Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Nor the splendor of time - Antony Gormley, Model

"But what is it that I love in loving thee? Not physical beauty, nor the splendor of time, 
nor the radiance of the light -so pleasant to our eyes- nor the sweet melodies of the various 
kinds of songs, nor the fragrant smell of flowers and ointments and spices; not manna and honey, 
not the limbs embraced in physical love -it is not these I love when I love my God. 
Yet it is true that I love a certain kind of light and sound and fragrance 
and food and embrace in loving my God, who is the light and sound and fragrance 
and food and embracement of my inner man"
Saint Augustine, The Confessions, Book X, Chapter 6

The Antony Gormley "Model" exhibition at the White Cube gallery runs from the 28th of November to the 10th of February. Most of the opinions ascribed to the artist where expressed at his discussion with Tim Marlow on the 12th of December 2012. 

Theo Van Doesburg - Study for rhythm of a russian dance - 1918

Antony Gormley's career echoes masterfully many of the concerns I have so far displayed on this blog: his work address what has been described as a return to modernity, but a re-constructed modernity, largely freed from it's inbuilt contradictions, from it's ruthless violence and it's teenage angst, leaving only the poetics of reason and the mystique of abstraction. 
Gormley is not alone in this pursuit, but whether him or the others are genuinely moved by the crushing ideals of high modernism, or whether they are content to re-enact those glory days as an heroic (if futile) last stand against the post-modern wasteland, I cannot tell. In either case they have my sympathy. 

Antony Gormley - Transfuser - 2002

Gormley's sculpture addresses many of the "traditional" themes of monolithic modernity: the multitude, harmony, abstraction, or proportions, but generally through the conceptual lens of the human body, which seems to provide him with a permanent referential around which to build his rational aesthetics. 
His new show continues in this vein, exploring the body as a space we inhabit. 

The entire exhibition is an aggregation of rectangular cuboids, in different materials (from corten to polystyrene  via wood, cast metal and plastic) and in a variety of scale, from the toy soldier to the pavillon. 
We can identify three parts to the exhibition, three main scales of work: the smaller works are all to be found in one room, which seem essentially to document the conceptual and technical process that brought us the larger works. The process in question is essentially one of abstraction, where the human body, it's shapes and it's proportions, is gradually simplified into a combination of angular boxes, much reminiscent, in it's later stages,  of Malevitch' Architekton

Antony Gormley - Mark - 2012

The medium scale is one more or less consistent with actual human proportions: what at first appear like an abstract accumulation of blocks reveal, at closer inspection, human bodies, playfully disposed in natural, and not so natural positions, around the gallery space, like so many dancers frozen into intimate performances, but boxed, reduced to the space they occupy. 

The third scale, and judging from the talk given by the artist, the central work, is a rather gigantic construction of metal sheets which the visitor is first invited to circle, to study as a gigantic sculpture, before being invited, like Job, to enter in a Hobbesian Leviathan. 

Perambulating inside the controlled space proves to be as compelling an experience as promised by the artist: the complex interplay of surfaces, planes and light make for many surprising vistas and interactions, prompting intense experiences mixing claustrophobia, disorientation and exploration; Like a concrete presentation of St Theresa's Interior Castle we visit a space so stripped of signification that we can project our elusive, innermost realities onto it. 

Antony Gormley - Model - 2012

Space and architecture as a metaphor for inner life is itself an important modern concept (as described by Frances Yates)  and Gormley is fond of colliding this subjective, intimate construction of psychological architecture with the harsh, brutal(ist) materiality of the world he constructs - his rhetoric allies the pervasive abstraction of mystique and Platonism with the materiality sculpture as an exploration of space. The modern meet the modernist. But ultimately his work seems to address the power of the metaphor, organic and spatial. 
The exhibition is compelling on more than one ground: for it's stretching of the boundaries of the gallery experience, as one has come to expect from international artists, but also for his very refined take on modernity, whose latent mystic and spirituality will hopefully take part in shaping the supposed revival of modernism. 

Antony Gormley - Model - 2012

Yet this very mystique can also leave one wanting: If Le Corbusier's houses were machines to live in, what is the purpose of Gormley's? The new modernist paradigm seems keen to conciliate art for art sake with pure contemplation, and when Gormley characterizes his work as a tool, as "machine" one is tempted to say, he remains elusive as to its purpose: oceanic feelings, self-exploration, or inverted allegories of the cave all sound very much contemplative in essence. 
Contemplation is an activity essentially solitary, inward and subjective, even leaving little room for the contradictory maelstrom of opinions and ideals the modern culture cater to. The very elusiveness of the absolute the artist seems to invite us to pursue leaves a gaping void in both his work and his theory, which one can only wonder at. If modernism is to be revived in all it's claims of purity and high-mindedness, not only as a style or a facade, but as a genuine, heartfelt ideal, surely tolerance, accessibility and marketability will have to make room for an absolute, transcendent telos that will suffer no contradiction.

Oskar Schlemmer - Illustration for "Man and Art Figure" - in Theater of the Bauhaus - 1925