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LONDON — The English sculptor Antony Gormley is a man who believes in the art of spectacle. Of the 12 galleries devoted to this career-spanning retrospective at London’s Royal Academy, three of them are engulfed by single works on a monumental scale.
Another one is presided over by single sculptures on a smaller scale which, evidently in the opinion of the curator and/or the sculptor, deserve the minute attention that being displayed singly makes possible. And a fifth, the most effectively presented gallery of all, contains two sculptures almost side by side in an octagonal space.
The grandness of scale is matched by a kind of grandiosity of ambition. Here is a man who believes in the importance of his own ideas, and whose reputation as a sculptor has been enhanced by his ability to talk with smooth and plausible eloquence about his own work.
A lazy art critic, wishing to write about him, would need to do nothing more than listen with some attention to Gormley himself, at a press conference, expatiating, in great and compelling detail, upon the meaning and the significance of his new work, and then parcel it up into a review, with a liberal scattering of Gormley’s words and phases as thematic markers. Job done.
Unfortunately, that is not quite enough because Gormley deserves more than his own words about himself. To that point, there are several questions that need to be posed.
Is there something mildly narcissistic and self-aggrandizing about Gormley’s career-long obsession with making casts of his own body? Or was that decision merely a route to a representation of the universalized human form in the time-honored tradition of Leonardo?
Gormley’s body casts have been inveterate travelers. They have been displayed across salt flats in Australia, beside the sea’s edge on the coast of England, and on the parapets of tall buildings in London, dangerously teetering in the direction of the void. There is no doubting how effective these displays are on the level of spectacle. The truly clever decision was to put them there in the first place, posing them against the backdrop of their dramatic environments.
But when we see them again here at the Royal Academy, they look strangely diminished, as if much of their power derived from the ways in which they had been shown. Consider two early pieces (newly re-made) in the second gallery. One (“Mother’s Pride V,” 2019) consists of a rectangle made from hundreds of slices of bread stuck to the wall, from which the silhouette of Gormley’s body is cut out, tumbling head-down. In the second sculpture, “Blanket Drawing V” (1983), the falling body has been formed in clay on a blanket. Is the silhouette well done? No, it is crude and unexciting.
In a later gallery (number 8), Gormley’s body has been cast in metal, over and over again, and these gently oxidizing body-casts are displayed in ways that stun and startle. One body-cast walks up the wall side-on, as if snatched from some phantasmagoric scene in Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf (1968). Another walks across the ceiling. What compelling visual trickery this is! Photographers surround the sculptures, creeping across the floor like insects to capture how they look.
That is the problem, you see. It is the staging that counts, not the fact that we are seeing Gormley’s body cast in metal, over and over again, because there is nothing particularly special about any of it – other than that it is quite interesting to see it done at all. There is nothing that causes us to reflect profoundly upon the nature of the sculptural object.
And so on to the room-engulfing spectaculars on the grand scale, of which there are three. The first is in Gallery 3, and it’s called “Clearing VII” (2019). We enter into a giant enmeshment of the entire space, loopings and loopings of coiling steel, forming circle after circle, continuous, wall to wall, floor to ceiling, an entire entrapment.
We pick our way across and through it, tentatively, causing it to shudder and jiggle and jangle as trouser bottoms and other bits of clothing get caught up in it. Fun, eh? And what a technical marvel! The most interesting questions to be asked of this piece are posed by a woman beside me, on the outermost perimeter of it all (she hasn’t quite dared to enter in), who asks: “How did they get it in here? How did they install this continuous thread of loopings?”
And, equally to the point is a remark made by a journalist from the Art Newspaper, who is keen to join in the to-and-fro: “How will they get it out again now that it’s here?” We discuss the possibility of giant metal cutters, albeit a ruthless solution.
Hanging suspended eight feet above the ground inside the Royal Academy’s American Associates Gallery (the biggest space of them all) is the largest of the Gormley spectaculars, and it’s called by the mildly shudder-inducing title of “Matrix III” (2019). It consists of 21 room-size cages, one nested inside another. You look up and across at a rectangular clouding of steel mesh, which gets denser the further in you choose to stare. It floats above us, eerily. It also hums for no apparent reason. We walk beneath it, slightly apprehensively.
And then we think of another sculptor who goes in for this sort of thing. His name is Richard Serra. Why is it that Serra’s work moves us, draws us in, causes us to feel something. We don’t do that with Gormley. Gormley’s spectacles interest us somewhat for all that they are, but they do not move us. Serra’s giant steel vortices wrong-foot us, unnervingly. Gormley’s feel like clever experiments that have been transferred coldly from computer to gallery floor.
And this is especially the case with “Cave” (2019) in Gallery 11, the third of the spectaculars, which looks, from a short distance away, like a partly tumbling architectural structure made of metal cubes (in fact, its shape is that of a crouching body laid on its side).
We can walk through it. We are even in the dark for some parts of the way. But, once again, it is not fashioned so that we respond to its physical unfolding around us. Nothing is made of the idea that we are moving inside and through a body. Once we can see our way, its entire structure is revealed to us all at once. There are no surprises. It all feels too plonkingly calculated. We feel almost nothing on our pulses.
An exhibition on this scale is so, so exposing.
Antony Gormley continues at the Royal Academy (Burlington House, Piccadilly, London, England) through December 3.