Antony Gormley at the Royal Academy
Written after the visit to the exhibition, London 25th February 2020.
“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 trascend 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, their 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.
Entering the exhibition fourteen piles of precisely cut solid steel blocks receive me, they held together using gravity, the friction between their surfaces and their own weight. Each pile accounts the minimum amount of pieces that our minds need to recognize them as human bodies. They occupy diverse locationspositions 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 until making appear a human figure 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 is 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 of assistants help him to produce the work, using the most advanced modeling and sculpting techniques.
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 centimeter square and they are very flimsy, to the point that when they hit each other they sound as if they were made of plastic. It’s real good fun to become a child again enjoying this adult playground.
I’m surrounded by grown up people overcoming obstacles with a smile on their faces trying reach the center of the room and making 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 displaying 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 penetrating the walls without hinting how it’s held. A rarity able to surprise anyone 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 singular 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, built as a mesh cage made of steel rods used in construction for reinforcing concrete. Again rough means to create a sophisticated spacial and perceptual experience.
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 loose its conventional meaning. Its differences erase 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, fearing of hitting my head against anything that might be there when a bigger space tenously lit from above opens up in front of me.
Exitting the cave, while the pupils readjust to the light levels again, the smell of sea invades the room which we have arrived. There are some people standing in front observing through the opening on the wall. I decide to go and join them when an entire room filled with sand and sea water unfolds, a perfect mirror that doubles the space and makes the floor dissapppear. A peaceful leaving gift to take whith me and return to the mundane routine days.