Executed in 2000, Shift II forms part of Gormley's ongoing dialogue between the body and its ability to test and respond to the constraints of architectural containment. It hangs suspended from the floor, defying the weight of its material make-up, and the laws of gravity, whilst its prostrate form presses to the wall as if it were lying on the floor, thereby disrupting the normal spatial coordinates of up and down. The disorienting effect of this encounter is intended to provoke a subjective awareness of the presence of our own bodies in space and the external and internal force fields that they are subject to. Winner of the Turner Prize in 1994, Gormley has developed a wide ranging, internationally acclaimed practice that has consistently paid homage to the body in narrative form. Whether using single cast iron figures such as the present work or actual people like in his ambitious and highly anticipated Fourth Plinth project, ne & Other, opening in Trafalgar Square this summer, Gormley's work is essentially concerned with exploring the earthly condition of the body and man's relationship with his surroundings.
Antony Gormley's Shift II uses the human form as a point of departure from which to explore man's existence in and relation to the world. Gormley has frequently returned to the idea that his work can be used as a 'lever' for undermining the spectator's presumptions about his or her position in space and Shift II introduces an unusual dynamic into a gallery space by virtue of its placement. The surrounding environment becomes activated by the superhuman parameters of the sculpture, setting up an unsettling visual and physical experience deliberately meant to unbalance the viewer and provoke curiosity.
This work was produced in the same year as Drawn, an installation of eight identical outstretched body-forms designed to occupy and define the corners of a room. Much like this larger installation, Shift II contrasts the organic nature of the body with the geometry of its constructed surroundings, as well as drawing attention to the wider effects of matter and energy through the physical elevation of the figure. In doing so, Gormley pinpoints the body, and its attendant sensations as the site of experience and the only true means available of becoming attuned to the world. Gormley has further tested his concerns with the implications of architectural and social space in public sculptures such as Event Horizon, which placed thirty-one isolated bodies against the constructed topography of the London's Southbank for his 2007 exhibition at the Hayward Gallery. These figural sculptures were complimented by Blind Light, a space involving the collective involvement of the public, where visitors were encouraged to walk through a disorienting mist-filled environment that heightened physical sensation through the removal of sight, whilst the forthcoming One & Other project will present volunteers atop the plinth as a metaphor for the relationship between the individual and the community.
Whereas Gormley's collaborative works directly involve real people in real time as a means of investigating the relation between art, society and the environment, his cast iron figures instead act to provoke a reflexive comparison between the form presented and our own physical sense of self. Shift II therefore forms a permanent frame of reference for considering the matrix of social and physical influences through which the individual is defined. Like much of Gormley's distinctively contemplative sculpture, this work uses the artist's own body as a template for examining the phenomenology of individual being and the integration of corporeal experience and cognitive reflection. This aspiration stems in large part from Gormley's experience of studying Vipassana meditation in India and Sri Lanka in the early 1970s, which instilled a deep awareness of the tensions between physical and spiritual containment and the interdependent relationship between body and mind.
The casting process involved in creating works like Shift II allows Gormley to capture a meditative moment in which he has submitted himself to the interior space of consciousness. This almost ritualistic activity transforms the energy inherent in Gormley's physical being into a solid, mute object that stands as a testament to a specific moment in time. This practice indicates Gormley's intense personal involvement in the creation of the work, yet he does not intend for his works to be read as an assertion of his own sense of self. Instead, he has deliberately left the sculpture devoid of specific features that would limit it to his particular person by eradicating details with seam lines and an earthy patina of rust across its pitted surface. In this way, Gormley reveals his desire to create an anonymous being that transcends race and gender to represent the shared sensations of a global body. 'Making sculptures stems from a need to leave a trace of existence,' he has explained, 'but there is an even greater need to challenge existence itself with mute objects that look back at us and question our materiality with their own' (Gormley in M. Mack (ed.), Antony Gormley, Göttingen, 2007, p. 9).