Review of Antony Gormley's ROOM (Installation and Catalogue)
Catalogue published by Corbin & King 2014, distributed by Tate Publishing £30
ROOM is an extraordinary new hotel project by Antony Gormley and the Beaumont Hotel in London's Mayfair. The hotel, originally an art-deco style 1930's car park, has been transformed into a very upmarket five-star establishment where rooms begin at around £500 a night. Antony Gormley was commissioned to create an individual room which has been attached to the front of the building. When I contacted the hotel to ask if I might visit and experience the interior, they kindly offered to show me around. What follows is a reflection on the visit supplemented by a review of the accompanying book, which contains two groups of photographs, the first set showing the interior, the second the exterior. Gormley's comments on the work are interesting and instructive, and there is also a useful short video of him discussing the exterior on the Grosvenor website.
Gormley has had a long and distinguished career creating some of the most iconic public artworks in England. The Angel of the North is much loved, Field--thousands of little clay figurines squashed together in a confined space--delights and intrigues in equal measure, and his outdoor installations involving multiple human figures are fascinating. A review of his work to date would conclude with the observation that he is an artist who can engage the spectator with a glimpse of the eternal, with the mystery of what it is to be human, like Caspar Friedrich's monk facing the ocean. ROOM attempts all this, but some troubling factors seem to be getting in the way.
A few years ago, Field was installed at Barrington Court, a National Trust property near my home. A significant element in that piece and other public installations is just that – they are public, accessible, and become part of our inhabited human landscape. We interact with what we see: little clay figures crammed together, human shapes washed by the sea, or a giant winged creature on a barren hilltop. ROOM is different because it has two elements that are difficult to reconcile, the public and the private. I was particularly interested to see whether, and how, these aspects would come across during the visit.
From the outside, the structure that Gormley has designed resembles a giant squatting lego figure. Gormley's own words here are instructive:
“I take the body as our primary habitat. ROOM contrasts a visible exterior of a body formed from rectangular masses with an inner experience. The interior of ROOM is only 4 metres square but 10 metres high: close at body, but lofty and open above. Shutters over the window provide total blackout and very subliminal levels of light allow me to sculpt darkness itself. My ambition for this work is that should confront the monumental with the most personal, intimate experience.”
The public face of ROOM works well. As Gormley himself admits, the surrounding area of the hotel is diverse, with Edwardian apartment blocks, a late Victorian brick Neo-Gothic church, and an electric sub-station. This, as well as the fact that the art deco style hotel was originally a car park, makes the area particularly suitable for this experiment. A busy, typically London public square (not far from Oxford Street) is an ideal location for such a creation, since almost anything would fit providing that its dimensions were correct, and they are.
As I approached the hotel the squat figure loomed large over the square, sitting on its pedestal like some benign giant. This seems to be the point. Gormley has utilised the building so that his structure appears to be not simply an addition, but a focal point. Since it is on one side of the building, it may well be above the original entrance to the car park, the only part of the building which breaks the plane of the rest of the frontage and the perfect position for the statuesque figure, a plinth upon which ROOM sits. The human-like structure imposes itself on the space below: one moment we see the monumental staring down at us, the next we realise that it is an architectural form, part of a building which can be lived in. Gormley has seemingly mastered the difficult task of making these two quite different functions work together. The outside of ROOM works both as a seemingly free-standing public work of art, and as a coherent element of the architectural structure of which it is a significant part. The photographs in the book, taken from different angles and situations, illustrate how well Gormley has married these two elements. Two pictures in particular stand out. The first is taken from behind the head of the figure so that we see what he would see, if he were alive. It is a vision reminiscent of the Happy Prince looking out over the city and watching the scurrying of London's humanity at work and play. The second photograph reinforces this view. This time the camera is directly under the feet of the building, looking up to the sky. A few wispy clouds are visible but now, like Caspar Friedrich's monk, we are looking at the eternal, a sky which will seemingly last forever: ROOM seems to be the connecting rod which links our own humanity to an other-worldly eternal. Yet again it becomes explicit to us how successful Gormley has been at combining the ethereal artistic function,and its architectural necessity.
The interior is exactly what would be expected of a hotel where rooms begin at £500 a night. The décor is again slightly understated art deco, but beautifully done. I was met by Hattie, a very pleasant representative of the hotel, who took me to the first floor and unlocked the door at the end of a long corridor. In we went. The suite is accessed through a large ante-room which, again, is exquisitely decorated. Once through this room you are confronted with the entrance.
In her insightful essay Sculpting Darkness, which ends the book, Margaret Iversen makes the connection between Gormley's interior and Rothko's Seagram murals, now in the Tate. However, the connection goes much further than this. Rothko's wonderful paintings were in part inspired by Michelangelo's beautiful staircase leading to the Medici library in Florence. This marble staircase rises elegantly upwards, but the gigantic doorway at the top seems to be an entrance to the eternal: from the bottom of the stairs, all that can be seen is an opening into empty space. Gormley has taken this same idea and used it for the way into ROOM, with its deep black space at the top of six pure white marble steps in their white marble frame, seemingly without a blemish, set off by black handrails.
On either side of the stairs are the bathroom and shower, again mainly white, but this only serves to emphasise the impact of the entrance, covered with its black curtain. What the photographs in the book do not adequately reveal is the sense that this is an entrance into the unknown. When you stand at the first step, your field of vision is enveloped by the marble walls. The similarity to an Egyptian tomb is overwhelming – the feeling of standing in front of a sacred site, of unknown mystery and power, is remarkable.
Further up the steps, the black of the curtain restricts the light, and the sense of mystery increases. The black handrails are under-lit with white light which reflects back from the steps. Then as the curtain is drawn across, the bed is revealed within its dark chamber. As they adjust to the darkness, your eyes sense that the pure white of the bed really does shimmer in reality, as it does in the book's photographs – it almost floats in the space it occupies, as if hovering above the floor by magic. What is unexpected is the total silence. The absence of light and sound combine to create the womb-like experience that the photographs suggest, but in a much more powerful way than they reveal.
The bed is pushed up against the centre exterior wall, with closed oak shutters directly above which correspond roughly to the middle of the figure as seen from the street. After a short while Hattie opened one half of the shutter, and light poured into the space. Yet again, the sense of being in an ancient tomb with the sacred light of the sun flooding in became overwhelming. The light revealed the beautiful grain of the dark oak panelling which surrounds the interior, and the expert craftsmanship of the wooden joinery. The ancient Sumerians had a myth in which their sun-god was captured each night and imprisoned, enclosed in a dark cell. Each night he would saw through the bars of the cell with a golden saw and then travel through the skies again. Standing within this space, I almost expected to see the golden saw on the floor.
Back in the real world, the one remaining issue for this remarkable construction is that of access. Much of Gormley's previous work has been about inclusion, art for the people, by the people, with Field as the most obvious example. Gormley has created an interior space which on one level demands privilege and exclusivity, but which also touches universal and humanitarian themes which much of his other art has championed. It would, at first, appear that the vast expense of experiencing the interior is a barrier to its effectiveness, but on reflection, this may not be as great a difficulty as it at first appears.
It costs £2,250 to spend the night in Antony Gormley's ROOM. The privilege of being able to stand alone in front of Picasso's Women of Algiers recently cost someone £116 million, but does the question of money make that painting (or ROOM, for that matter) any less effective? The relationship between great art, access and money has always been troubled --Van Gogh, for example, sold almost nothing and now his work goes for millions-- and has never been resolved. Now some of the art that is most valued emotionally is is also the most valued financially, so that some hugely expensive works are locked away in bank vaults because it is too risky to have them on display, especially in private homes. The most precious works, those which speak most eloquently to us, are now the most inaccessible, the least seen.
ROOM is a stunning piece of work, and the book of photographs is a worthy record of its public and private face. Go and see the exterior in Mayfair if you can, or simply enjoy the images in the book. Either way, Gormley and the Beaumont Hotel have conspired to create something genuinely extraordinary, a work of art and architecture in which money has clearly been a big factor, but which ultimately, I think, transcends it. --Paul Flux