“The body is a language before language. When made still in sculpture it can be a witness to life” (A. Gormley quoted in U. Kittelmann, ed., Total Strangers, exh. cat., Koelnischer Kunstverein, Cologne, 1999, p. 22).
“I want to confront existence… I turn to the body in an attempt to find a language that will transcend the limitations of race, creed, and language, but which will still be about the rootedness of identity” (Antony Gormley quoted in Testing a World View: Antony Gormley, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, Liverpool, 1993, p. 49).
Standing like two sentinels on the verge of disintegration, Foreign Bodies I and II (2000) is a sterling example of Antony Gormley’s comprehensive inquiry into the human form. Diverging from his more typical use of the solitary figure, this pair is constructed from globular units that seem to have paused momentarily to take the shape of a person. Often using his own body as a starting point, Gormley’s works investigate space through the universal constant of our outward selves. By connecting with the viewer on this elementary level, the artist is able to draw attention to not just the figures, but the spaces they inhabit.
Two life-sized figures, their arms firmly at their sides, stand waiting. The human silhouette is readily knowable, but upon further investigation this knowledge dissolves into hundreds of metal spheres. Constructed from various sizes of forged ball bearings, Foreign Bodies I and II hovers between selfhood and the surface texture of a stony beach. One sculpture is more tightly packed with smaller bearings giving it a dense, heavy presence. In contrast, its counterpart seems to be slowly dispersing into the air; its units are noticeably sparser and the outline of the figure contains numerous voids. This aggregation of spherical elements imbues the work with a molecular aura, as if many subatomic particles are fusing together into the semblance of a man.
Gormley’s oeuvre is populated with a plethora of figural studies. Often working in distinct series or in similar modes that connect across the years, Gormley’s sculptures chase a common thread: how do we understand the human figure in relation to the greater social and physical world? Speaking to this idea, the artist notes: “The body is a language before language. When made still in sculpture it can be a witness to life” (A. Gormley quoted in U. Kittelmann (ed.), Total Strangers, exh. cat., Koelnischer Kunstverein, Cologne, 1999, p. 22). Often using his own form as a stand-in for a universal constant, Gormley’s sculptures confront what it is to be human and how our shared experiences shape the world we live in. This transcendence of language is echoed in the manner that the sculptor pushes beyond the bounds of outward appearance to find a connection between us all. He muses, “I want to confront existence… I turn to the body in an attempt to find a language that will transcend the limitations of race, creed, and language, but which will still be about the rootedness of identity” (A. Gormley quoted in Testing a World View: Antony Gormley, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, Liverpool, 1993, p. 49). By abstracting the figure beyond the individual, Gormley is able to speak on a personal level to a vast array of people.
Born in London in 1950, Sir Antony Gormley is one of the most well-respected sculptors working today. He received a knighthood from H.M Queen Elizabeth II in 2014, and previously won the Turner Prize in 1994 for Field for the British Isles, an installation made in conjunction with several volunteers and consisting of nearly 40,000 small clay figures. Known for his immense public sculptures, like Angel of the North (1998) and Event Horizon (2007), he has no difficulty translating the enormity of these monuments into works that have a one-to-one relationship with the viewer. His work for the Fourth Plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square, titled One & Other (2009), continued this human connection by inviting members of the public to stand in for a sculpture one hour at a time over the course of one hundred consecutive days. Given that the installation continued twenty-four hours per day, a total of 2,400 people were able to participate. This interest in the connections between people and their environments (or simply the ways in which people change how you view a space) is integral to Gormley’s practice.
By exploring the human body and its relationship to our notions of space, Gormley positions himself as a catalyst for new observations. Abstracting the familiar to its very limits, he can bring attention to the outer reaches of our perception. Works like Foreign Bodies I and II are misnomers in a sense. Although they visually allude to a subatomic or cellular buildup of numerous spheres, they are also easily recognizable as human forms. No matter how abstracted and ‘foreign’ these bodies become, we can connect with them on an intimate level almost instantly. Eliciting this basic human connection is something Gormley is adept at doing, and is undoubtedly the reason for his success. On the other hand, the idea of ‘foreign’ bodies also alludes to the fact that no matter how similar we all are to each other, every person is in some way strange to us. No two people are completely alike, and navigating these differences is what makes for some of life’s biggest difficulties and brightest moments.