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  Antony Gormley in conversation with Will Self
Purcell Room, South Bank Centre, 24 July 2007

Aidan Campbell
posted 1 August 2007

Antony Gormley, acclaimed as Britain’s most famous living sculptor, is an unfashionable Modernist obliged to work within the precautious realm that is contemporary culture. From his terracotta ‘Field’ figurines to iron men made by plaster-casting himself, the Turner Prize-winning OBE (aged 56) has left an indelible mark on the British art scene. His companion conversationalist for the evening on the South Bank was the irascible rascal Will Self (46), author, journalist, and an old chum of the Great Artist. Self used the occasion to play a lowly but impudent harlequin to his mate, the stoical emissary from the land of High Culture.

The dialogue kicked off with the formidable duo establishing themselves with their relaxed and amiable audience by indulging in a spate of schoolboy capers and reminiscences. Gormley fondly remembered scampering about in muck as a child. Suddenly Self instantly switched into Freudian mode, likening Gormley’s mudlarking to playing with pooh. Self continued to tickle the funny bones of the mainly middle class Purcell Room crowd, by repeatedly puncturing Gormley’s air of grandiloquent gravity. This evening it was Self’s turn to cavort with faeces. In contrast to the measured precision of Gormley’s use of words, Self petulantly flung into the amassed throng his trademark semantics – ranging from ‘liminal’ to ‘modularity’ – like so much verbal diarrhoea.

Court jester to the Prince of Plaster-Casting, Self is licensed to prick Gormley’s claims to selflessness. The testy buffoon provocatively accused his sculptor pal of possessing a hidden personal agenda: by creating permanent works in iron, Gormley’s own portrait – like the gigantic ‘Angel of the North’ outside of Gateshead – would still be around hundreds of years hence. From oral japes to unexpected critical muggings, Self ensured that no-one got bored or lost interest throughout the entire performance, which lasted an hour and a half. In many ways, Gormley and Self were the perfect cultural combination.

Self the joker was an essential part of the double act because Gormley’s composed Modernist message is out of kilter with our age of frenzy. If Self had not been present to render Gormley’s philosophising more palatable, it may have died a death with that night’s public. Gormley solemnly intones that his works are not physical objects but ‘fields’ where individuals can explore their place in space. By graciously conceding that he has become interested in porosity, fluidity, and uncertainty, Gormley signifies that he is actually far more interested in the durable, the elemental and the substantial. His iron people are meant to be elegiac celebrations of the end of this country as a place for making things, and also to posit what is to replace it. Vicarious acts of homage to a deceased industrialism, his sculptures carry on them the marks of how he manufactured them. Of his notorious pieces stuck in Crosby beach on Merseyside, saved at the last minute from demolition by Sefton Council, he contends that industrial decline was the reason for their immense popularity:

‘There has been a sense in the northwest of inevitable decline, and while I would never use the regeneration card as an argument for the making of art, I think the fact that all these people came to Crosby indicates a shift in appetite. They want physical signs in their environment that they are no longer victims of their past.’
(The Sunday Times, 29 October 2006)

They’re iron, not ironic Warholian fashion Factory manikins; they’re symbolic yet solid vehicles able to receive and to broadcast new ways for us to collaborate together. In Gormley’s book, the element iron has mystic geomantic qualities. The Earth possesses a molten iron core so ‘our planetary body is related to the human body’. Like all the best artists, Gormley showed an acute facility to change abruptly from scientist to alchemist, to switch from rationalism to the sphere of microcosmic magic:

‘Everything you make has a relation with everything that has ever been made.’

Gormley, a lapsed Catholic scholar of Benedictine monks who nearly became a Buddhist monk himself, is now an atheist. That said, he has an artistic spiritualism that retains a thoroughly material basis to it. His iron figurines supposedly create public spaces which are not interactive zones for playful frivolity, but voids where all extant social connections have been dissolved to allow new relationships to attain solidity, where life can get to know itself again. The role of the artist, he believes, is to move away from drawings, towards drawing up from deep within the global hub a glowing source of light into our darkened bodies. Gormley believes in public art because ‘art is inherently political, trying to make the world different’. There are no explanatory wall texts in his Hayward exhibition ‘Blind Light’ because he wants to stimulate people’s immediate feelings, not attempt to empower them himself. The blinding light is designed to get other people to move within your most personal intimate space. We, the supine audience, are enlightened.

At this blissfully sublime point, Self, in his role as official pest, awkwardly interjects: ‘It’s all lies, isn’t it?’ As an author, Self explains, he has to write lies, and doesn’t that go for visual artists too? The great man confesses that he sometimes wakes up in the middle of the night and asks himself if it isn’t all rubbish. He excuses himself by explaining that he conducting ‘an experiment’ and that he ‘welcomes any criticism’.

Gormley himself is certainly no slouch when it comes to dishing out criticism. He strongly believes that environmentalist plans for a post-planetary future for humanity, (or rather where our DNA would be sent) would be a dystopia. After all, quitting Earth in a Green escape pod would mean abandoning his iron treasure trove.

Gormley is a traditional environmentalist who views Nature as a fundamentally benign force, rousing for urbanites and rustics alike. His planetary nucleus spreads a warm glow out to all surface dwellers. So he cannot grasp why present-day ecologists react as if Nature constantly poses an implacable threat to humanity. Despite his romanticism, Gormley is a firmly metropolitan Modernist. Over half of humanity lives in cities, he asserts, and consequently that is where his chief interest lies. Like Damien Hirst, Gormley is often beset by legions of shrill ecological lobbyists because he cannot unequivocally state that ‘No animals were harmed in the making of this art project’. The rest of the time he is inundated by bureaucratic officialdom adumbrating doltish health and safety regulations. Gormley is contemptuous of Britain’s health and safety culture which, he tells the press, is American in origin:

I’m always mindful of health and safety and I’m very careful about installing the work carefully. But that isn’t enough any more, not since we went litigation mad. This new American-style attitude means people are betraying their own ability to decide what is safe and, worse than that, they are cashing in on it.
(The Sunday Times, 29 October 2006)

South Bank Centre art director Jude Kelly had introduced Gormley to the Purcell Room audience with the claim that he ‘loved the Hayward’. But the artist had crucified the SBC’s Hayward Galley in the press for its over-precautionary preparations for what has turned out to be its second-most popular-ever exhibition: ‘The fighting I’ve had with the f**** Hayward, about f***** health and safety and risk assessment. I could kill them. I really could kill them’. (The Times, 2 May 2007)

It’s not art, Antony, and it’s not mysticism, but that’s exactly the spirit that’s needed to breathe life into moribund modernity.

‘Blind Light/Event Horizon’ is at the Hayward Gallery, London till 19 August 2007.

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