MIAMI — After seeing Anthony Gormley’s “Event Horizon” installation last year around Madison Park in Manhattan’s Flatiron District, I finally understood what others had long seen in his body work and it’s unusual ability to seem at once traditional and radical. By carefully placing his sculptures around and not in the park, he was diffusing their singular power but making them more mysterious and ambient. Perched on rooftops, they were sometimes ominous but they interacted with the city in a way few artists have without resorting to gags. At the New Hermitage wing of St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum, the British sculptor has done it again but this time in the fabled museum’s classical department.
Curated by Dmitry Ozerkov, head of the institution’s contemporary art department, and Anna Trofimova, the antiquity department head, the installation has knocked nine classical sculpture off their pedestals (symbolically, of course, well, kind of) and placed them on the floor and sometimes submerged just enough to humanize them and shift them into the viewer’s scale.
In an adjacent room, seventeen of Gormley’s works constructed of solid iron blocks with oxidized surfaces are placed around the room. The only thing to detract from the experience is a series of rather dull photographs on easels near one doorway which make it look like there was some sort of talk and somebody forgot their presentation materials behind.
While I was there the middle-aged guard in the classical sculpture room was obviously at her wit’s end because everyone felt at ease about approaching and touching the work. Humanizing the normally aloof forms that are literally placed on a pedestal also meant that people were much more likely to touch them. One man leaned on an antique work while his female companion snapped a photo, another woman seemed to hug another for a photo by her friend and each time the guard shooed them off after chastising them for their museum faux pas.
Installed in the institution’s Dionysus Hall, the artist created a false floor for the Greek and Roman works so that they could be installed at the level of the plinths. The visitors approached them on their own level, giving them all a greater sense of familiarity.
The Roman Yard next door, where Gormley’s rusted iron figures are installed, presented pixelated human forms in rather unclassical poses. The effect made them feel somewhat erased and alienated. Their silhouettes and poses didn’t make me want to approach them — except to touch their curious rust-colored surfaces — and they felt engaged in rather personal moments uninterested in the viewer. All I did was stand back and reflect on them as objects.
It was a masterful installation that interrupted our expectations of classical and contemporary art and it invigorating both through its contrast of the two. In the Dionysus Hall everything was out in the open and you could take everything in at once but the figures seem a little confused as they look every which way, seemingly without reason. In the Roman Yard, the heavy solid lead objects are hidden behind columns and your experience is more fragmented — their arrangement was decided by some geometric formula that didn’t seem immediately apparent walking through the room.
Returning to the more traditional galleries the visual break reenergized my looking. I hope this experiment encourages the museum to invite more contemporary artists to intervene in the Hermitage’s otherwise traditional installations and, as a result, help it come alive.
Anthony Gormley’s Still Standing: A Contemporary Intervention in the Classical Collection continues at the New Hermitage (St. Petersburg, Russia) until January 15, 2012.