Bryan R. Monte
Antony Gormley GROUND Sculpture Exhibition, 26 May – 25 September 2022, Voorlinden Museum and Garden, Wassenaar, The Netherlands
Museum Voorlinden is currently the site of Antony Gormley’s GROUND sculpture exhibition. For those of you unaware of Mr Gormley’s work, two of his famous sculptures are Exposure, a galvanized steel, 25 x 13 x 18 metre frame sculpture, (2010), of a squatting man on a narrow spit of land in the Flevoland polder, and Angel of the North, a steel, 20 x 54 metre sculpture, (1999) of a man or angel with aeroplane wings for arms standing in Gateshead, Tyne and Wear, England. Both sculptures are based on castings of Gormley’s body, (his most prevalent sculpting method), and they are visible to thousands daily.
On 25 May 2022, Mr Gormley opened his new retrospective exhibition at Museum Voorlinden. In addition, he also provided a guided tour of his exhibition for the press. During this tour, Mr Gormley not only described his sculptures, their material processes and his philosophies behind their creation, but also his ideas on art and a few on politics, with ended with a very personal, bombshell announcement.
The tour began in the museum’s library which includes many of Gormley’s sketchbooks, the earliest from 1975. Here, he told the press ‘Sculpture asks questions: “What can we be? What are we certain of”’ We were then taken into the museum proper and to the first gallery. It contains a sculpture of two bars at right angles called Coordinate VIII (2022). Two crossed bars divide the visual perspective into four Cartesian quadrants. Gormley said that this symbolized the two-dimensional world of drawings.
Gallery 2 has about a half dozen sculptures and some moulds of Gormley’s body. At the right and squatting Spiderman-like in the upper corner, near the ceiling, is the first of these casts entitled A Corner for Kasimir (1992). This sculpture’s pose is a bit unexpected and frightening even though one realizes it must be firmly anchored in place and won’t fall down. The second piece in the gallery is Over the Earth (1987-1992), with a planked Gormley figure: face down, arms out to the sides. It was in this room that Gormley explained his sculpture process formed from casts of his own body, which is first coated in vaseline and then wrapped in plastic. When the plaster has hardened, Gormley is cut out of the cast and these casts are then used to create the basis of his sculptures, which are made of iron poured into the moulds created from the casts. During the Q&A session at the end of the tour, Gormley said he prefers working in iron instead of marble or bronze because iron is a material at the very core of the planet. He also referred to his sculptures as fossils. ‘We are trying to leave some trace of human thinking and feeling in geologic time’.
On the right wall of Gallery 3 is My Clothes (1980/2020), a life-size, silhouette sculpture in clothing, including socks, underpants, and T-shirt. Whilst I did not find this sculpture especially inventive or humorous, one I did feel deserved pride of place is on the next wall to the right: Mother’s Pride V, (2019). This sculpture is made of sliced bread, arranged in a grid 23 slices high and 20 wide, into which has been chewed an image of the artist, falling head first in a tucked position to the ground. I can think of no better image of the precarious position of the (starving) artist in Western culture. (The importance of this sculpture was reinforced by the scent of fresh baked bread which had been impregnated into the press’s swag bags in the form of a golden handprint).
On the wall directly across from the clothes sculpture are some of Gormley’s drawings. I was very pleased to see that Gormley’s preparation drawings are on a grid, reinforcing the pattern of the Cartesian grid in Gallery 1. However, I felt that these drawings should have been included in a space between Gallery 1 and 2 along with his human silhouette sculpture Set IV (2018) composed of intersecting, perpendicular rods, which is not included in this exhibition. This would have brought Gormley’s gridding sculpture technique into sharper focus. It also would have connected Gormley’s cubist structures in Gallery 4 with his castings in Gallery 2. One last item of interest in Gallery 3 is a cloth with a golden, X-ray like of impression of Gormley’s torso and legs, Blanket Drawing V, (1983) another aspect of his casting technique, which reminded me of the Shroud of Turin. Gormley also commented on the works in Gallery 3 by saying ‘This is what contains us. We live in a serial world of mass production.’
Gallery 4 is dominated by a series of colossal, cubist, metallic, human sculptures (some almost as tall as the gallery’s ceiling) entitled Expansion Field 2, 7, 8, 22, 25, 28, 34, 40, 43, 52/60, which become increasingly taller and abstract. Here it is a pleasure to view Gormley’s experimentations with the dimensions of the human form in purely geometric relationships.
One of Gormley’s well-known sculptures also on exhibit is Passage, (2016) a 12-metre-long steel tunnel, open at only one end, constructed to the height and width of Gormley’s body—head, shoulders, waist, legs, and feet. With so many works related to the form and proportions of the human body, one may ask if Gormley is referring back to Protagoras of Abdera’s idea, adopted by Renaissance artists and writers, of ‘man as the measure of all things.’ However, isn’t this what got humankind into so much trouble already—the idea of a world created by God or gods with the Old Testament admonition to achieve dominion over all other species?
Other large sculptures in GROUND inside the museum include, Clearing VIII, which fills the space in a gallery with its atomic ringed structure which visitors are encouraged to walk through and explore. In my opinion, this sculpture seems to represent the world of the very small, the paths of sub-atomic particles which make up our structure and the structure of things, and which, on the micro-level, cast the shape of everything in the universe. However, this might be just my uninformed speculation. (Note: for wheelchairs users, there is an unobstructed path along the left wall which goes around this sculpture and leads to the next gallery).
Another, room-sized sculpture is Gormley’s day-glow maze, entitled Breathing Room III, which is illuminated by high-intensity lights for 30 seconds followed by minutes of darkness during which visitors can step through (but not on) the glowing frame bars of this matrix making them aware of the space their bodies occupy. Again, due to my wheelchair, I could only view this sculpture from the periphery. (However, unlike the atomic-like sculpture, there was no path around the outside of this one).
The last room-sized sculpture that we were shown on Gormley’s tour was the installation of 30,000 clay sculptures fashioned by South American indigenous peoples to Gormley’s specifications called American Field (1991). All the pieces are approximately a hand high with eyes and noses, but no mouths. This begs the question, however, why Gormley decided not to allow the sculptures to have mouths. By doing this, isn’t Gormley metaphorically engaged in silencing their protest against the destruction of the Amazon forests flora and fauna, their source of food and culture?
There are more sculptures outside in the museum’s grounds, including its dunes. There are five times the 12 casts of Gormley’s body in different positions: from folded up and foetal, to ones sitting, and ending with increasing upright figures, the last of which has its head up looking towards the sky. These sculptures are positioned in a line from right to left on the mansion’s lawn, or spread out individually over the museum’s grounds. One was extended stiffly over the mansion’s low, front brick wall. The series of twelve reminded me of the biological or anthropological charts of the evolution of life or of man which I first studied at school. As far as his technique is concerned, Gormley said during the tour, ‘You don’t look at them (the sculptures) to see how beautiful they are. There are all just registrations of the mould … (which) … takes about 52 seconds to fill. We are trying to leave some trace of human thinking in geological time. That translation of a moment of lived time. You could say that (this is) the history of making things, whether we look at a Dordogne or a Brancusi head.’
Gormley mused at the end of the tour: ‘Can we reposition art in terms of our survival, in terms of the history of life of the planet, in terms of our universe’s 13.4 billion years of stellar development, almost all of which the Hubble Telescope has revealed.’ He also wondered, ‘How can we recontextualize human consciousness and productivity within that story? (The) Materials represented are important, and grounding, grounding in a way with all that’, bringing his explanation back to the name of his exhibition. He also announced that in protest against Brexit, he planned to obtain a German passport.
There is no disputing that Mr Gormley is a very influential sculptor who makes artistic and social statements with his colossal sculptures on exhibit around the world. With cosmologically-named works such as Out of this World (1984), Time Horizon (2006), and Event Horizon (2007) (the last taken from the point in space where it is no longer possible to escape a black hole’s gravity), he definitely likes to think big. However, what will be the overall effect of his and other artists’ work and their lives have on human culture? Will it change the current world’s despots’ lust for more money, territory, and power, which now threatens to disrupt the West’s stated goal of saving the world from runaway climate change and thus prevent further planetary levels of dislocation and starvation? Or will Gormley’s iron, fossil-like sculptures be some of the few aspects of human culture left after mankind is exterminated or has gone underground and/or off planet in order to survive the coming planetary, human-induced, global climate change? Only time will tell. AQ