Confessions of a sculptor

January 10, 1997

Anthony Gormley's figures can be found in such disparate places as a fjord and a cathedral crypt. Elaine Williams talks to him about the sources of his creativity.

Anthony Gormley is sitting in the bright, white studio of Vicken Parsons, his wife, and sorting through a pile of monochrome ink drawings for a book to accompany a forthcoming exhibition. Some are of isolated, barely-formed heads and figures in infinite space, reflecting the nature of his sculptures. The names of Heidegger, Rilke and Steiner crop up. Gormley draws on philosophy but would never claim to be a philosopher. He defines himself as a maker, communicating through material form.

Later, as the morning sun streams through the vast basement windows of his north London home he stretches his long body, from which so many of his sculptures have been cast, into the warmth. We are talking about "Field for the British Isles", an installation of 40,000 hand-sized clay figures, made by families in Lancashire under Gormley's supervision and recently shown at the Hayward Gallery, London. Eyes gouged out of the crude forms, standing side by side like a cropped field, the mass of figures compels an eerie silence from its audience.

"I think that what 'Field' does is make you aware of yourself without being self-conscious,'' Gormley says. "The work asks 'Who are you?' 'What are you doing here?' In a sense that is what all of my work is asking and I suppose it's what I ask myself. The work constantly revolves around this investigation of identity as place, our relationship to time and space.'' In physical terms "Field" departs radically from Gormley's previous lead body cases, called "Testing a World View" with which he won the 1994 Turner Prize. Field's thousands upon thousands of solid earthenware figures are in stark contrast to the solitary, smooth, sealed lead sculptures Gormley cast from his own body and which now inhabit various locations - a Norwegian fjord, the flooded crypt of Winchester Cathedral, the city walls of Derry, the austere rooms of Charleston Old Jail in Texas.

A lapsed Catholic, Gormley acknowledges his spiritual roots. In Phaidon's monograph on his work he quotes from the Confessions of St Augustine, particularly on the subject of memory: "A spreading limitless room within me. Who can reach its uttermost depth? Yet it is a faculty of my soul and belongs to my nature. In fact I cannot totally grasp all that I am. Thus the mind is not large enough to contain itselfI'' The skin of his sculptures sets up a dialogue between the inner space of the body - it is no accident that air is named as one of Gormley's materials along with lead, brass, fibreglass, plaster etc - and the great outside world; both are states of infinity. The overriding theme of Gormley's work is the contemplation of human existence in relation to infinity.

The son of well-off parents in suburban London - his father ran a drug company and was the first person to produce penicillin commercially - he colonised the garden shed, making things from the age of six or seven, creating a place apart from the "well-organised domestic operation" that was home but from which he felt excluded.

His last five years of schooling were spent at Ampleforth College, the monastic boarding school run by Benedictines in the foothills of the North Yorkshire moors, where his interest in art became more focused. He says: "I used to go to the art room and start something off in my first break and rush there at lunch time to see how it was going on, and you'd get down there if you didn't have games immediately after lunch. I liked to start with a mess, throwing a whole lot of stuff together - it didn't matter if it was oils or poster paints - I haven't stopped working in that way."

Contact with monastic life left a legacy: "It was very good to have a strong metaphysical structure to look at the world throughI I gained that idea of a place apart where you can reflect - I suppose that is what a monastery is. I don't think you can go through that kind of education without it affecting everything that happens afterwards for better or for worse."

The nearby moors also had enormous impact on his schoolboy consciousness. The fierce weather and the open skies were "a blessing'', creating that tension "between the extension of the human imagination into the landscape'' which informs his work today.

After studying anthropology at Cambridge, Gormley spent three years in India with the Buddhist meditation teacher Goenka. Combine Catholic metaphysics with Buddhist meditative practice and the body becomes the focus of all that we are. Gormley says: "Being within the body is neither good nor bad, it has neither height nor breadth, it is the locus of a kind of being, it is extremely individual, personal, intimate but also common, collectiveI" In exploring this paradox between being and non-being he is led into the dangerous territory of self-sacrifice - giving himself to entombment during the sculpting process.

Although he painted at Cambridge and set up a pottery studio there for making sculpture in clay, it was at Goldsmiths College School of Art that his ideas really began to take shape. Goldsmiths was the perfect follow-on to a Cambridge alive with debate about what should be studied and how, and student demonstration against Vietnam. Art students were encouraged to question the canon as well as being subject to constant criticism themselves: "Somehow nothing was fixed - even the reputation of the greats like Giacometti could be criticised - you know, why does he sign his name so big at the bottom of his paintings, is he not living out some idea of the existential artist?''

"It was an unwritten law and held by the students themselves,'' said Gormley, "that you should do at least one exhibition a year, and on the Wednesday after installation of the work you would hold a seminar to which you would invite other members and students from other faculties and departments. You would make an introduction and then it was open to the floor. It was a fantastic way of showing how the object of art could be a kind of table across which ideas could travel and be focused or articulated. Goldsmiths was the most stimulating, the most responsible use of my time I've ever experienced. It is a model that cannot be bettered." Graduates of Goldsmiths have made a major impact on the art scene, Damien Hirst among their number. But what of the view of Ernst Gombrich the art historian, expressed in the published conversation he held with Gormley, that the current "sensationalism and lack of concentration'' in the art world is "not very desirable"?

Gormley finds some sympathy with this criticism. "The convention of today is that you challenge the conventionsI it has almost become an orthodoxy and we know that the avant garde is over. You could say I'm a radical who wants art not to lose itself in a debate about its own history or the development of its own languages."

In a recent address at Durham Cathedral he expanded on this criticism: "It's all very well deconstructing the social, sexual and economic conditions of the contemporary world with pithy ironyI this was the project of postmodernism, but it now has to be followed by a more serious project of reconstructing a world out of the earth."

There is something slightly messianic about Gormley's ambitions. He wants to use the "space'' of art for "communion''. At Durham he asked whether art could make contact "not only between ourselves but between us and history and in doing that to maybe also derive the energy necessary to believe in our part in the construction of the future. I am asking is it possible for art to provide a space that can be regenerative?" Gormley's faith in Catholicism has been replaced by his faith that "somehow we have to take on the responsibility of being creators in the world". His "Angel of the North" will stand 65 feet high, towering over Gateshead and the A1, a signpost along the motorway. Strengthened by 25cm deep spars set into the body, encasing it like the armour of "Archangel Michael" to hold the outstretched "aeroplane" wings, "this extreme exoskeleton'' will express "on the one hand a kind of strength, but also a kind of openness, a vulnerability''.

As people sit in the "bubbles'' of their cars Gormley is hoping his creation will "penetrate the protection of that enclosed space'', behaving like an advertisement hoarding on Route 56 in the United States "but trying to affect a very different part of you''. Given that 90,000 people will pass the Angel every day, that has to be an ambitious intention.

Ever prepared to make a shift, Gormley is now seeking a new directness in his work, creating cast iron body forms where only the clingfilm becomes "the mediating skin between the three-dimensional record of my body and the world''. These sculptures, as Gormley describes, are more naked, more exposed, more immediately communicative.

Field's huge success has also led him to take stock. He sees it as the most engaging of his work, whereas the body works have been regarded as "cold, distant, disturbing, unapproachable. Somehow Field has become mythic because people have empowered it. By their response to the work it has become something they have given a place and an importance to". With Giacometti on show at the Royal Academy, Gormley recognises similar obsessive behaviour within himself.

Whereas Giacometti made it his life's passion to objectify distance between people, Gormley has latched onto internal space "in which the viewer and me become the same and where there is no distance". But it is not how he wants to be. "I think I have been completely obsessive, I've been in a kind of mania for 20 years and I would like to escape from it really. I'm looking into analysis at the moment. I don't want to live out a life that is determined by certain kinds of repetitive behaviour. I'm not antagonistic to my unconscious, I see it as a fertile ground out of which everything worth doing comes, but I thought I'd just try something else. Artists on the whole are a bit worried that they might lose their motivation if they discover that the basis of all their work is that they had a strange relationship with their mother."

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