The first major show in this country in more than ten years for one of our most popular artists was always going to be well attended, and it was pretty busy even on the autumnal Tuesday morning when I visited. Expectations are everything in shows like this, and while many of the motifs with which we associate Gormley (the body casts, the solid flat shapes, the melding of stone and metal, and the use of scale) were all present here, there was little to suggest any major new directions. However, there was plenty to affirm his status as one of our most important living artists. More than that, he demonstrated yet again his ability to make us see the extraordinary in what, at first, seem to be simple forms.
The exhibition was long in the planning and required a major commitment from the RA. Ceilings and floors had to be strengthened and extra beams installed, and one room had to be completely waterproofed and sealed to allow several tonnes of seawater and earth to sit safely within its walls. Two pieces, Matrix III and Cave, are particularly heavy and would challenge any building to house them adequately. Gormley has a long history of manipulating materials and the spaces in which we see them, and here we find him re-ordering the conventional yet highly prestigious gallery space and filling it with objects which push against its fixed structures and boundaries in existential ways. Cave, weighing twenty-seven tonnes, could do some serious damage were it to collapse through the floor.
Gormley has always had a mastery of space, and in many ways it is the unique quality of sculpture that it provides scope for displaying this ability. When we look at a painting in a gallery or on a wall at home, in almost every case it is best to stand directly in front of it. There are some notable exceptions, of course —Holbein’s Ambassadors being the most obvious— but the flat surface of a painting requires us to view it within the range of our eyeline. Paint may be textured or flattened to create additional meaning, but we are not usually encouraged to walk around a painting, nor would it add anything particular to our experience. With sculpture the opposite is true.
A sculpture is three-dimensional. The space that it occupies is significant, for it permits us access and therefore becomes an integral part of our experience of the piece. We may walk around the solid form and view it from different angles, and sometimes we may feel its surface, look closely at one single part to see how it was made, or even, in the case of large pieces, step inside, sit on or lie underneath the sculpture. Each creates a different experience, and these differences can be what makes a sculpture special. For example, Sheep Piece, a beautiful Henry Moore bronze which celebrates the adult-child bond, once stood on a grassy bank in Street, Somerset, and could be gazed at, walked around, touched and smoothed, climbed over and sat on. It changed with the different seasons, but it looked its best half-covered in snow with my five-year-old son stood on top. In this exhibition Gormley has deliberately challenged the spaces to not only accommodate his work, but forced the alteration of the spaces themselves. Where this was unnecessary, as in the main courtyard, he has placed an object which forces us to reconsider the space surrounding it.
As you approach the RA from Piccadilly you pass under a stone archway and face the classical facade of Burlington House, in front of which is the bronze statue of the first President, Sir Joshua Reynolds. Then you see a notice telling you that the small figure is Iron Baby, a piece based on Gormley’s six-day-old daughter. But where is it? When you spot it at last, you find a curled tiny shape in the middle of the courtyard, feet tucked in, face down as if trying to gain comfort from the cold stone on which it rests. The courtyard is a thoroughfare and an entrance, a place where people sit and drink coffee and play on their phones, traversed by Academy students on their way to class, and where the imposing character of Reynolds reminds us of the history and prestige of the RA itself. It is a defined space of transition, a way of passing from one environment to another, from the busyness of Piccadilly to the showcase of the RA and its well-ordered galleries containing the nation’s best art. Yet here, now, is the smallest reminder of our humanity, a vulnerable figure needing nurture and care, but also signifying all our hopes for the future. This is a masterful manipulation of a space which, by its dimensions and order, proclaims authority and purpose, both undermined by the presence of what Gormley calls his cast of “concentrated earth.”
This theme of confronting and challenging the gallery space is again encountered in the room which contains Clearing VII, a 2019 piece constructed with eight kilometres of coiled aluminium tubing. The rounds of metal are intertwined and form continuous curves in all directions. While it is possible to walk around the edge of the room, there is little space between the metallic construction and the walls, and the structure really seems to encourage the viewer to become entangled, both physically and metaphorically, in the web that has enveloped the entire space. Pathways open and close as you attempt to navigate the space. When you brush against the wire it sets off vibrations which move along the coils, and these interact with the impact of other people moving inside the structure and reveal new possibilities for pathways or barriers. With several people inside, the wire curves become enmeshed with human forms, so that viewed from outside the piece looks like a massive metallic ball in which the human shapes have become trapped. As you emerge from the jangling mass of noisy metal there comes a realisation of just how constrained this mass of aluminium tubing really is. Without the walls and ceiling of the gallery to contain it, this confusion of metallic energy would unwind, and perhaps unravel or even collapse completely under its own weight. In a very real sense the rectangular space of the gallery itself gives these ill-disciplined coils their shape and energy, and restrains them within their own formal structure.
In a nearby room hangs Matrix III, another work created especially for this exhibition but with antecedents from earlier Gormley exhibitions. This piece occupies the central gallery of the RA, the place where often the most important works are hung. The ceiling had to be especially strengthened for the six tonnes of twenty-six interlocking cages of steel mesh, of the kind usually found in reinforced concrete. The central cage is apparently the same dimensions as a European new-build bedroom, but this detail seems almost unnecessary. The grids move very slightly, and are suspended just over six feet from the ground. Gormley is 6’4,” so the very bottom edges might well touch the top of his head. The massive structure hangs like a behemoth of the modern age, and at first you approach it tentatively, slowly, constantly checking above to ensure that it is safe. Then the lines of fused steel begin to dominate, thin on the edges, increasingly dense as you approach the centre. And all the time it hangs suspended there, so that as you walk around it, or underneath it, the perspective is constantly changing. It is, at times, like the stripped-down insides of a skyscraper, or a three-dimensional colourless homage to Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie-Woogie, or perhaps a sealed maze which you can neither enter nor escape. Ultimately, when all other possible references have been exhausted, it remains a beautiful construction which manipulates light, space, and welded metal rods within a fixed environment.
Lost Horizon finds us in more familiar Gormley territory, with several cast-iron figures of his own body positioned around the room. There is still a latent power about their presence, even if we know them from earlier works, like Another Place, the installation on Crosby Beach (near Liverpool) of one hundred similar figures. In the RA show some are suspended from the ceiling, some are emerging from the walls, while others stand upright on the floor. Again, the references are important here. The echoes of early Egyptian sculptural figures take us back thousands of years and remind us that representations of the human body have been repeated throughout our history. They bring with them the whole gamut of human experience, from the act of creation to momento mori. These static figures fill the available space and as you walk around them, with other people in the room, it sometimes takes a second look to distinguish between the human and the inanimate. There is something disquieting about the human shapes hanging head down, or coming out of the wall at right angles towards us, but when we stand beside one, examine the surface in detail and think about the process by which it was constructed, we are drawn back to the human experience and come to ask problematic questions about the meaning of our existence, questions which can have no definitive answers.
One of the more challenging pieces, both for the building itself and for the visitor, is Cave. Constructed on-site, this is a twenty-seven-tonne tomb-like structure which, like some of the other pieces on display, pushes against the fabric of the room in which it is placed. Based on a crouching human figure, the steel structure annexes all the available space. There are two ways of approaching this work. You can make your way around the edge of the room, squeezing past the sharp edges, and view this monumental structure from the outside, a little like circumnavigating a pyramid. Alternatively, feeling brave, you can crouch down and pass through the small entrance, and be plunged into instant darkness. A helpful guide tells you to keep your hand on the left-hand wall so that you can find your way, and eventually you find yourself in a cavernous opening with a single small fissure admitting light from the area above.
Gormley has been here before. In 2014 he designed ROOM for the Beaumont Hotel (also reviewed in this magazine), and gave them a sculptural space resembling a seated robot or automaton from outside, but manipulating light and dark within to create a framework for contemplation and quiet reflection. With ROOM, Gormley succeeded in designing and constructing a space in which the occupant felt safe but was also enveloped in almost total darkness. The reference to ancient tombs is repeated here in Cave. In contrast to the experience in ROOM, here other visitors are also finding their way tentatively in the surrounding gloom, which could easily be interpreted as a metaphor for the human journey. When you leave the partially-lit central space you have to crouch down again in almost complete darkness, again touching the wall for guidance. As you approach the exit there is a welcoming burst of light, to which you naturally make your way. The image of rebirth is strikingly clear as you enter another unfamiliar space and are confronted with the final, exceptional piece.
As your eyes become accustomed to the light, Host comes into view. There is a slightly salty tang to the air, and you have to stand in the doorway to the gallery to look inwards at the room filled with red earth, covered with sea water from the Atlantic. The surface of the water barely moves, but seems to shimmer in the light. The contrast with the shadowy confines of Cave is startling. After almost total darkness, you are faced with three primordial elements: earth, water, and air. You could be standing at the moment of creation, when these elements mysteriously combined to produce the very beginnings of life. The stillness is all-engulfing, but there is also a sense of anticipation, as if something very special might be about to happen. Wonder, although an over-worked word, is a fitting description for the emotional response to this major installation.
Gormley has nothing to prove. He has been honoured all over the world and engaged whole communities with his art, and yet still has the energy and desire to celebrate what makes us human. Visual art, like music, does not have the distraction of language, and the very best can connect us to the core of life. The combined effect of the works on display is a lasting one. In the days after visiting, impressions return: the apprehension as you stand under Matrix III; the exuberance of Clearing VII; the disquieting figures of Lost Horizons; and then the final works resonant of death, rebirth, and the moment of creation itself.
It is a commonplace that if an artist is given space in one of our prestigious galleries, this means that their work is important and deserving of our notice. Usually this is the case, but too often one is left with the feeling that what is on display is definitely worthy in terms of art history, but not necessarily expressive of a human experience with which we can easily empathise. Rembrandt, for example, painted revealing self-portraits in which he laid bare the depths of his humanity, but his life in seventeenth-century Amsterdam is, perhaps, too distant to us now. Gormley is our contemporary, living in the same world that we inhabit, with all its faults, frustrations, and joys. The contemporary human experience is celebrated in this show and, as you make your way back to Piccadilly, you pass for the second time the tiny crouching figure in the courtyard who encapsulates our longings. She is both the perfect beginning and ending to a very special exhibition.--Paul Flux