Martin Caiger-Smith’s huge monograph on Antony Gormley slides out of its slipcase appropriately enough like a block of cast iron. In its beautiful rust-coloured linen covers it looks a bit like a block of cast iron, too. Open it to the endpapers, ‘Bodies in Space’, and black splatters across a white ground. Turn a couple of thick, silky pages and a frail human figure, photographed from behind, is silhouetted on a rocky precipice facing an abyss of roiling water, cloud and spray. Keep turning and the developing story of Gormley’s life’s work reveals itself in image after remarkable image.
In the 1980s Gormley was almost alone among contemporary sculptors in turning to the human form as his source of inspiration, his ambition to ‘find again the place of the body in the space created for art by modernism’. For nearly 40 years he has pursued this idea, developing and evolving a language of his own that has moved from beaten lead body cases, soldered and seamed and hollow, to solid cast iron forms; the body explored inwards, pierced, projected outwards, re-imagined in blocks, in steel rods, expanded, contracted, condensed and atomised.
And as the sculpture has developed so too has Gormley’s discourse with the world, with people and with place. The diminutive terracotta army that invaded white gallery space in the 1990s heralded the beginning of both a collaborative act of making and a new way of seeing the exhibition of sculpture. Never one to tread the obvious path, Gormley pushed the boundaries with every new commission. For an exhibition in Cologne he emptied the gallery and put the sculptures outside looking in. In an abandoned jail in Charleston he flooded a room with seawater and mud. At the Hayward Gallery in 2007 he placed sculptures on rooftops up to half a mile away. In Trafalgar Square instead of occupying the fourth plinth, he invited one and all to stage their own hour-long work of art.
It is hard to imagine there will ever be a more comprehensive or authoritative companion to Gormley’s art. Martin Caiger-Smith himself is a long-time friend of the artist and is able to draw on a wealth of discussions and studio visits over many years. Witnessing works in progress and the changing role of assistants, the development of technique and technology, from body casts to ultrasonic humidifiers and forms determined by algorithms, as well as having access to Gormley’s workbooks, the author has credentials uniquely suited to the task. And he does not disappoint. His text teases out with sympathy and clarity the highly individual path of Gormley’s career, nodding to the major influences without ever — despite a formidable panoply of academic sources — labouring the art historical apparatus. Although this is a book primarily about sculpture, Caiger-Smith also gives due weight to Gormley’s drawings, created in parallel with his sculpture throughout his career and carefully selected and illustrated here.
‘I want to use sculpture,’ Gormley has said, ‘to throw us back into the world, to provide this place where the magic, the subtlety, the extraordinary nature of our perceptual experience is celebrated, enhanced, made more present.’ It is an ambition he has followed with integrity, humanity and intellectual rigour through a lifetime of experimentation. Who, catching sight of the Angel of North stretching over the traffic and the trains, could resist Gormley’s celebration? Or, crunching through the salt-crusted surface of Lake Ballard to witness, at sunrise or sunset, a landscape dotted with 51 figures derived from the forms of local people could underestimate the percep-tual experience?
The numinous silent figure in the flooded crypt of Winchester cathedral; the startling pathos of a pile of blocks, apparently shoved into a nondescript angle between wall and floor in Forte Belvedere in Florence — time and again Gormley works the same alchemy. On Crosby Beach, in the Water of Leith, in the Austrian Alps and the Norwegian fjords, in Germany and Sweden, in Japan, Singapore and South Korea, Alaska, Italy and Belgium the international language of Antony Gormley is unforgettably written across the landscape. And if you can’t make it in person, then this superb book is certainly the next best thing.
Subscribe to The Spectator Australia today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator Australia for less – just $20 for 10 issues