Anthony Gormley’s work is interesting for a number of reasons. Not least, is that the conceptual foundations of his practice are rooted in eastern spirituality. Second, his oeuvre is unashamedly centered on the human body. Both are remarkable in the contemporary art world, which often eschews religion in art and which can be quick to berate figurative work for being old fashioned.
The seeds of these two defining features of Gormley’s practice were first sown in the 1970s, when he famously almost became a Buddhist monk – to the point of studying Buddhist philosophy and meditation in India.
Speaking about this time in his life, Gormley explains his decision to pursue a career in art as follows: “In the late sixties and early seventies there were a lot of Westerners around, trying to wear alternative clothing and find a different cultural context, but I did not want to escape my own history. I was more interested in bringing something into the home mix. In the end, I felt that it was my responsibility to try to come back to Britain to fulfill some kind of creative role and maybe bring what insight I had arrived at in India back into that stream of development.”
Gormley returned to the UK from India to obtain his art education. However, since relocating to England, the years of intense meditation that he underwent in the east continue to inform his work to this day, both on a physical level (Gormley often has to contort himself into uncomfortable poses for hours while his body is being cast, during which he sometimes meditates to deal with the pain) and on a metaphorical level (by using his own body and experiences as a template from which to ask questions about what it means to be alive and conscious).
Gormley’s latest solo show at the White Cube (Hoxton), Still Standing, continues with this line of enquiry. In this exhibition, a series of unique block figures populates the gallery space. Each sculpture is built up from a series of small, iron rectangles. This gives them a three-dimensional pixellated quality, as if they have been constructed from large pieces of Lego. These strange forms simultaneously depart from the human anatomy whilst retaining its basic shape. For Gormley, the rectangles map the body’s internal volume, evoking a sense of balance and imbalance – since key blocks in their visible support system have been removed, and yet, the sculptures are still sturdy enough to remain standing.
Three of the poses in the installation represent a body at rest: standing still, lying down or curled up in a foetal position. The remaining works describe disturbed bodies in a state of tension, as if the body has been caught mid-movement in an involuntary spasm. The body-positions derive from poses done for the artist’s earlier series of work entitled ‘Ataxia’ (which began in 2007). Ataxia is a Greek word that implies a state of disequilibrium and is used in medical language to describe a state of dysfunction or a progressive loss of coordination of one’s body, attributed to severe dysfunction of the central nervous system. This sense of tension is confirmed by the works’ titles, which all describe a physical state of being: for instance, Clasp (2010), Clutch VIII (2010) or Stall (2011), actively pathetic they call upon the viewer’s empathy.
In this sense, the work on display repeats past material and is nothing new. The figures are beautifully finished and executed. Gormley’s detractors have complained in the past that he represents the “acceptable … face of contemporary art to an audience who aren’t happy with the rude stuff or the funny stuff, but would dearly like to like something.” However, criticisms aside, this exhibition continues to raise interesting questions about the nature of humankind, and man’s place in it, and we believe that the latest offering by this popular British sculptor is well worth a see.
Words: Carla Raffinetti, © Artlyst. Photo: © White Cube, 2012 **** 4 stars
Anthony Gormley – White Cube, 48 Hoxton Square, London, 13 July – 15 September 2012