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Body Politic: An Interview with Antony Gormley

By Polly Bates


'Body Politic', White Cube Bermondsey, London, UK, 2023-24. Antony Gormley, 'Stand', 2023. Corten steel, 477.26, 106.49, 109.43 cm. Photo© White Cube [Theo Christelis)

Sir Antony Gormley OBE is widely acclaimed for his sculptures, installations and public artworks that investigate the relationship of the human body to space. Gormley's work is concerned with the experience of being in the world and an expression of how it feels to be alive. Through a critical engagement with his own physical existence, Gormley identifies art as a place where new behaviours, thoughts and feelings can arise. For him, art can be a place of becoming where, collectively, we can think about our role as creators of the future.

Antony Gormley, 2023. Photo© John O'Rourke

White Cube, Bermondsey is currently presenting a major exhibition of new work by Antony Gormley. Across five discrete bodies of work, Gormley's 'Body Politic' investigates our species' relationship with its industrially made habitat. For Gormley, this comes at an urgent moment in time when our need for refuge is in dynamic tension with our need to roam: our fundamental migratory nature.

I spoke to Gormley about his current exhibition and recent artistic practice.

Antony Gormley 'Body Politic', White Cube Bermondsey 22 November 2023 -28 January 2024 © Antony Gormley. Photo© White Cube (Theo Christelis)

Polly: Within the exhibition ‘Body Politic’ you have successfully made cold, hard materials feel vulnerable. As you enter the room with the sculptural series ‘Weave Works’, although they are exhibited together, you get the sense that they are also alone. They feel desperate. How do you develop the poses within your works?


Antony: Together but apart – they hold a feeling carried by my body in relation to the walls and floor. The sculptures are contained within the space and so are you – you are part of the situation – it is not a picture but a place. The sculptures hopefully allow you to feel this. 


Even with the bigger works like the 2 1/2 times life-size work Stand, I want you to feel its vulnerability. It could be called a massive monument to doubt. Despite weighing 5,730 kg, its construction and the way that it interacts with space are precarious. It questions the right of a statue to stand or to stand for anything. While facing the horizon, which is the future, it also accepts that all things are subject to entropy. The gaps in the sculpture are as important as the mass.


For the first 20 years or so the various positions were captured through moulding my body in plaster. Now we use digital scanning, which allows me to experiment with more unstable positions. Each pose brings with it a different quality of feeling: longing, jeopardy, support, shelter.


Antony Gormley, 'Test: Butt', 2021. Cast iron, 176.6 x 50.5 x 44.6 cm. Photograph by Stephen White & Co.© the artist.


Polly: Matrixes have been somewhat consistent throughout your artistic practice, how do you map the rectangular forms when creating geometric works?


Antony: I ask myself a similar question: How can I use the minimum amount of material to physically indicate or materially map a place that is the condition but also the result of a living, felt, experienced moment for others to live?


Polly: You have developed a contemporary take on a centuries-old technique when bronze casting sculptures, could you explain some of your radical casting techniques?


Antony: We use lost foam and dry sand casting, which have been around for a long time, but we use them in a rather different way. These processes were invented to make massive castings, like engine blocks, which need a lot of holes for the manifolds and exhaust. The method allows molten metal at 1,400°C to vaporise the foam and then replace it. The self-organising principles of dry sand allow it to penetrate deep into the matrices of the work and, when there, to consolidate through vibration. The branching works and woven works could not be moulded in a typical lost-wax fashion because you simply couldn't get into the deeper parts of the sculpture, but with this method, the sand simply flows into those spaces and then consolidates through vibration and vacuum.

'Body Politic', White Cube Bermondsey, London, UK, 2023-24. Antony Gormley, 'Bind', 2023. 8 mm mild steel, dimensions variable. Photo© White Cube (Theo Christelis)


Polly: The geometric yet bodily sculptures within ‘Resting Place’ create visual and material relationships to an urban landscape. What significance are urban environments within the ideas behind ‘Body Politic’?


Antony: We make a world, which then makes us, or at least defines our freedoms of choice. Resting Place references the urban grid in the orthogonality of all the blocks conforming to the main axes of the room while having no obvious avenues and cross streets. You are invited to pass through this orthogonally organised but otherwise chaotic maze to pick your way between the stacked and lying bricks, none of which are fixed. 


I want to reference both landscape and memory. Archaeological sites are often simply the ground plans of buildings which invite you to then imagine or reinterpret the remains as buildings. A similar but different engagement is elicited in Resting Place, where in picking your way through the work it first may seem unreadable but you are invited to engage with bodies at rest – from the most abandoned and relaxed to the most constricted and abject. Our urban condition enforces a form of togetherness, while also being an agent of alienation.


'Body Politic', White Cube Bermondsey, London, UK, 2023-24. Antony Gormley, 'Resting Place', 2023. Terracotta, 244 figures, dimensions variable. Photo © White Cube (Theo Christelis).


Polly: ‘Body Politic’ speaks of the increasing forced displacement we are seeing in the world, but also the engrained, animalistic calling to nomadically roam. This is translated through the curation of ‘Resting Place’, as you invite the viewer to meander through the mass of dormant sculptures. How do you find your calling to roam manifests?


Antony: The need for rest and restlessness is an inbuilt primal expression of our creatureliness. I was keen that the wandering viewer becomes part of the field so that we get an interaction between a knee-deep landscape of fired earth bodies and vertical, slowly moving bodies of participating viewers, dramatically acting out the human story of dwelling in place and adventuring in space.


'Body Politic', White Cube Bermondsey, London, UK, 2023-24. Antony Gormley, 'Resting Place', 2023. Terracotta, 244 figures, dimensions variable. Photo © White Cube (Theo Christelis).

Polly: Materiality and the processing of materials are important contexts throughout your practice. Clay begins as a natural, earthly material, but is then heavily processed in quite violent actions and manipulated mechanically. Could you talk us through the stages from extraction to the exhibited blocks that make ‘Resting Place’?


Antony: The clay comes from the Cretaceous and Palaeozoic geological strata in the Blockley Brook valley near Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire, formed 190,000,000 to 40,000,000 years ago. It has many bivalves and ammonites within it. All of that early marine life and its layered history is lost in the crushing, milling and pugging of the clay, which is its rite of passage to its new life as a brick.


I am very aware of how ubiquitous the brick is in human culture, from the unfired bricks of Mesopotamian ziggurats, Mexican temple mounds or the massive, fired clay in the walls of Nanjing. I want the work to resonate with that history. 


The clay is soft and loose-pugged, allowing it to retain a lot of moisture and a certain amount of air; it is so much easier to handle in making hand-thrown bricks which have to be soft enough to take form from the brick moulds. We use vegetable oil to release the blocks from Sapele wood boxes that are reinforced with stainless steel studding to make them robust enough to take the considerable impact of being thrown. The clay scooped from a pile using a bow is then rolled on a bench with vegetable oil and then thrown into the pre-oiled moulding box. The box and clay are lifted and thrown onto the moulding bench. Then the mould, having had its base unscrewed, is lifted off to reveal the block. The thrown clay block is then transferred to a perforated steel shelf, stacked and dried for up to 3 months in drying rooms, heated by hot air from the kilns. 


The bricks are stacked within the kilns and fired. The blocks take on different colours depending on their position within the kiln; the main colour is a mild red, some have light surfaces with mineral salt deposits and others that have stayed longer in the fire go to a deeper red. Where one brick block sits hard against another areas of reduction occur making the surface black. I use these colour variations so that as you move through the field you are aware of a consistency of colour in groups of works. 

To make the 244 different lying body-forms the blocks are simply stacked one on top of the other, but most sit directly on the floor – nothing is fixed.


Polly: What are the material histories of the clay and how did you come about selecting the specific type and location of the material?


Antony: We were interested in brick producers that had a wide range of colour potential. After looking quite widely in Britain, we came to work with Northcot Brick who had experience in making large brick sizes in the restoration of Battersea Power Station. They also have one brickmaker, Kamil, who is strong enough to be able to lift 40 kg at a time – extremely hard work!


Antony Gormley, 'Retreat: Tuck', 2022. Concrete, 81 x 61.5 x 108 cm. Photograph by Stephen White & Co.© the artist.

Polly: Your sculptural practice creates self-awareness and can draw attention to the volume of the body, like in ‘Weave Works’, but also by creating voids within sculptures. The sculptural series ‘Bunkers’ each features an opening into their voids; could you talk us through some of your ideas behind these works and their dark yet inviting openings?


Antony: I was interested in, and had first-hand experience of, meditation practices in Tibetan monasteries in the Himalayas, where people are voluntarily bricked up into a small cell for days, months and sometimes years. These cells only have one aperture through which food is passed and bodily waste exits. I was very attracted by this idea of minimal architecture as an instrument for expanding the mind. 


All of the ‘Bunkers’ in this exhibition contain the space necessary for specific body positions and could be used as refuges, but of course, for most visitors this is metaphoric. The apertures in each ‘Bunker’ allow you to witness a dark interior. This materialises the darkness contained by all conscious bodies that we can access by closing our eyes. 


The ‘Bunkers’ are stopping points on our journey through the gallery. In terms of the show’s proposition, they indicate our need for shelter and protection, and a place to be. Simultaneously, they appear as defensive enclaves or prisons. The show as a whole tries to bridge the distinction between our need to move and our need to dwell.

Antony Gormley 'Body Politic', White Cube Bermondsey 22 November 2023 - 28 January 2024 © Antony Gormley. Photo© White Cube [Theo Christelis)


Polly: Your sculptures navigate human relations to space, at times becoming site-specific landmarks such as ‘Angel of the North’ and ‘Another Place’. How do you approach responding to a location and what are your methods of research?


Antony: Whenever I do an exhibition, I have to literally case the joint.  When I work within landscape, I have to understand its anatomy. I have to explore and understand the way that we are invited to move around in any particular space and allow the works to interact with that movement.


'Body Politic', White Cube Bermondsey, London, UK, 2023---24. Antony Gormley, 'Stand', 2023. Corten steel, 471 .26 x 106.49 x 10 9.43 cm. Photo© White Cube (Theo Christelis)

Polly: The publication ‘Body Politic’ is now available to purchase, what can we expect to see within its pages?


Antony: There is an excellent essay by Teresa Kittler identifying the exhibition as an audit of ‘us now’: the tensions between our need for safety and our need to move. These polarities are currently evidenced in the attitudes of ‘fortress Britain’ and the truth of the migration crisis, in which over 100 million people are on the move due to climate breakdown, war or poverty. The show is an attempt to embody our condition as a species. It attempts to use sculpture as a reflexive field.


Polly: Thank you so much for taking the time to discuss your artistic career and exhibition ‘Body Politic’ at White Cube. I would like to finish off with one last question – if you could offer one piece of advice to our creative community, what would it be? 


Antony: Keep working! Listen to what the last work you made is trying to tell you – that is the seed, everything is in evolution.


'Body Politic' is open at White Cube Bermondsey, London until the 28th of January 2024



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