A visit to Antony Gormley’s exhibition at The Royal Academy which explores the dimensions of space and the human body
“Space exists within us as imagination, thought and sensation and outside of us in terms of distance.”
That darkness that we experience when we close our eyes represents for him the most primal space. For Antony Gormley (London, 1950) the human body is that first place that each person happens to inhabit, and the skin is the envelope containing it. His art explores the possibilities that his own body offers to him to experience the outside world. An art perceived by the audience through the five senses that at the same time wants to transcend the senses and connect with the spiritual.
Since his early years he has been influenced by Minimalism, Arte Povera and Land Art. Gormley’s creations are pieces that rely on the raw beauty of the chosen materials, the texture and colour to express themselves. Sight, touch, taste, hearing and smell are all engaged when visiting his latest exhibition at the Royal Academy. A full sensorial experience directed to make people aware of our bodies, make us question what’s our place on earth and what’s the meaning of our existence.
Representing the human body
Entering the exhibition fourteen piles of precisely cut solid steel blocks receive me, held together using gravity, the friction between their surfaces and their own weight. Each pile accounts for the minimum amount of pieces that our minds need to recognise them as human bodies. They occupy diverse locations and positions in the room, sometimes resting on the floor, sometimes lying on the wall, or just standing mixing with the people walking in between. Their presence fills the room, and the fact that they are the size of a person lays down a close relationship between them and the audience.
Leaving them behind, I start hearing noises of plastic pieces clashing with each other coming from a couple of rooms further away, they remind me of the noise produced by the rings used in gymnastics when they hit the ground. Meanwhile, I stop and observe a matrix of sandwich bread hung on the wall that has caught my attention. It’s called ‘Mother’s Pride V’. It’s one of the earliest works by Gormley, and it has been created by the simple act of eating the amount of sandwich bread required to make a human figure appear among the slices.
I see it as a testimony of Gormley’s first years, when he was an artist with far less means than he has today and produced sculptures with his own hands and with materials he could find around him. His success over the years has allowed him to build a studio where a dozen assistants help him to produce the work using the most advanced modelling and sculpting techniques.
Lines in space
The noise of gymnastic rings hitting the floor becomes stronger when I go through to the next room and find a group of people crawling and stepping over a giant bundle of very thin aluminium rings that occupy the entire space. Their cross section measures about one centimetre square and they are very flimsy, to the point that when they hit each other they sound as if they are made of plastic. It’s really good fun to become a child again and enjoy this adult playground.
I’m surrounded by grown up people overcoming obstacles with a smile on their faces trying to reach the center of the room as they make their way through it. The audience going – as Richard Serra likes to say – “into, through and around” a sculpture which is determined and shaped by the limits of the room that encloses it.
Sculptures are no longer displayed on plinths and this brings a closer relationship between the pieces and the visitor. They are not there just to be seen or admired. We can interact with them and share the space.
From here another metal rod of the same square section as the rings traverses through several rooms, spanning thirty meters across three spaces in an impressive and perfect horizontal line. It is like a laser light made physical, and disappears into the walls without any hint of how it’s supported. A rarity, to be able to surprise someone aware of how structures work. When it reaches the third of the rooms it crosses, it is welcomed by two more lines spanning in perpendicular directions. The three embody the X, Y and Z axis that define space.
Every room brings a unique experience. A big, high and very clear space becomes dark and short when we walk under a metallic cloud floating in the middle of the room – a mesh cage made of steel rods used in construction for reinforcing concrete. Again rough means to create a sophisticated spatial and perceptual experience.
Gravity, light and water
The gravity that held the blocks together in the first room is now defied by placing human-shaped solid iron casts hanging from walls and ceiling. Iron turns weightless. Floor, walls and ceiling lose their conventional meaning. The differences vanish and they are presented as equal perpendicular planes that define and enclose space.
And then comes ‘The Cave’, an abstract body lying on its side formed by 27 tones of hollow steel cubes, rotated and stacked, occupying almost the entire volume of the room. I enter through the left foot and I have to crawl to be able to go in. Like being inside a grotto, light is just non-existent. Gormley wants to transport us to that space of total darkness that we experience when we close our eyes. I have to guide myself through the darkness by touching the walls, fearful of hitting my head against anything that might be there, when a bigger space, tenuously lit from above, opens up in front of me.
Exiting the Cave, while the pupils readjust to the light levels again, the smell of sea invades the room in which we have arrived. There are some people standing in front of me observing something through an opening on the wall. I decide to go and join them and an entire room filled with sand and sea water unfolds, a perfect mirror that doubles the space and makes the floor disappear. A peaceful leaving gift to take with me as I return to the mundane routine days.