The Relationship Between Thought and Matter: A Conversation with Antony Gormley

Critical Mass, 1995. Cast iron, life-size figures. View of installation.

Antony Gormley is one of Britain’s most important contemporary sculptors, and installations of his work have taken place all over the world. In the 1980s, he pioneered the concept of casting the body in a variety of poses to evoke universal ideas relating to the human condition—a subject that remains a major theme in his work today.

Gormley’s sculptures range from the diminutive to the monumental. In Field, 40,000 miniature terra-cotta figures face the viewer, and this myriad of watching eyes is a haunting and emotional experience. In contrast, Angel stands majestically near the A1 highway in Gateshead, North East England. Poised as though preparing for imminent flight, it is one of the largest human images made since ancient times.

This is a particularly significant time for Gormley. Planets, originally commissioned 15 years ago, has recently been unveiled at the British Library. Domain Field, an installation for Gateshead in May, will use body casts of 200 volunteers from the local community. Much of Gormley’s work fuses the primeval with the futuristic, and Inside Australia is an epic installation, in which 50 gaunt, blackened figures infiltrate an area of seven square kilometers like an alien invasion.

Planets, 2002. Rocks, dimensions variable. View of commission at the British Library.

Ina Cole: In the 1990s, you produced a number of iconic works, which have become imprinted in society’s consciousness. Angel of the North and Field, in particular, spring to mind. How do pieces such as these inform your future projects?

Antony Gormley: It’s great to make works that have a popular impact, but it’s not the only criterion. Of course all artists want to be loved, or certainly seen, but I don’t think just because something is seen by many people that it’s any better than something that’s seen by very few. I think what one’s looking for is the depth of the contact over time. What I learned with Angel, which is viewed by about 90,000 people every day repeatedly passing at speed, is that every time it’s seen it has to communicate something: it can’t be a one-shot job, a slow bleed is important. Field also works in that way. It has an immediate visual impact, but then you need to quietly spend time getting to know your own reactions to it, and your understanding of what you’re looking at changes over time. So, these two works are benchmarks, two different ideas about extendibility in time.

IC: A new work of yours, Planets, has recently been installed at the British Library. Central to this commission are ideas of geology and time. Can you expand on this?

AG: Planets is an evocation of the relationship between thought and matter. That might be what sculpture is about, an attempt to leave on the face of an indifferent universe some trace of human presence—a sign of thought and feeling. I think that a standing stone is a very early example of someone taking a naturally made object and putting it in a place where it becomes a marker in time and space, against which human life can be registered. I’ve taken that idea and made it more polemical. On the surface of eight ancient rocks (one of them is Cambrian, so it’s about a thousand million years old, the rest are probably Devonian, about 350 million years old), which have themselves been formed by the action of several ice ages, I have carved the trace of the touch of eight different people, one to each rock. Each work is a testimony to a moment of lived time in which a living body and an individual rock were brought together.

In Planets, the bodies conform to the shape of the rock, as in Michelangelo’s Slaves, rather than the other way around. That’s very important; these are traces of people hanging on for dear life. It’s an indication of the mind’s dependency on the body and the body’s dependency on the planet, and I think that has particular poignancy at the British Library, a depository of the fruits of human mental activity over millennia. Below these rocks lie shelf upon shelf of books—a sedimentation of the mind stacked like strata—and these rocks remind readers of our vulnerability and dependency on the physical world. There is a sense of time present contained in time future, time past contained in time present, that Elliott syllogism that sculpture can peculiarly engage people in.

Sculpture is silent, still, and in its best examples it uses that quality to great effect in a world where everything is mobile. I think we need sculpture more now than at any other time, simply because it is a still moment in a moving world that asks the question, “What are you doing here?” You might also ask that question of the sculpture, but a good sculpture will always return the question to the viewer. The extraordinary thing about sculpture is the way it can communicate over vast periods of time, and I think art has always been an attempt to make a bridge with what lies beyond the horizon of perception.

Stone has always been such an important material for sculpture because we sense it comes from a time before mind. Now that we know the universe was created about five billion years ago, these rocks become messengers from a time before life. The challenge for sculpture is: How do you mark this material, which embodies the indifference of a universe to organic life that came so late upon it? Some of the most moving sculpture or art I know is not consciously art at all: the footprint on the floor of Peche Merle in the Dordogne—a 30,000-year-old petrified footprint of a young boy in the mud floor of a cave—or in the same cave, the outlines of hands where ochre has been blown around them, left like a sign across time.

Learning to See I, 1991. Lead, fiberglass, plaster, and air, 218 x 69 x 51.

IC: You are creating an installation for the newly opened Baltic in Gateshead. Domain Field will feature the casts of 200 people from the local community. You have been using your own body as a template since the 1980s, but how did you go about finding volunteers for Domain Field?

AG: Here I want to shift from bearing witness to individual identity to an engagement with the idea of the collective body. Field did it in terms of unformed, surrogate bodies—the virtual body as a potential, evoking speciesification prior to the development of humankind. Recently I’ve wanted to make works that deal with the local, the village, and the second project I made after the European Field in Malmö called Allotment deals very much with this. It’s a collection of Modernist bunkers that enclose the exact dimensions of 300 living people from the city of Malmö. These bunkers are then used to make a virtual city in 15 blocks of around 20 rooms each, with two avenues and four cross streets. Here we used the media to ask for volunteers from between the ages of two and 95 to come forward and be measured.

At the Baltic, I’m going to show Allotment in relation to this new work Domain Field, which is an attempt to do what Field did, engage with the local community to make an evocation of the collective body. This time, it will be made out of the direct body molds of 200 living Gateshead people, of a similar age range as Allotment. A domain is a random matrix of stainless steel bars, which are welded together to describe the space of the body, turning its mass into an energy field. It evokes the body through a structural principal that is neither architecture nor anatomy; it’s more like the random matrices one might find in stochastic systems. When you come into the room you’re not aware of individual forms, only that the whole room is filled with a mist of trajectories. Then, once you walk around them you recognize the individuality of each work—the yearning energy and vulnerability of a child, the composed compression of an older person. I suppose in all these projects what one’s trying to do is make the everyday strange, so you see it again in a new way.

Critical Mass, 1995. Cast iron, life-size figures. View of installation.

IC: You are one of seven children, so being surrounded by a community of people must be something you are used to. Yet you have said that as a child you had an overriding anxiety as to whether you belonged in the world at all. This is interesting in relation to the way you often position figures in your installations, since they seem quite alienated from each other. Do you view society as a collective force or is the reverse more appropriate in relation to your work?

AG: I’m intrigued by the twin facts of individuation—that we are all born with unique characteristics, but evolve through time and experience. We have a physical, genetic, intellectual, and emotional imprint that is all encoded, yet the individual is really only defined in relationship with others. My interest is in how these two models interact, because the shape the individual takes cannot be disentangled from his or her place within a collective, however mobile and interchangeable that collective may be. I think it’s interesting being the last child in a large family because the possible spaces seem very limited. I was brought up in Hampstead Garden Suburb—a materialized ideal, a green nowhere, where everyone had their own perfect homes, surrounded by a perfect garden in a street with perfect privet hedges, and people were civilized and wealthy. My family was more of the same; it was the ’50s, the birth of the Nuclear Family. It was a well-organized organism, and to an extent I felt alienated by the way in which everything had been decided. There was not a great deal of room for originality. On one level I regret this, and on another level I think it was marvelous. It pushed me toward inventiveness, fantasy, and an attempt to try and do something that lay outside the expectations of this determined world. Having said that, I think my work continues to battle with these very issues about the social need for convention. I think we’re at a point of crisis in terms of Western civilization, where it’s very clear that in the exercising of the democratic ideal of individual liberty we are involved in a loss of community. I’m not saying this crisis is something art can necessarily heal, but it’s certainly something art reflects—this tension between individual freedom and collective restraint. All my recent projects have tried to make an analogue for the collective body; ever since Field this has seemed the most important task.

Allotment II, 1996. Reinforced concrete, life-size units.

IC: Encasing your body with plaster has to involve an incredible amount of patience, both for you and your assistants. During the casting process you must have a heightened awareness of your physical state, the organic nature of who you are. Is being incarcerated in plaster a kind of temporary death, from which you are constantly reborn, a quest for immortality perhaps?

AG: Yes, obviously this is a passage every time I’m encased in plaster, every time I’m molded. It’s a voluntary journey into the underworld and a rebirth, which has become ritualized and integrated into my way of living, a testament to a human life. It obviously means more to me if the work starts from a lived moment in real time and space and uses my own physical existence as a tool, subject, and material. The process of casting is not prolonged, but it is an hour taken out of the continuum of existence. I use my own body not because it’s me particularly, but simply because it’s an example of a common human condition of embodiment.

I’m interested in the mind and body problem. In other words, that the body is finite, organic, and only capable of being in one place at one time, while the mind is capable of seemingly infinite extension into realms of imagination, which are not strictly speaking anything to do with the body. Yet the body is the place that we live; it’s the material we have to deal with. Recently I’ve made a lot of work that deals with these issues of self and community of body and mind. From a very early age I used to sit in the car or in trains and look out onto a ’50s smog-filled London, look into lighted windows at dusk and think, “that could be my home, that could be my life,” and I think I’ve transferred that to my sculpture. I realize that my life and my body are one possible location for human identity, and I like the idea that the sculptures are not representations of a particular person, but a potential place where life might rest. In a sense, they are all invitations for empathic inhabitation, from Learning to See to Quantum Cloud. By inhabiting the space of sculpture, you can in some way escape from your own condition into another’s; through the works, viewers can experience feelings and thoughts they wouldn’t otherwise have felt.

Field for the British Isles, 1993. Clay, dimensions variable.

IC: People are clearly moved by your work. It has the power to evoke a host of different feelings, depending on the individual’s own state of mind and life experience. Are people’s reactions important to you and is this something you take into account when positioning figures for maximum impact?

AG: Sculpture for me is the most powerful way of transmitting and bringing out feeling in people. I think we haven’t managed to evolve out of the need for transitional objects, which some people might call fetishes or totems, that in some way work as objectifications of our deepest fears or most potent desires, and sculpture can act as a catalyst for those feelings. There is no obvious place for sculpture to exist. One of the great attributes of sculpture is that it lives in the same space as we live, and what you have to do is somehow introduce the sculpture into that location in a way that is meaningful. By being a foreign body in space, something that is there on different material and structural terms to you, sculpture makes you more aware of your somatic experience, your own passage through space.

IC: Can you tell me more about your vast project for Western Australia?

AG: Inside Australia is an attempt to make an interior, as in the interior of a person. I agreed to do this project because Western Australia has some of the oldest rocks on the face of the planet. These Archean rocks are between 2.5 and 2.9 billion years old, so much closer than the stones of Planets to the Big Bang. In these rocks are to be found an enormous wealth of mineral deposits—uranium, iron, copper, and stranger, more recently arrived elements on the elemental table—iridium, vanadium, molybdenum, and titanium. I wanted to make a new alloy based on high-grade stainless steel 316 that includes as many of these new elements as possible, a kind of concentration of the elemental memory in these very old rocks.

The idea, then, was to use this material in the sodium landscape of an outback area, a salt lake, Lake Ballard, which is 70 kilometers long and 30 kilometers wide. Into it we’ve placed 50 sculptures called Insiders. Now, an insider is a residue, a kind of concentration of the body. We lost 66 percent of the mass and retained one third of the body volume, but only in one axis, so these stick figures are the same height as the original person, but vastly reduced laterally. The idea was to place the figures about 400 meters apart on this extremely white, optically acute, chemical landscape in the middle of the Australian summer, when heat shimmer is extraordinary, with the idea of dealing with issues about individual and community, the relationship of identity to the place, and the idea of who I am and how that’s constituted by others.

I wanted it to be a very physical experience; if we had succeeded in making all 100 figures you’d have had to walk about 42 kilometers to see the whole work. The idea of the piece is to provide a human measure for this geological landscape that allows viewers to walk out and sense their own bodies in space and time in a way they wouldn’t normally. The site is fantastic. At the west end there’s a raised mound about 40 meters high, from the top of which you can see most of the work, which covers an area of seven square kilometers. We would like people to go for 12 if not 24 hours, so they experience at least one sunset and one sunrise. The works are carbonized, so they are black stick figures that evoke, as in Field, the spirit of the ancestors, but also something futuristic, so that we are again put into the position of being strangers in a strange land, inhabited by evocations of existing human beings, so that we reconsider our own position.

View of 5 Insiders from Inside Australia.

IC: You have undertaken projects in Australia before. Is this one a permanent installation or situated only for a limited period of time?

AG: The future of this work is very uncertain. We surveyed a vast area of Western Australia before coming to the decision to use Lake Ballard as a site, and it would be a shame not to leave it there. However, there are all sorts of challenges to overcome. Who owns the land is a big question: the Aboriginal land claims underline the way this land was imaginatively inhabited, and this has now been destroyed by mining and pastoralism. These are the sensitive issues that the work reacts to and with.

IC: Do you feel you have achieved your magnum opus, possibly with the installation for Australia, or is there another project, unrealized as yet, which will exceed everything you have created so far?

AG: I don’t know whether I believe in a magnum opus. Art is organic, unpredictable. A very small object can have a massive effect, completely changing people’s perception about what is possible in art. Wait and see.

Inside Australia, 2002–03. 50 steel life-size figures, view of installation at Lake Ballard, Australia.

IC: You often speak of the space within the body in relation to your work. I assume you mean this psychologically as well as physically; yet most people do not feel that comfortable with their internal space. Do you think that apart from our physical state there are different levels of existence, or do you think we are purely organic matter, existing for a limited period of time, after which there is oblivion?

AG: It’s difficult to know anything about what lies on the other side of death. It’s another threshold we know very little about. Rather like the horizon, it’s one of those things we dream about, what lies outside this stratosphere, and I don’t want to predict. I feel the same sense of potential about what lies on the other side of life as about what lies inside the body. I think darkness is often seen as a denial. It isn’t. It’s a zone of potential. People see death as the end of everything, but it could well be a beginning. It’s an acknowledgment of the necessary relations between night and day.

Most of the vibrant cultures of our time have managed to accommodate the notion of death within their notion of living. We live in a culture where death is the big no-no, the big trauma. The cult of youth and the cult of bodily beauty in some desperate way try to ignore the inevitability of death, whereas if you look at the great cultures of Meso-America, Chan, Tibetan Buddhism, or the Egyptian Book of the Dead, there’s no sense in which death was not acknowledged and celebrated in life. All of them in different ways have imaginative projections about continuity or the relationship between the living and the dead.

IC: We are living in a time of scientific advance and information overload, but the divide between excess and deprivation seems to be a widening chasm. Society is obsessed with the body, of not wanting to age and ultimately escaping mortality, yet people have never been more confused and dissatisfied. How hopeful are you for society’s future?

AG: We’re living in the Kaliyuga, the era of Kali, goddess of night, sex, and death according to the Hindus, and I think that just about fits. There is confusion, fear, but also an acknowledgment that in some way transformation is necessary. We don’t know what the next state of human consciousness and human physical existence will be. It could be wipe-out; it could be total transformation. I like the idea that we have now globalized the world with the mind; the Internet is the physical manifestation of that. This is the noosphere, the encirclement of the globe by intelligence carried by the human organism. What that does in terms of the biosphere is not clear. It is evident that we need to totally transform our physical needs in order to achieve sustainability. We have a finite world with finite resources and the “there’s-more-where-that-came-from” mentality will not persist without us becoming the agents of our own destruction. Transformation is absolutely necessary, and I believe that art is a zone in which we can imagine the necessary transformation.

Ina Cole is based in St Ives, Cornwall, England.