Work exhibited: Sculpture in the Close.
Antony Gormley’s new work in the grounds of the College deploys 19 figures in arrangements that recall the Event Horizon installations in London and Rotterdam.
The posture chosen for these identical figures is close to that of the sculptures in the Learning to See series (1993-1996), one example of which can be seen in the Quincentenary Library. The kouros like rigidity of the earlier work has been relaxed slightly, but still invites comparison with the stylized restraint of ancient Egyptian and archaic Greek statues.
Both cultures are nominated by Wilhelm Worringer in his Abstraction and Empathy for the retraction of subjective experience in their art, for their avoidance of individualising characteristics. They represent a tendency towards abstraction in those traditions of thought which reject the attraction towards empathy, towards a romanticising identification with the primacy of the individual.
In ancient art, this is part of the subordination of the human to the divine, while in Gormley’s art, the de-emphasising of the realm of the subjective is not driven primarily by an acknowledgement of the sacred, despite his interest in meditation, breathing techniques, and heightened states of consciousness.
The disciplined formality that marks much of his figurative work is part of its orientation towards the anthropological dimension of human experience; paradoxically, his extensive use of casts of his own body does not concentrate attention on features that are unique but on those that are typical.
Any suggestion of portraiture is eradicated in the process of making generic statements about shared conditions. The unrepeatable nature of individual experience is displaced by the proliferation of casts of the same body, and by replications of the same pose in serial works.
In the current installation, the hieratic pose of the earlier work has been eased by planting the feet slightly apart and lifting the arms a short distance from the sides of the body, as if in the first moment of shifting into the attitude of the so called Vitruvian body. Vitruvius’s treatise on the classical orders of architecture is the only surviving work of architectural theory from antiquity and is therefore the earliest possible source for conceptions of the body that relate its structure to geometrical forms.
The tradition that descends from Vitruvius through Alberti and Leonardo da Vinci — whose sketch of the human body contained within the forms of square and circle is perhaps the most widely disseminated of all images of humanity — has established the power over our imaginations of representations of the body that emphasise the desirability of conforming to standard.
The geometrical aspirations of the classical tradition in sculpture have been secured by depictions of the body that illustrate the mathematical ratios governing its equilibrium, its assimilation to the fundamental imperatives of balance and symmetry. But Gormley’s installations of groups of regular figures, both within and beyond the gallery space, have composed a spectrum of irregularities by disturbing the proportions of architectural space, often through supplementation, through the displacement of individual figures onto the roofs and walls of the building nominally the site of the installation.
In the Event Horizon installations, the movement of the viewer through the built environment becomes a passage through irregularity, as sculptural figures emerge into view or disappear, creating an infinite variety of forms of imbalance. Within these contexts, the repetition of the human form is not experienced as the duplication of stereotypes but as a phantasmal doubling, as individual figures advance and recede; uncanny presences and absences, embodied shadows, hesitations between identity and difference.
In the Event Horizon installation that took place around the Hayward Gallery in London, the field that was occupied by both viewer and sculptures was extended beyond the gallery into the surrounding urban environment. The relative equilibrium in the mutual positioning of viewer and work inside the gallery was exchanged for the protean uncertainties of immersion in the city, with its patterns and rhythms of circulation.
Sustained contemplation within the gallery increases the viewer’s confidence in being able to take the measure of the work, while the unpredictable disclosures of separate elements in Event Horizon — the viewer is repeatedly taken by surprise over the timing of these ‘events’ — has the reverse effect: the living relationship with the sculpture seems to consolidate its advantage over spectators, and not vice versa. Recourse to eidetic memory in order to build up a picture of the total installation can foster the suspicion that the key to the work lies beyond perceptual reach.
We might think of the spaces of Jesus College as being apart from the urban environment that surrounds them, and yet our body-consciousness has to negotiate the passage between forms of composure and discomposure on a daily basis. Gormley’s series of figures, encountered in sequence in separate areas, creates a narrative of variables that requires its viewers to engage dialectically with their shifting sense patterns — with their own body-consciousness — and to tackle in the form of a constant improvisation, and in the space of a kind of architectural laboratory, a model of that unsettling process in which our bodies, if not always our minds, are always already caught up.