Photo: Courtesy Thames & Hudson

The Hinge Between Time and Space

Antony Gormley and Martin Gayford, Shaping the World: Sculpture from Prehistory to Now (Thames & Hudson, $60)

The full title of this weighty book might lead readers to expect something like a conventional history lesson, a chronological approach to sculpture’s development across time and civilizations. In fact, what sculptor Antony Gormley and English art critic Martin Gayford have written is far more idiosyncratic and intriguing. Presented as an edited transcript of conversations held over an 18-year period, it begins with Gormley remembering when, as a child visiting the British Museum, he first saw the colossal granite head of Ramses II and the Assyrian winged lions (865 BCE); it concludes nearly 400 pages later with references to Modernism, Cildo Meireles, and Adrián Villar Rojas. In between, we go far back in time to ancient earth mounds, standing stones, and prehistoric “Venus” figures and as near to the present as Kara Walker’s Fons Americanus (2019) and the toppling of statues during 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests

Time and its passing is an ever-present motif. As Gormley puts it: “For me, sculpture is an attempt to stop time. We are immersed in space, but also in time. And time itself shapes sculpture. Sculpture, in its stillness, can somehow provide a hinge between the two.” The book itself embodies this notion with its fluid, roving approach in which the exploration of materiality and meaning takes precedence over timelines and art movements. The 18 chapters are themed around areas of enquiry, their titles signposting the focus of the conversation: “Bodies in Space,” “Time and Mortality,” “Industry and Heavy Metal,” “The Age of Bronze,” “Drapery and Anatomy.” Time-traveling leaps between what at first might seem to be unconnected works are frequent and thrilling.

Take, for example, an exchange between the authors in chapter 5, “Light and Darkness.” Across five pages, the discussion moves at pace from Bernini’s Ecstasy of St Teresa (1647–52) to Sir John Soane’s mausoleum at Dulwich Picture Gallery, London (1811), to Bruce Nauman’s Yellow Room (Triangular) (1973), to Olafur Eliasson’s 2003 Tate Modern installation, The weather project. The connecting link, put in the simplest terms, is the color yellow, but that belies the richness of this short segment, which explores not only the form, but also the experience and emotions evoked by these works. 

Each chapter is filled with exquisite photography to pore over—Shaping the World features more than 300 images, many of them full-page, including Dan Flavin’s color-soaked Chiesa Rossa installation in Milan (1997) and a darkly fascinating 500,000 BCE axe flint. And while the book’s breadth of coverage may sound impossibly daunting with its jumps from contemporary to modern to ancient to prehistory, the conversational format does a good job of lightening what could otherwise have been too heavy a load. 

What the book captures brilliantly is the looming, powerful presence of sculpture—its impact and importance as a way to navigate both physical and mental space. As the title suggests, sculpture is presented as a force that can influence and shape our world, an essential and vital part of the structures and rituals of human civilization. With its combination of sober research and unrestrained enthusiasm, Shaping the World is an illuminating and hugely enjoyable read.