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May 23, 2007

Antony Gormley's new London sculpture Event Horizon is not art - it is an Arts Council-inspired directive on how to reach out to the community, argues Lilian Pizzichini: Antony Gormley: Blind Light at the Hayward Gallery

Posted by Lilian Pizzichini

Antony Gormley: Blind Light
Hayward Gallery, London
17th May - 19th August 2007
Daily 10am - 6pm (Fridays & Saturdays until 9pm)

Antony Gormley is one of the most beloved artists in the UK. Perhaps, before his premiership expires, Tony Blair will jump on the Gormley bandwagon and extol him as "the people's sculptor". He has something in common with Gormley, after all: a sense of his own importance and an instinct for what is popular. At any rate, like Blair, Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, but less controversially so, Gormley is a household name. He has staked a claim for himself as the voice of the people through the imaginative placing of his statuary. His popularity, I would suspect, is quite unwitting: he sees his work as being about himself, or oneself, occupying a space. But he goes further - the work does not come alive until it has been seen. Then it develops further resonance.

The Angel of the North is a case in point: its value to the community who drive past it everyday has something to do with their inability to tune into political discourse. This discourse has been sullied by presentational tactics. The political process itself has become engorged with petty bureaucracy. Gormley, meanwhile, has used castings of his naked body to provoke national conversations about questions that concern forgotten communities and the regeneration of places such as Gateshead or a Merseyside beach. Since the appearance of Gormley's statues, Crosby Beach has attracted national attention on a scale it has never seen before. The locals must be filled with a newly discovered pride. God bless Gormley.

The London figures, Event Horizon, which form part of the Hayward show that opened last week, aim to match this success. Thirty-one metal casts of his naked body (get over yourself, Gormley!) are perched on the edge of buildings surrounding the South Bank. But here, in the heart of arty London, they lose their significance. It was the magnificence of the Angel rising out of a forgotten land, seemingly in the middle of a motorway, that gave it its power. The statues that constitute Event Horizon look out of place - that's the point, and vulnerable, yes, but they have lost their mystery. This is not art: it's an Arts Council-inspired directive on how to reach out to the community. Each statue directs its unseeing gaze towards the Hayward. In effect, we have 31 effigies of Gormley looking at their creator's work being celebrated in a gallery. To call this the height of navel-gazing would be an understatement.

But the work is consistently good to look at. Even if the meaning is bare of real significance or profundity. One of the galleries at the Hayward is entirely filled with a conglomeration of pierced metal boxes. It's called Space Station, and looks like a giant Meccano set, until you find out that it is a scaled-up approximation of the artist. What a pity - it could have been something interesting - some home for aliens. But no, Gormley is back to himself. Perhaps in Space Station he is admitting that he has demystified himself to such an extent that he needs metal boxes to express his quiddity. If his work is so relentlessly about himself and the space he occupies, one hopes he has the humility to stand up to the kind of critical scrutiny that focuses on him as a man. If he has, then his work is interesting.

When he constructs statues about space he becomes less interesting. In an adjoining gallery there is a dense collection of white wooden boxes echoing human proportions. This is the people who live in a city, the artist tells us. The human body is thereby situated in its rightful place: a building - instead of on top of one, I suppose. What is public? What is private? What is in? What is out? He is asking us to re-evaluate the spaces we occupy. As a lifelong city-dweller, I don't need Antony Gormley to tell me how to negotiate my place in a city. Been there, done it, am continuing to do it on a daily basis. Every time I use the tube, trudge along Oxford Street, I am questioning and examining my environment. I am noticing the myriad others engaged in their own "dialogue" with the buildings that contain and constrain us. Thanks anyway.

This attitude Gormley brings to his work - that of its public relevance - of making us see ourselves anew - is somewhat arrogant. An artist like Banksy does the same work with greater subtlety and is much more subversive. His latest graffiti-style image on a bricked-up window in Exmouth Market is of a little girl being sucked into a hole-in-the-wall. Like Gormley, he could be making a political point - almost mundane in its topicality. This image could be a comment on high street banks making record profits or their reluctance to repay customers illegal penalty charges. Who cares? It's clever and it's mysterious.

The magic of Banksy (and hence his mystery) is that he makes his art in the dead of night in commando-style operations. His work is strictly speaking illegal, and it speaks of the streets, of ordinary lives in the most guttural yet witty tones. Last year he left a life-size replica of a Guantanamo Bay detainee at Disneyland, and decorated the Israeli side of the West Bank barrier with satirical images of life on the other side of the wall. One of his most famous stunts was to leave a small rock painting of a caveman pushing a supermarket trolley in the British Museum. It stayed there for several days before officials spotted it.

Back to the Hayward, and in Matrices and Expansions, Gormley has also done something visually clever. He has hidden half a dozen dematerialising figures within great tangling spirographs of wire. It's very pretty, very delicate and something like the strangeness that makes art deliver "the shock of the new". This is indeed a new perspective. Downstairs, five of his metal-cast figures are suspended upside down, like bodies dangling from chains. Gormley says his figures "bear witness" to torture and execution. Oh dear, we're back to the obvious again.


One of the problems is that his metal body-casts are featureless, and so it is hard to feel compassion for them. They are there, and that is that. They are a comment (what else?) on public spaces and what we do with them and in them. The metal fellows who are an "event" on our "horizon" - well, yes they look precariously placed, and I wondered if I was supposed to consider the potential they evoked for suicide, despair, all that sort of thing. I didn't. The only questions they raised for me were ones of Health and Safety. I could just imagine the meetings staffed by gallery and council representatives and the considerations involved in the risk assessment of one actually falling off its perch. Hardly the stuff of inspired artistry.

As for the cloud in the big glass box, apparently, this was another Health and Safety nightmare. I know this because the curator told us so. Whatever Gormley says about re-examining public spaces or making the people into the art, this big glass box was as vacant as was most of the rest of his show.

Lilian Pizzichini's first book, Dead Men's Wages, published by Picador, won the 2002 Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction. She is currently writing a biography of the novelist Jean Rhys for Bloomsbury.

To read Christie Davies's rather different take on this exhibition, see: Rarely has Christie Davies enjoyed an exhibition so much - or read so much nonsense as written in its catalogue - as Antony Gormley's Blind Light at the Hayward.

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When it comes to physics, artists generally get hold of the wrong end, or even the non-end, of the stick. Nothing meaningful can emerge from an event horizon.

Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate

Or is that the point?

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at May 23, 2007 05:46 PM
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