‘Within the body there is a doubling of many of the organs: two sides of the brain, two eyeballs, two ears, two lungs, two testicles, two kidneys, two hands, two legs,’ says Antony Gormley. ‘I wanted to make single sculptures that extend this mirroring to two complete bodies conjoined.’
One of the most important works from Gormley’s early career, Growth (1987) consists of two sarcophagus-like forms made from lead sheets hammered around casts of the British sculptor’s body. The sculpture, one of Gormley’s first ‘double bodycase’ works, will be offered on 4 October in London as a highlight of Christie’s Frieze Week season.
Gormley’s bodycase series reached its zenith with A Case for an Angel I (1989-90), a precursor to his most famous sculpture, Angel of the North (1998). In 2017 at Christie’s, the Japanese collector Yusaku Maezawa paid £5,296,250 for A Case for an Angel I — a world auction record for a work by the artist.
Growth, which anticipates these iconic works, comes to auction shortly after the opening of Antony Gormley, a major exhibition at the Royal Academy in London which will occupy all 13 of the institution’s Main Galleries. Exhibits range from Gormley’s earliest geometric sculptures to a new version of the Host installation, which floods an entire room with seawater and clay.
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We talked to Sarah Lea, one of the show’s curators, about the challenges of organising such an ambitious exhibition.
What was the selection criteria for works in the upcoming show?
Sarah Lea: ‘The idea from the outset was to use the entire volume of the Main Galleries to create a sequence of encounters as visitors move through the spaces. It is not a chronological structure, although there are key works from every decade of Gormley’s career, on every scale, from the intimate to the monumental. They are chosen to explore the body as a space we each inhabit, and the body’s relationship to our surroundings — especially the architecture that is the background to our daily lives, and how we experience space physically and imaginatively.’
What do the earliest works in the show bring to light?
SL: ‘We have dedicated a gallery to sculptures from the early 1980s that reveal Gormley’s experimental approach to materials including wood, lead, and even bread, all manipulated in different ways. Although not figurative, the body appears in these works as a trace, or they are made through the action of the body. Collectively they show his interest in themes such as natural growth, time and space, which have remained central throughout his career.’
Why did Gormley start to cast his body in the 1980s?
SL: ‘The process of wrapping and unwrapping natural or man-made objects in lead to form cases that retained the shape of the object was very important. Gormley became fascinated by the way that absence could speak powerfully of presence. The “bodycase” works make present the physical space a body once occupied — they are not portraits or likenesses, they capture a moment of lived time, embodied.’
How do Gormley’s sculptures evolve from idea to realisation?
SL: ‘Drawing is very important to Gormley’s creative process; he is never without a workbook. We are showing a selection of these from across a 45-year period which offer a glimpse into the germination and cross-pollination of ideas. Gormley has often used his own body as a tool and medium for his works, in early years working with various techniques for casting, and more recently digital scanning and modelling.’
What is the relationship between the materials Gormley uses and his art?
SL: ‘In this exhibition we encounter organic and industrial materials — from clay and seawater to aluminium and steel. They each have their own qualities and “resistance” — from the energetic coils of Clearing, a giant “drawing in space” compressed by the walls, ceiling and floor that you can enter and climb through, to the ghostly mesh of Matrix, consisting of a material normally used for reinforcing concrete in architectural construction. These choices raise questions about our experience of the natural world and the built environment we have created.’
Is this what Gormley means when he says the exhibition will be a ‘test site’?
SL: ‘In a way, the gallery isn’t Gormley’s natural habitat — he is used to working outside in the landscape, rural or urban. I think he’s approached this exhibition as an event that’s happening in a very specific time and place. Much of this thinking has been in response to the particular architecture of the Royal Academy’s 19th-century galleries, which offer amazing natural light, but equally have a strong character of their own. Often our exhibitions tell the story of an artist’s life or an artistic movement — here Gormley has avoided narratives, and set up environments for visitors to bring their own story into.’
What challenges have you faced in putting the show together?
SL: ‘I would say this is the most logistically complex exhibition we’ve done at the Royal Academy, in terms of the interaction with the building. Antony Gormley’s studio team are incredibly talented and dedicated, and have been working closely with our architects, as well as with structural engineers, to overcome the practical problems and find solutions that make the work appear as effortless as it does in the spaces.’
Finally, what do you think might most surprise visitors to the show?
SL: ‘For people who really know Gormley for his bodyform works or his public sculptures, I think they’ll be surprised by how abstract and minimal many of the installations are. They are conceived to put the visitor’s body centre stage, to bring us back to our own senses and to focus on the here and now. It’s about putting direct experience first.’
Antony Gormley is on show at the Royal Academy in London from 21 September to 3 December 2019