving through space and time, with how we experience the elemental, natural world and how we relate to the man-made environment we have constructed around us.”

    The artist sums up these concerns in one question: “How do we treat the body not as a given, not as appearance, but as the place that we each find ourselves in?” To answer it, Gormley is staging an exhibition with different aims to a typical Royal Academy show. “Many RA exhibitions tell a story – of a life, of a style, of an artistic movement. I think the work in this show is fundamentally different from that kind of picture show, which is what the Academy was built to do. If there is a story in this exhibition, it’s the one you bring with you as a visitor. We start the exhibition with a tiny object in the Annenberg Courtyard, which hopefully opens people up to the idea that they make, or are, the story.” This tiny object is Iron Baby (1999; pictured above), a solid iron cast based on the artist’s six-day-old daughter. The features are not detailed; we can’t tell if it’s a boy or girl. It is not a portrait. It is the space a body once occupied, a moment of lived time, embodied. 

  • , Antony Gormley's London Studio

    Antony Gormley's London Studio, 2019.

    © Antony Gormley. Photo: Benjamin McMahon.

  • A few months after our rooftop recce, I meet Gormley in his drawing studio. On the table is a box marked “1978-80”. He is selecting workbooks to display in a gallery dedicated to drawings, a task that involves reviewing 45 years of possibilities. This is an unusually solitary exercise for an artist whose bread and butter is collaborative working, with a team of 25 in north London and 20 in Hexham. In an adjacent workshop the size of a warehouse, a team embarks on the daunting task of the hundreds of thousands of welds required to make Matrix III (2019), the work that will occupy the RA’s grandest gallery. Matrix III combines the abstract languages of geometry and architecture with six tonnes of standard steel mesh, ordinarily used to reinforce concrete walls and lift shafts. “This rebar is the inner skeleton of the environment we live in,” says Gormley. “At the core of this exhibition, I want this work to talk about an extraordinary transition: that at the beginning of this decade, we crossed a frontier to where more than half of our species are now living within the urban grid.”

    The sculpture consists of 21 huge cages, suspended from the ceiling, that enclose a void the average size of a European new-build bedroom. “It’s about the way we contain space through architecture… the ghost of modernity, hanging there. We have to live in higher and higher densities and I’m asking: what does that mean for our collective identity?" Matrix III is the most complex piece that has ever been fabricated entirely ‘in-house’ at Gormley’s studio. And even then, extensive consultation with specialist structural engineers has been required to find a solution for gradually building the work in sections, accurately and safely. 

    This non-figurative sculpture (for want of a better description, as it is too physical, too material, to be ‘abstract’) might be unexpected for those most familiar with Gormley’s body-forms of the 1980s and ’90s, for which he won the Turner Prize in 1994, or his colossal Angel of the North (1998), arguably the country’s most famous piece of public art. Yet it has arrived quite naturally in the progression of his practice. In Matrix III, no body is present in the sculpture, but, as the artist explains, "in most of the work for the Academy show, the subject is the viewer’s body. I make a situation that the viewer is invited to bring themselves into – mind and body." 

    However mesmerising the effect of Matrix III, you will find no smoke and mirrors – everything is just what it is. The magic happens in the moment of human attention. The "perceptual maze” of Matrix III is formed in the act of walking around, and if you wish, underneath. “It is very difficult to distinguish between the foreground, mid-ground and background of the work, because there are all of these conflicting perspectives.” In another large-scale work, Clearing VII (2019; see Clearing V, 2009, below), we are invited to enter and navigate a ‘drawing in space’. Around eight kilometres of flexible steel tubing, coiled and then allowed to unravel, expands into a chaotic web that fills the room to create a sort of energy field. “I’m trying to activate the space itself in such a way that the viewer’s body becomes activated,” says Gormley.

  • Antony Gormley, Clearing V

    Antony Gormley, Clearing V, 2009.

    Approximately 11 km of 12.7 mm aluminium tube. © Antony Gormley. Installation view, Kunsthaus Bregenz, Austria. Photo: Markus Tretter.

  • This emphasis on embodied experience is there in Gormley’s earliest works, and is his unifying concern. Before training at Central St Martin’s, Goldsmiths and the Slade art schools, Gormley studied Archaeology, Anthropology and Art History at Cambridge. He also travelled widely in the Middle East and Asia, spending two years learning Buddhist Vipassana meditation in India, sometimes sitting still for 12 hours a day. Practising this state of “bare attention” left Gormley with an indelible belief that we have innate knowledge in our bodies, and that being aware of our presence and our surroundings is as important as anything one might learn from a book . “At this point I was very much aware of how much art was about art, and how myopic the frame of reference was,” recalls the artist. “I wanted to make work that somehow dealt with the immediate. That meant the materiality of the world and being in it, and wanting to make art about experience and that encouraged a certain form of experience.”

    In the exhibition one gallery is dedicated to works from the late 1970s and early ’80s in which the action of the body is the means of making. In Grasp (1982) the clench of a hand is carved as an outline on a rock. In Mother’s Pride (1982/2019; see Mother’s Pride IV, 2012, below) the consumption of mouthful after mouthful of sliced white bread reveals a body-shaped void. The outer contour of Exercise between Blood and Earth, a wall drawing first made in 1979 and recreated for this show, is determined by the reach of an arm.

  • The everyday objects Gormley gravitated towards in these early experiments reveal the impulse, as strong today as it was then, to connect art and life, especially the relationship between sculpture and the natural world. For example, One Apple (1982): set out in a line that bisects the gallery, 53 pieces wrapped in lead record the stages of the season’s growth, from the first fallen petal of the blossom, to the gradual appearance and ripening of the fruit. Lead is a major feature in this room, a material Gormley chose partly in response to the context of the Cold War (the material can insulate against radiation) but largely because of its malleability. The process of wrapping objects was instrumental in Gormley’s exploration of what he describes as “spatiality and how we perceive it: a testing of the edges, the skin of things.”

    For Gormley personally, the most important work in this gallery is also “the quietest and the least spectacular”: Land, Sea and Air I (1977-79; below). The making of the work – three more or less identical lead cases, one containing a rock, another water and the last left empty – was a breakthrough moment. “I can remember being on a beach, on the coast of Galway, surrounded by these granite shore stones. I made my choice of stone, and during my journey back with my brother – between leaving Goldsmiths and arriving at the Slade – the stone just sat there, in the back of his Citroën 2CV, almost as a sort of goad, saying, ‘What are you going to do with me?’. I knew that I didn’t want to take the lump of rock and carve it into a beautiful object, but I wanted to honour its shape.”

    “In the end, I thought, ‘Okay, I’ll acknowledge you’. I made a lead skin and I covered it up, and then, a while later, I thought, ‘No, I’ll unwrap it’. When I cut it out, that was a total revelation to me: the space that the stone had occupied – its absence – declared the fact that it had been present. I realised that the lead box can be a carrier: it does this job of transformation, turning material into mind, or the thing into an imaginary image. That work was really my kind of talisman of what art can do; it can reconcile imagination with reality. It can take a bit of the real world and in isolating it, may give it meaning or potency." 

  • Antony Gormley, Land Sea and Air I

    Antony Gormley, Land Sea and Air I, 1977-79.

    Lead, stone, water and air. 20 x 31 x 20cm. © Antony Gormley. Photo: Stephen White.

  • Gormley was not alone in seeking ways to make sculpture that was closer to life than art. In post-war Italy the artists of the Arte Povera movement were known for their use of “poor materials”. British artist Richard Long RA employed walking as a sculptural medium that engaged with time and space, recording his modest interventions in the landscape in photographs, such as A Line Made by Walking (1967), which shows a strip of flattened turf, a shape imprinted in a daisy-covered field by the repeated action of his boots. While still a student, Gormley made comparable performative works, such as Exercise with Mud (Arizona) II (1979), made in Arizona’s Death Valley by collecting pieces of sun-baked earth and throwing them behind him, leaving a 10m trail of dust. Together with Vicken Parsons, a fellow artist from the Slade (the pair married in 1980 and have three children), Gormley had travelled to the US in search of the great works of American Land Art. These included Spiral Jetty (1970), Robert Smithson’s counterclockwise coil of 6,000 tons of black basalt rocks and earth in Utah’s Great Salt Lake, and Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field (1977), 400 vertical steel poles spread in a grid across a huge area of desert in New Mexico. De Maria’s work draws its power from the place with minimal means. Catching the dawn or twilight, it offers a quiet measure to the surrounding mountain ranges, and if lightning strikes, harnesses the full force of the weather. Gormley’s experience of Lightning Field, and his contact with De Maria, were a formative rite of passage.

    At a time when Minimalism posited sculpture as an abstract idiom, Gormley began to use his own body as a tool and medium, moulding himself in plaster, and encasing those forms in lead. Land, Sea and Air II (1982; below) was one of a series of three-part ‘body case’ works that, as the artist has summarised, "attempted to associate a perception with a posture, and a posture with an element.“ Land listens to the ground, Sea stands still, and Air kneels, head lifted to the sky; the three cases are punctured only by holes at the ears, nose and eyes respectively. Each lead carapace is marked with lines of solder in a grid system that from then on persisted throughout Gormley’s early lead body-forms.

  • Antony Gormley, Land Sea and Air II, photographed on West Wittering beach, West Sussex

    Antony Gormley, Land Sea and Air II, photographed on West Wittering beach, West Sussex, 1982.

    Lead and fibreglass. 45 × 103 × 50 cm (crouching), 191 × 50 × 32 cm (standing), 118 × 69 × 52 cm (kneeling). © Antony Gormley.

  • The conjunction of the body with the grid – representative of a rational, mathematical understanding of space that we take for granted but is in fact cultural – recurs in Gormley’s more recent work in different ways. For example, in Lost Horizon III (2019; see Lost Horizon I, 2008, below) – the key figurative piece in the RA show and a counterpoint to the expansive Event Horizon – bodies project at right angles to one another from the floor, ceiling and walls. As with Iron Baby, each of these iron casts makes present the absence of the body. The process begins with the artist holding a pose and being wrapped in wet plaster. The poses aren’t dramatic; the energy of the body is concentrated inwards.

    Over the years Gormley has explored the internal spatial volume of the body in endless variations and materials. In the smallest gallery at the RA will be one of the most recent: Subject (2019), a figure formed of interlocking steel bars, making palpable the feeling of standing, balance, a centre of gravity. “The strange thing about the human body is that it is our coordinate in space – we can’t go anywhere without it – and yet most of us act like we are a brain on wheels,” writes the novelist Jeaneatte Winterson, in her text for the exhibition catalogue. “Observing these bodies that are as unselfconscious as the natural world, and yet seem as knowing as the human world, we reflect on the maddening glory of our nature; so fragile and transitory, so stubborn and enduring… this is a way of seeing yourself, of seeing for yourself, and of being recognised for what we are: human imprints passing through time.”

  • Antony Gormley, Lost Horizon I

    Antony Gormley, Lost Horizon I, 2008.

    Cast iron. Each element 189 x 53 x 29 cm (32 elements). Installation view, White Cube, Mason's Yard, London, England. Courtesy of the Artist and PinchukArtCentre (Kiev, Ukraine) © the Artist. Photo: Stephen White, London.

  • Another work made especially for the exhibition expands the interior of the body into a space we can inhabit. Gormley has described Cave (2019), as “my form of architecture”; he has always thought of the built environment as our “second body”, an integral part of the human condition today. Made from industrial rolled steel, rectangular and cuboid forms intersect at chaotic angles: this stack of boxes crashed into each other is in fact a giant body, crouched to fit in one of the corner galleries. A hand and a foot stick out through the doorways, as the entrance and exit of the dark, cavernous interior. For Gormley, it is when we close our eyes – “an experience of interiorised darkness, which is no different to the darkness of the night sky” – that we most readily feel our body as a place. “I have a profound belief that this internalised sense of space is in absolute connection with the extension of cosmic space. We have an intuition embedded without our biology about space at large. The paradox is that we live within a body that has a skin that is our bounding condition, yet we have this faculty of imaginative extension into endless space." 

    Ancient cave art has been an enduring preoccupation for the artist. "The cave is an environment in which you have to become hyper-aware, and it has such strong bodily references – these wet, taut, limescale walls. The act of our ancestors going deep into the body of the earth allowed the imaginative and the internal to find its natural place within the darkness.” Initially encountered as a looming presence at the end of the gallery enfilade, visitors will choose whether to go inside Cave or to walk around the perimeter, which also requires a negotiation of unpredictable angular structures. Some facets are left open, connecting the interior and exterior. “By borrowed light, by variations in volume, by acoustic conditions, a space can begin to behave a little like music.”

  • Host, 2016 (detail), installed in Galleria Continua, Beijing

    Host, 2016 (detail), installed in Galleria Continua, Beijing

    © Antony Gormley. Photo: Oak Taylor-Smith / Courtesy Galleria Continua

  • Gormley’s belief that we are fundamentally connected with the world around and each other – as specks of matter like the rest of the universe – is central to his work and this exhibition. The culminating work is Host, which has never been seen in the UK before. First made in 1991, the work bears comparison with American Field of 1990, which consisted of around 35,000 fired clay bodies that had been quickly formed to the scale of a pair of human hands, in collaboration with a community of brickmakers in San Matías, Mexico (the work became a global phenomenon, with Amazonian, British, European and Asian Fields created). Like FieldHost is viewed from outside through a single threshold and fills the gallery wall to wall, but in Host the clay is left in its raw state, unworked, mixed with sea water (see Host, 2016, above). In the RA exhibition, the work sits in contrast to Matrix, a structure that evokes the built environment. Gormley describes Host as "the elemental condition of human consciousness: we have air, water and earth, but no form. It is formless, given temporary form by the architecture.“ In both works we are "left outside, as an observer”, our minds left to contemplate.

    This exhibition is indicative of a shift in Gormley’s practice away from representation towards open-ended environments that inspire self-reflection and challenge the status quo. “Art becomes this proposition that invites you to rethink what the world is, and your position in it,” Gormley concludes. “In the end, the raw material of this exhibition is the psyche, the bodies, the people who come and indeed the feeling that they make together. That is not something that can be moulded or carved or cast, and that’s what makes the whole thing worth doing, because I want to move people. Can we care? Can we look at things anew?”