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Almost since the inception of his artistic practice, Antony Gormley has been concerned with the body’s relation to its surroundings and with the body’s interior presence — or, as the curators of his retrospective at London’s Royal Academy put it, “the body as space and the body in space.” Antony Gormley draws together works from across Gormley’s strikingly cohesive oeuvre, returning repeatedly to the motif of the artist’s own body to explore the significance of differences in scale and the negative space around an artwork.
The show is generously spread across all 13 rooms of the RA’s grand, Beaux-Arts main galleries, and most rooms contain only a single work or a group of pieces from a single series. The exceptions are a display of the artist’s earlier works from the late 1970s to the mid 1980s — giving context for his later investigations into the human body and negative space — and two rooms of drawings.
The exhibition puts the viewer center stage, creating immersive environments in which visitors gain a heightened awareness of their own bodies. Gormley says of his work: “There is no subject until the viewer arrives and begins to engage.” Throughout the exhibition, Gormley presents casts and impressions of his own body, encouraging visitors to consider their own physical relationship both to the exhibition space and to the other bodies — living and sculpted — in the room.
The exhibition plays with scale throughout, particularly in relation to the human. At one end of the spectrum is “Iron Baby” (1999), a life-sized cast of a newborn baby, placed outside in the Royal Academy’s grand courtyard. Laid directly on the paving stones, this tiny sculpture is easily missed, but once seen, exerts a strong emotional pull.
Towards the end of the exhibition, viewers encounter a second figure in the foetal position, this time so large it spills out of the enormous room in which it is sited. Viewers can choose to circumnavigate “Cave” (2019), or to enter the sculpture though its hollow feet. Initially pitch black, the tunnel opens up into the figure’s cavernous torso, where shafts of light partially illuminate the dark bodily interior.
The Royal Academy retrospective offers several opportunities to experience Gormley’s whole-room installations, many of which have been created or reimagined for the exhibition. These include “Clearing VII” (2019), which consists of several miles of coiled aluminum tubing. Visitors are encouraged to pick their way through the twists and turns; the jangling sounds it makes and the scuff marks it leaves on the room’s pristine white walls are all part of this multidimensional “drawing in space”, as the exhibition’s curator Martin Caiger-Smith describes it in the accompanying catalogue.
In “Host” (2019), one of the galleries has been filled to a depth of 23 cm with seawater and clay. Set under an elegantly arched ceiling, “Host” creates a powerful encounter between human “civilisation” and the elemental substances out of which life originally emerged. Clay, of course, is also the original material of the sculptor. Here, as in the rest of the exhibition, Gormley highlights the close relationship between life and art, between the body and its environment, and between space and scale.