(and what it means to us)
by Ranjan Kaul
In Part One of the article I’d detailed how Sir Antony Gormley has consciously striven to engage viewers with his sculptures and installation projects. By doing so he has stimultated and provoked their thinking and perceptions through the experience of art. In each of the artworks I described the viewer was positioned on common ground, at the centre to view the installation, or with the art object placed on the floor. In this way he invites the viewer to enter into a silent dialogue with their own emotions, sensitivities and sensibilities. In the second part I feature a few more of his works where the intensity of experience and participation of the viewer with his art are even more heightened.
Another Place is located at Crosby beach in Merseyside, England (Fig. 1). Using 17 casts of his own naked body in solid iron, he planted 100 figures facing the sea, on nine-foot-long tubes, since the seabed had quicksand. They were all positioned to look westward across the Atlantic, all facing 9 degrees north due west spread across a 3.2 km stretch of the beach. These were designed to last for six months, but about half had proper foundations so they have remained standing, while four have been buried in the seabed; the remaining have slowly corroded and disintegrated owing to exposure to the elements.
Fig. 1: Another Place, 1997
Fig. 2: Another Place, 1997 (at high tide)
As the tide ebbs and flows, the figures are partially revealed or submerged (see Fig. 2) – only five remain visible at high tide, the farthest out about 11 m under the surface. Gormley chose Crosby for its history of the Liverpool docks because this where slave trade to America and the Carribean as also emigration of Jews in the 19th century took place. In his talk he also referred to Mayflower, the ship that set sail from Plymouth in 1620 with more than 100 passengers, all hoping to start a new life in North America. He stressed the degree to which art has been served by its patrons and how sculpture cannot any longer be a stereotype of the beautiful maiden or powerful man. This has indeed obfuscated the issue of art’s fundamental nature of being a conversation with time, place and life itself.
According to the artist, the work deals with the larger idea that “we have our own limits, our bounding condition, our skin and clothes, we live in rooms, which aggregate into towns and cities but our final boundary is the horizon, the perceptual limit, the skin of our sensorial”.
Humans have always imagined what lies on the other side. The work deals with time and history as we saw in Part One in “Learning to Think” and “Critical Mass”. But it is also about going back to nature and about appearance and disappearance. He mentioned how the work reflects our limitations of biological mortality and that he wants all his works to be a “medium for mindfulness of the position of all these scales of time, space and infinity”. What I particularly like about the work is that he has brought art out in the open, interacting with the elements and for the public at large to view, experience and cogitate upon.
Fig. 3: Blind Light, 2007
Figures 3 and 4 show a work titled Blind Light which was part of a project commissioned by Hayward Gallery, London. To create this artificial cloud mist of water vapour as seen in the figure, the artist used the technology of ultrasonic humidification. Gormley explained that he literally converted the building (11 m x 9.5 m x 3.25 m height) using 200 lacs of light luminosity into an invisible space. The doors were always kept open as viewers moved in and out. The building has a unique respiratory system of ducts which helped to drain out the eleven litres of water the precipitating cloud produced daily. Beyond the permanent threshold there was a temperature drop of three degrees. If you held out your hand you’d be aware of it but wouldn’t be able to see it, so misty was the artificial cloud. People become apparent only when they were about nine inches away. The project evoked mixed emotions, he said, which were amplified – anxiety, surprise, strangeness, a feeling of being lost and isolated not knowing where they were going, but also, Gormley added, “a sense of euphoria” and of “being relieved of the burden of self-consciousness”, especially in the era of digital visibility. At the same time, there was an audible environment that was created – the squelchy sounds of feet because of the moisture on the ground and the audible reactions of laughter or fear or other emotions. The viewer becomes an image for those on the outside.
For Gormley, the objective of this art project was to make the collective body, the universal mind more experiential and which engages the entire pyscho-physical complex of being. Living in the times we do of body reinforcement underscored by the fashion and cosmetic industry and our obsession with how we look, to enter a space such as this could be both frightening and liberating.
Fig. 4: Blind Light
The last project I feature here is called Breathing Room (Figs 5 and 6), which also uses light to create an immersive experience. For this project the artist created a framed light structure made of square section aluminium painted with photo luminescent paint. He explained that to create any one of the structures he took 60 per cent of a given volume and stretched the delineated three-dimensional volumetric drawing using the single-point perspective. About a dozen identical volumes were folded one on top of the other in each case with their axes pulled to different extensions. It thus became a perspectival frame but a baffling one because, as he explained, the single-point perspective is itself used to destroy the perspective.
Fig.5: Breathing Room, 2006-12
Viewers were free to move about and negotiate their way inside this meditative space as it were in the the luminosity of the structure. But then suddenly when blinding lights were turned on – 3800 lux of light that came on for 40 seconds every 10 minutes – the “meditative” transformed into the “interrogative”. From being immersed in semi-darkness for 10 minutes where one’s pupils are enlarged, the “violent assault of light” can be frightening. As you find yourself in a “stasis kind of interrogation, you look at your flesh and see the blue veins under the skin . . . in some ways it is a cruel work,” Gormley said. Thus through the work viewers experience both time and space in changing conditions of light. But apparently instead of people becoming terrified and upset they stayed on, along the walls, watching others who came in. And it became a long negotiation between a passive viewer and an active viewer – the idea that viewers become the viewed for other viewers. Here again, what is noticeable is the recurring theme of presence and absence that we saw in “Learning to Think”.
Fig.6: Breathing Room, 2006-12
The works of Gormley described above and the insights he gave in his talk exemplify how contemporary art has become increasingly immersive, discursive and a space for reflection. While in some of the works discussed earlier he used his own body to try to change the perception of viewers, in the above two works he uses technology to investigate new ways of looking at the world and enabling viewers to experience art. Through his works and locating them in historicity, he raises fundamental existential questions about human nature and human identity.
As amply demonstrated by the artist, one of the significant trends of contemporary art is its ingress into public spaces. While the modernist era saw massive experimentation, art till the sixties and seventies was mostly displayed within the confines of galleries and museums. Gormley has consciously moved his art out from these traditional spaces into venues that have historical associations as we saw in the case of “Critical Mass” and “Learning to Think” (described in Part One) and breached the limitations of the white cube. During his talk he also mentioned another version of “Another Place” installed at Central Manhattan where four of the figures were placed on the ground (see Fig. 7) and another 27 of them on the skyline on top of buildings.
Fig. 7: On Common Ground at Central Manhattan
Explorations of taking art to the streets and public spaces are not alien to India. Perhaps, among the first initiatives to use public spaces was the Kala Ghoda Art Festival started in the early 2000s in South Mumbai. Later, the Sassoon Dock Art Project in collaboration with Mumbai Art Project brought thousands of visitors to view art to the Mumbai dock area. Kolkata has been holding an art festival regularly for the past few years by taking over a lane in Hindustan Park; similarly, Raghubir Nagar slum in Delhi saw a makeover by involving the community with street art. But nothing compares with the scale and size of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale which has now become the largest contemporary art festival in Asia since its inception in 2012. Starting with the choice of venue with its rich multi-cultural heritage and multi-colonial history itself and its use of over a dozen colonial buildings to display art, the biennale has successfully engaged with the community. Visiting the Biennale, as I was fortunate to do, is an amazing experience; besides displaying contemporary art, the biennale also holds talks, seminars and seminar and art film shows and engages with artists across disciplines as well as art students. Held every two years, the festival has not only transformed the town of Kochi into becoming a culturally aware community with an openness to appreciate contemporary art, it has also led to a major spike in cultural tourism.
In the last decade we have also been witness to performance art on the streets, poster art, public art mural and protest art events such as that organized by the Artist Unite collective in March 2019 to counter what they called the “cultural assault” of the establishment. There of course has also been street art in abundance, but what has interested me more is not the puerile and “beautifying” art that we see on metro stations, but anti-establishment graffiti art done stealthily in the dead of the night like the one I came across recently by someone who uses the tag “Popa”. However, such initiatives have been few and far between.
There’s huge potential in the country for creating art in the commons and allow art to do what it can do for us, as Gormley’s work is testimony to. It is time that an increasing number of artists rise above commercial considerations and create meaningful art that finds common ground and resonance with the viewing public. Then alone can we correct the perceptions of contemporary art as being something esoteric and the exclusive preserve of the elite.
(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.