(and what it means to us)
by Ranjan Kaul
The Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA) presented an illuminating webinar talk on 17 December 2020 by artist and sculptor Sir Antony Gormley titled “What art can do for us” and in conversation with Roobina Karode, Director and Chief Curator, KNMA.* It is heartening that KNMA has continued to do exemplary work to enhance appreciation and understanding of the visual arts even during the pandemic. The institution recently announced that they have once again opened their doors to the public with due restrictions.
Intrigued by KNMA's description of the award-winning artist, I attended a major part of his virtual talk and also later watched the two-and-a-half hour-long video recording that is now available on KNMA's YouTube channel. It is not often that artists speak about their works in such detail; I was so fascinated by the talk that I thought I must share some details of a selection of his works which impacted me immensely.*
Widely acclaimed for his sculptures and installation projects that explore the relationship of the human body to space and time, Gormley has been a major influencer of the path contemporary art has taken since the 1970s. A recipient of the Turner Prize in 1994, his work has opened up the potential of sculpture through a critical engagement with the body in a way that confronts fundamental questions of where humans stand in relation to nature and the cosmos. He has continually tried to identify art as a space in which new behaviours, thoughts and feelings can arise.
In my earlier three-part essay on contemporary art I’d described how the visual arts have increasingly become more concept-based, immersive and experiential, and Gormley’s art most acutely exemplifies this. In his talk he said that he likes to continually reflect on what art is and what it means to us. Interestingly, he spent some time in India as a young and sensitive 21-year-old. A sight that moved him deeply was people lying huddled in collective spaces such as the Howrah railway station and on the streets. The images stayed with him and on returning to England he created Sleeping Place (Fig. 1).
Fig. 1: Sleeping Place, 1974
To create this work, Gormley explained, he had a friend lie down in the umbilical pose and covered him with a hospital sheet dipped in plaster, which was then allowed to harden. This is the very process that he adopted in many of his later works, but using his own naked body. Here, the body and the clothing have become a single object, a huddled, protective shield, as it were. It is a powerful image of what the artist described as portraying both human vulnerability and also tenderness. It is curious that the image should have impacted someone on a short visit from England; perhaps those of us who live in the country have become insensitive and inured to such sights, perhaps because we we them every day.
The umbilical image seems to have stayed with Gormley. For his work Critical Mass done two decades later (see Fig. 2), he uses a similar foetal pose. To create it he made five casts each of twelve basic body postures – from the “foetal pose doing the shoulder stand” (second figure from the left) to kneeling and standing, to facing the sky to facing the ground. When the foetal sculpture on the left is upturned it becomes a crouching figure (as can seen towards the right). Except a few, most of these body forms were literally tumbled out from the back of a truck.
Fig. 2: Critical Mass, 1995
These were cast using the artist’s own body from the outside of a plaster mould and all the imperfections of the mould surface reproduced on the finished work, “declaring their industrial birth”, as the artist maintained (see Fig. 3 for understanding the process).
The installation was made in direct response to a specific building, the Remise, an old tram storage station in Vienna, which is 200 metres long and 30 metres wide. The embedded tram tracks deported Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz, the venue where the most lethal Nazi holocaust took place. Gormley insisted in his talk that he didn’t wish that the work to be seen as a narrative or a clear proposition. Rather, he’d like the viewer to act as “a reconciler of the material forensic evidence of the 20th century” and make his or her own subjective emotional associations.
Gormley pointed out that the random positioning of the body forms could evoke different emotions – from mourning and loss to when the figure is reversed where it assumes an acrobatic pose. The work raises fundamental questions about human nature and human identity.
To create works such as this in solid iron he used the process as shown in Fig. 3. He needed to stay completely still in the desired pose for about a couple of hours till the wet plaster was moulded around him and allowed to harden. it is all about giving up all agencies and being still, he clarified, and becoming an object around which people move; in this way he is able to convey the activities of his own mind and the emotions rather than those of someone else.
Fig.3: Work in progress
Fig. 4: Natural Selection, 1981
Another interesting conceptual work is Natural Selection that comprises 24 objects encased in lead, a dozen natural and the other twelve human inventions, including fruits and vegetables and tools, such as a pea and a chisel, and all arranged in ascending sizes with the manufactured objects alternating with those of natural origin.
The artist pointed out to the diverse associations that the identical shaped goose egg and grenade (11th and 12th objects in the work) could throw up. A few have obvious morphological associations, such as the banana with the vibrator. While there is the obvious connection with Darwin’s theory of evolution, there is also the underlying dialectics and irony at play here. The artist explained that he has always insisted that all his works are displayed on the floor rather than on a pedestal so that the artwork and the viewer can share a common ground for inspection, navigation and reflection.
Fig.4: Drawn (2000)
“How do we recognize that the body itself can be a catalyst for experience?” is a question that another conceptual work titled Drawn seeks to answer. Here Gormley chose eight identical body forms (cast from his own body) pushed into the eight corners of the white cube environment (see Fig.4 which shows one side of the enclosure; another set of four similar forms were placed on the corners at the opposite end). We are the only animal, he said, that chooses to live within a nest, within an intimate environment constructed on Euclidian principles. The work questions the relativity of spatial relations and our assumptions about flatness, straightness, orientation. Put in the centre of the room, the viewer is compelled to become aware of the relation to the ever-changing orientation and indeed mobility of our planet, the expanding cosmos, the material world that surrounds us and its implicit energy.
The work is both discomfiting and disorienting. “We can feel the agony, the arms and shoulder blades pushing against the corners, the muscular tension” in the way these unnatural forms are positioned. Roobina Karode spoke about getting the feeling of being bracketed and the relationship between body, space and architecture that the work denotes. To me, the figures placed in the corners also portray the yearning to push the boundaries, not only of humans but art itself and move out from the confines of the white cube, as we see in Learning to Think (Fig. 5).
Fig. 5: Learning to Think, 1991
As in the case of “Critical Mass” the choice of the site itself conveys a lot. The installation was in the first floor of the City Jail of Charleston, the site of the American War of Independence. It was the core slavery plantation location where hanging and lynching of slaves was common in the 18th and 19th centuries. Gormley mentioned that he thought the site was resonant for a work such as this, which was made specific to the location. His only condition was that the authorities allow him to remove the glass from the windows and for a reason: with the glass removed the “viewer is aware of the tropical atmosphere outside, the chirping of birds, the sunlight streaming into the room”.
He used five replicas of his own body form to create this unsettling work. At the same time, the artist confessed to having shades of the redemptive in him, being a Roman Catholic. Given that the ground is the base of common experience, he said, where art and life should rest as it were, here the viewer is placed in the common visible ground. But, importantly, besides the physical experience, he wanted the work take the viewer to a zone beyond the visible – “the area of the imagination” or where viewer can make mental connections.
You enter and share the space with the “present absences” which are seemingly connected to the inaccessible space outside. He described how the figures are calmly accepting of their fate, looking out, even though they are in a prison. The viewer is suddenly confronted with the horror of hanging as he sees feet at his or her own eye level. It is at once a site of both “presence and absence, bits of night inserted into the day”. The work becomes a catalyst to evoke our own feelings and to understand human suffering. Justifying the depiction of five identical body forms, the artist mentioned that in our times of mechanical reproduction there is need for art to “break the erratic”. For him, artworks can no longer be unique individual objects that have a massive heroic aura, to act as a "surrogate for a nymph in the glade" or a "proud trophy in the living room".
As I reflect on the work I’m reminded of the barbaric lynchings that have continued unabated in India down the ages. I wonder why artists do not revisit our historical sites that were witness to barbaric inhumanity to derive inspiration, such the Jallianwallah Bagh or the sands of Sabarmati Ashram or Champaran or even the town of Hathras in Uttar Pradesh where a woman was recently brutally raped and murdered. Looking back in time could serve as a grim reminder of the dark and demonic side of human nature. This is what art can do for us, if we were to follow Gormley. There were several more works that the artist described in his talk and I’d be doing injustice to his work if I do not share at least a few more of his other path-breaking works. But those I’ll keep for the second part of this article which is scheduled to be posted tomorrow, Saturday, 9 January. So, do watch out for that!
(All images are courtesy of KNMA and the artist’s website.)
*While this article primarily draws upon Antony Gormley’s webinar talk and his explanations and descriptions of his works, it includes some of my own reflections as well.
Also read the three-part essay by Ranjan Kaul,
Ranjan Kaul is an artist, art writer, author and Founding Partner of artamour.