June 2010

Arts & Letters

Body of work

By Robyn Davidson
Antony Gormley’s 'Firmament IV'

Like all stereotypes, “stupid as a painter” – intended to cover visual artists of every persuasion – reveals itself as a truth via its exceptions. Antony Gormley is one of those exceptions. He spoke about his work recently, at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, with rare and affecting eloquence, managing to avoid (sometimes by a whisker), the abstruseness we have come to associate with art-speak.

The reason he is visiting Australia again is a new sculpture, commissioned by and housed at Anna Schwartz Gallery in Sydney – a white room into which this extraordinary object is, so to speak, crammed. The piece is called Firmament IV. Of welded metal so heavy you imagine it might leave dints on the concrete floor, the work itself is so light and fragile it seems it might float to the ceiling or break into its constituents like an unstable molecule. It is light, but it is also implacable. Were it to continue its expansion, it would break the walls containing it, as if they were made of cardboard.

It’s a lung. An exploding universe. A prone body (Gulliver in Lilliput). A climbing-frame inviting play. Some sort of three-dimensional map. A cellular structure whose replication follows a law – an equation – that your body can feel but your mind can’t easily decipher. (In fact, it’s a geometry of nesting polyhedrons of varying volumes.) The white room is its temporary home; it will find another home, out in the air somewhere, and its meaning will change, because the space around it will take on a different charge. Scale and perspective will alter our perception.

All sculpture exerts a kind of gravity on its surroundings and cannot be read in isolation from its own negative space. But Gormley’s work intensifies our awareness of this phenomenon. He is cross, for example, at the way one of his sculptures – a hunched human form, of metal blocks – has been housed in a niche at the Art Gallery of NSW. He’s right. Placing it there misses the point of it and nullifies its warping effect on space. Besides which, the intention of his work is to “de-idealise, decentralise the body in a work of art”. Plinths and niches are the very emblems of sculptural tradition.

In the next room at the Anna Schwartz Gallery are smaller, more familiar ‘Gormleys’. The humanish forms, reduced to a kind of essential gesture, are constructed of metal lozenges or atoms. There is an iron body protruding, almost horizontal, from a wall. It elicits a slight vertigo, as if you were on a listing ship. You know it is a cast of the artist’s body, but it is also an Ur-body, a representative body; he is us, disoriented and strange in a universe of which we are no longer the measure, where nothing is as it seems.

I am moved to write about Gormley’s lecture for reasons beyond appreciation of his work. I want to discuss it because it addresses those problems of authenticity that all artists must face (indeed all individuals must face if they wish to live consciously), that I myself face whenever I sit down at my desk and try to find a way of writing without recourse to what I know is an outgrown, obsolete style. It’s the struggle to find a form that aligns with the world as it changes around us, and as we change within it – one that aligns with and reflects how we are now, what we know now, and what we cannot un-know. (We can forget, but we cannot un-know.) For the artist, the form must manifest itself in the work; for the rest, our struggle is to find a way to live in this instability, without retreating into the comfort, or kitsch, of lost certainties.

“What Australia offers me as an artist,” Gormley began, “is an opportunity to put things in context.” Meaning, presumably, that here is a landscape elemental, old and spacious enough to put our blink-of-an-eye existence as a species into proper perspective. He asked what art might be, and do, in the face of the fact that the human species may have no future.

While he spoke, photographs of his work were projected onto a screen behind him. One is of an anonymous body swathed in white, a pavement dweller in India perhaps, from where Gormley had, at the time, recently returned. The sculpture was “the first and completely unconscious statement of my project. The homelessness of the body in sculpture, post-Rodin … the body as a place, rather than a thing, somewhere not to be idealised, sexualised, heroised, but simply to be focused on, but from the inside.”

Other images appear before his audience: Angel of the North, a megaton enigma with aeroplane wings, standing sentinel over the A1 in Gateshead, England; body casts disappearing beneath the waves of a bleak British beach; and, most moving and meaningful to me, the figures situated on a salt lake in Western Australia, flickering in the heat shimmer.

I did not know, but might have guessed, that Gormley had been influenced by Buddhism – that radical mind science that has settled over the West during the last few decades like magic dust, fertilising unlikely areas of thought, such as postmodern discourse (what we take to be reality, what we understand both the world and ourselves comprise, is more like an endless play of signification) and, more strikingly, the cognitive sciences (conscious reason is the tip of the iceberg of complex, interacting processes that are largely emotional and take place below the level of consciousness). Here, the convergence has been useful to both disciplines, lending Buddhism scientific legitimacy and providing neuroscience with a psychology that aligns more closely with what its own research has revealed, namely, that there is no self.

We speak of – have to speak of – everything we know as if it were a sequence of things. But, if we look more closely, everything turns out to be instants isolated from a torrent of events. Things emerge from, and fade back, into the flow. They interconnect and interact; nothing is intrinsically separate from the rest. Reality is not opaque and solid, it is transparent and fluid. I am who I am not because of an essential self hidden away in the core of my being but because of the unprecedented and unrepeatable matrix of conditions that have formed me.

“How do you begin to rethink the purpose of sculpture,” asks Gormley, “with the realisation that the body is a place we are temporary occupants of … Where do we human beings fit in this scheme of things?” Of course, human consciousness has always been anxious and uncertain, marooned in a mysterious universe. But now we seem to risk losing the very ground of our being.

Once, we could stand before a work of art as an object unambiguously separate from, and gazing at, another object. It was as if we had parachuted into an already-made world, a place tailored especially for us. We know now, however, that it is not like that. And the more we delve into the mystery of who we are – or what anything is – the more we seem to dissolve and reconstitute, ceaselessly disappearing and arriving, a pulse giving rise to the next pulse. We have stopped being nouns; we are present participles. Western art has been an expression of confidence. What constitutes our confidence now?

“Is art a place where we are comforted or challenged?” asks Gormley. Do we “relax into our position in the world or one in which we are disorientated? … If we can open it up as a site, of confrontation, participation, experimentation, perhaps art can become an area where possible human futures can be debated and envisioned …”

The danger is, of course, that we will disappear up our own fundaments asking such questions. After all, we have to live, day to day, as objects in a solid world, as things amongst other things. The whole late/post/end-game modernist project may prove to be so unfruitful, and so painful, that we choose another, safer, course. Or we may learn to live with the obscure and more fundamental truth of our contingency. Rather than struggling to find a new ground, we may come to feel safe in our groundlessness. Then, like the Angel of the North, we might keep our roots deep in the earth – our home – and yet fly.

Robyn Davidson
Robyn Davidson is a non-fiction writer. She is the author of the award-winning books Tracks and Desert Places, and the editor of The Best Australian Essays 2009 and The Picador Book of Journeys.

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