Anthony Gormley at The Royal Academy

The exhibit opened on the 21st September. I went on the first weekend, left with more questions than answers and have lost count of the times I have been back. When the exhibit closes on the 2nd December I will be the last one out, dragged by security guards as I cling to The Academy’s walls.


After my first visit I sat down to write about what I saw but got nowhere. I have thought about this on the tube, in airport lounges and in the shower. Whilst riding Boris bikes through Hyde Park or running along the Thames Path. Morning, night and in the hazy hours before and after work I kept thinking about the exhibit.


With the 2nd December fast approaching, the gallery halls will fill with crowds of culturati seeking a last-chance viewing as the removal teams wait in the wings. The nature of exhibits is that they cannot be seen again. The forgotten pictures on phones and exhibition leaflets gathering dust in the pockets of coats will not bring the time and place back to life.


I worry that I will never see Gormley’s work again in such a coherent, succinct format. So the best I can do is preserve my memory in writing and encourage everyone I know to visit. If they are as impressed as me I will have someone to reminisce with. If they shrug their shoulders and say it was okay a heated debate will ensue.


Today I have nothing tangible to show but some ticket stubs and a gallery guide covered in scribbles. But the exhibition gave me a new way of seeing, a deeper understanding of sculpture and the questions it can ask. It worked for me, I hope it will work for you. Do go – before the door swings shut – and let Gormley take you on an adventure.


Slabworks


The opening room is small and you are confronted immediately by 14 sculptures. About 6 feet tall, they are human figures made of rectangular steel slabs that blend into familiar expressions.


You do not work through these pieces but become consumed by them. Like finding yourself in the crowd at Liverpool Street Station it is not possible to plough straight on. Instead you must weave between the figures. We sense a human presence, says the gallery guide, but not in a great spiritual sense, rather practically. I don’t want to trod on the figure on the floor at risk of disturbing it’s languorous pose. Stare too closely at the one leaning against the wall – Humphrey Bogart smoking a cigarette – and you feel voyeuristic.


As you circle in a holding pattern around the room the shapes are animated with snippets of conversation by passers-by. Have you heard Annabel is leaving Tim. The figure is now a gossip. Darling don’t trod over it, go around. This one takes on a stern mothering tone. The one in the corner, a scramble of jutting knees and limbs holds itself tight in a ball of distress. I could sit beside it and ask whether everything is okay, wrap a blanket around cold metal shoulders.


The human-like shapes are not disconcerting. They are welcoming and familiar. I recognise myself in the figures and the emotions they display. This first room introduces us to the ideas that play out across the exhibit; the form of bodies, their emotions and how they relate to each other in space.


Clearing VII


This is the piece everyone will post on their Instagram story. For once, that’s not so much of a bad thing. The work is made of eight kilometres of black aluminium tube coiled in great rolling curls that unfurl from the middle. The room – one of the smaller spaces in the exhibit – battles to contain the force bursting outwards. The aluminium presses against the ceiling and the walls and one could imagine if it wasn’t constrained it would spring outwards in one movement, finally free.

People enter into the piece and duck in and out of the coils like the hero in a spy film. They trip and laugh – reach dead ends where the tangle is too thick and retrace their steps as delicately as a Twister finale. Naturally people aim for the middle but the piece forces you in a circle, to take a different route. Some skirt the outside walls where the material is thinner but inevitably get sucked in by the sculptures force.


What is disconcerting about the piece is it’s very hard to look at and see anything holistic. As you weave in and out focussing on one of the coils will send you into dizziness. But you also can’t focus on those in the distance. Black lines of aluminium pass in and out of your frame of view but you never see the full sculpture, you are in it.


When one gets to the middle – as if that is the goal of Clearing VII – it is lonely. You look outwards from where you came, realising you haven’t travelled far and look back at others following in your steps. Someone’s face will be looking right at you, framed by the coils of metal.


We are so used to passing in the assembly line of art from one painting, drawing or photograph to the next. Pausing to read the label, seeing the piece corresponds to the description and contentedly passing on so the next can have their turn at the cultural feeding trough. In Clearing VII you cannot act rationally. The sculpture forces you to take wrong turns and stumble into others. To come face-to-face with another and mutter sorry! as you weave yourself in and out of human interaction.


An aspect of modern art is it being self-conscious; work that references itself or the art and tradition it comes from. Gormley’s Clearing VII makes us self-conscious. Aware of our bodies and where we stand, how we move and collide into others.


Clearing VII is a messy piece for the viewer as we knock into the pipes and they clang in great echoes. We move slowly and negotiate the environment created by Gormley. But it’s not uncomfortable as some immersive art instillations can be. It makes us conscious of ourselves and serves as a reminder that this exhibit isn’t about art on the pedestal in contrast to us the viewer. It is about us and our bodies and how they relate to others and their bodies. As Gormley has written, his art is about how we might understand our own embodiment in both space and time.


Drawings I


There is a lot of content I am skipping over. Matrix III – perhaps the centrepiece of the exhibition –is a feat of both architecture and engineering. 21 room-sized cages made of intersecting steel form a metal swarm suspended from the ceiling. It is grand and eye-catching, you walk under and around it. Lying down your field of vision is lost staring up through the cages. It is impactful.


What is more impactful are the four display cases in a later room showcasing drawings and sketches that fill piles of A5 notebooks: early sketches of The Angel of the North in thick black pen; scribbled sentences, the line I am an artist appearing out of an otherwise indecipherable mess; bodies drawn in dashes, with hatch marks and in solid black; sketches of vast public sculptures set in tiny notebooks.


When there are display cabinets in an exhibit I usually steer clear. If there is a cloth protector covering the contents I steer even further away as the anticipation caused by the unveiling only leaves the content to be more of a damp squib.


Gormley’s display cabinets are worth looking into – the notebooks are a window into his mind and process. You can see the iteration of ideas and the paper he uses as a testing ground before producing the physical sculpture. The exhibit brochure explains that for Gormley drawing is a creative wellspring, a meditative daily activity. You see this in his repetition of motifs and ideas. Bodies and human forms appear extensively, but so does a fascination with light and dark played out on empty and solid shapes.


One of the smallest pieces in the show, these notebooks have a lasting presence as a direct glimpse into Gormley. In Clearing VII, the artist is hidden and we take centre stage. Drawings I take a behind-the-scenes look at the method of a great mind. Someone who thinks through drawing and connects his ideas together in a different kind of word without the constraint of lines on a page.


Cave and Host


The final rooms of the exhibit bring us back to earth. First we enter Cave which is a gigantic human figure curled like a foetus, toes and hands poking out into the adjoining rooms. You enter through the extended foot of the vast work and trace your hand along the walls as a guide. For a few seconds you are in pitch black. As you shuffle in the dark inside a giant’s body you are acutely aware of yourself, hearing your breath amidst the murmurs and echoes of those around you.


You turn a corner and emerge into the belly. Your eyes adjust and the dark iron colour of the metal glows on your retinas and you breath in the cold air. It smells like a shipyard or an old oil barrel. You are engulfed by this heavy presence with a sliver of light falling through from the ceiling. It is impossible not to run your hands along the walls, so set and solid.


Once you’ve made your way around the perimeter of the cave’s interior you exit crouched over through the figure’s hand. As you blink and appear in the final room you smell the next piece before you see it. The air is still cold, but fresher than in the Cave. You think it smells like the sea, but maybe that’s because you thought the Cave smelled like a shipyard and your subconscious is working overtime.


But no, you are right. Gormley has flooded the final room of the exhibit with sea water and clay to make a thin layer of ocean that expands away from the small doorway. It feels like you’re looking out from a pier onto a suddenly still sea. The water reflects the light diffused by the opaque skylights on the ceiling and the calmness brings a hush over the crowd looking in. If you view it at night it is completely dark, the stillness more engulfing.


From the belly of the Cave to the openness of Host our body is given its final adventure in this journey of this exhibit. Perhaps it is my time as a philosophy undergraduate, but the parallels to emerging from Plato’s cave ring too true. In the allegory of the cave, chained prisoners only see shadows cast on the walls by the light of a fire. To them, these shadows are reality. They give the shapes names, they believe them to be real.


Plato thinks a philosopher is one who emerges from the cave and sees things for what they truly are. The philosopher rejects the illusion of the shadows and lives from then onwards in the lightness of the day. He or she will feel compelled to open the cave-dwellers’ eyes to the true reality that lies outside.


When I emerged from Cave into the room of Host I felt the allegory animated in real life. And you do not stop emerging from the cave when you walk into the final room, or into the gift shop or back downstairs for a cup of tea in the Academician’s room.


If you take yourself to the Anthony Gormley exhibit and play his game you will emerge into a clearer world; get involved in the pieces, let them overwhelm and question you. I initially worried that I would not be able to answer any of Gormley’s questions; then I realised they are not meant to have any answers. Emerging into the light of day was enough. The sculptures gave me a new way of looking at and seeing the world I am involved in. They made me think of our way of being in the world.


Iron Baby


On my first visit to the exhibit I didn’t notice the opening piece by Gormley. Iron Baby, a cast of his infant daughter lying curled in the courtyard of Burlington House. The last time I went, on the way out into pouring rain as it turned out to be that Friday, I saw the infant on its own amongst the puddles. No one crowded over it taking photographs they will never look at. It sat abandoned, small enough to fit in one’s palm.


Well done Mr. Gormley, I thought. We arrive like the innocent child, smooth and unencumbered. We then experience the emotions and knotty interactions of human life as we move through the sculptures. Finally we emerge from the Cave to the light of Host and the open sea.


I’ve seen a lot of art and like to think I understand a good portion of what I see, but I was humbled when Gormley’s ideas – so perfectly expressed in sculpture and organised into an exhibit – deepened my understanding. Blinking and woozy as I emerged from the shadows of Plato’s cave my mission is now evangelical; go see the exhibit and then go see it again. Keep asking questions and know that the simple act of asking is enough to understand better one’s place in the world.