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June 27, 2007

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

Posted by Christie Davies

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

Gormley is a genius. The Hayward is gormless. Rarely have I enjoyed an exhibition so much, or read such nonsense as is written in the guide and the catalogue.

Despite the Gateshead Flasher, Gormley understands that sculpture is about space, about how it should be filled and when it is best left empty. You enter the exhibition and there is Space Station, 2007, that tumbles above you, filling your sky like a science fiction fantasy in which you are drifting outside the mother ship. It is a series of bolted on oblong buildings with square windows, growing out almost haphazardly from a bulky core like a mad child's meccano set - which is what it looks like from further away. It is a real man's sculpture. To see it is to realise why abstract art only works in three dimensions and not in two. Two dimensions are for pictures or writing or algebra, anything less than this or more obscure is mere wallpaper. Space is abstract in and of itself; it is not seen, it is felt. It is what you inhabit.

This point is emphasised in Gormley's Blind Light, 2007. From the outside it is a brightly lit large glass cube filled with a glowing mist, through which invisible visitors make their way. Occasionally a hand will be clearly seen as it clutches despairingly at the transparent glass wall which separates those inside the inner light who can't see you; you are safe in the outer darkness. Joseph McCabe, Bertrand Russell and the young pre-deist A. G. Newton Flew would have loved it. Even little Dawkins would pause in mid-rant.

As you enter through a small door, you are handed and required to read a document in large print composed by the best lawyers in London. It warns persons who are asthmatic, suffer from claustrophobia or are of a nervous disposition not to enter. They should also have excluded meridionali and others given to unseen groping or spanking, as well as serial frotteurs. However, as far as I could tell, everyone behaved themselves. There were no sudden screams of anger or delight, nor the sound of one hand clapping. Isn't life grand?

Blind Light was no more disorienting than to walk towards the sea across the satin sands of Cefn Sidan on a bright day when a low, dense mist blows in from the sea. Blind Light felt much the same, only safer, because you know that within a box you can walk in any direction until you come to a glass wall and then walk round the walls to the exit. In Cefn Sidan you might well wander into the sea and be drowned like a Penclawdd cockle picker. You do in fact know which way to get out because of the sound of the sea and the way in which the feel of the sand under your feet changes as you walk towards or away from it. Neither of these clues is present in Gormley's void.

The third of Gormley's wonders is Allotment II, 1996, a series of 300 life-size standing hollow concrete blocks, each designed to hold a Swede, ranging in size from child to adult. Everyone is an oblong body surmounted by a smaller oblong head with suitable apertures to mark very roughly the position of mouth, eyes, ears, genitalia and arsehole. You can walk down the gaps between them and go close up to the concrete marked with knot whirls, which is more than you can do with the Terracotta Army which fascinated Gormley. The only real oddity is that each figure has on the top of its head a metal hole designed to receive a screw; did all the original citizens of Malmö who posed for them have a screw loose?

What is pleasing is that these people, however standardised they are as good Swedes, are not uniform or grouped into regular sets. This is not the East German army lined up, close and symmetrical on parade singing in unison:

Die Preise hoch, die Läden dicht geschlossen.
Die Not marschiert und wir marschieren mit.
The final real delight is the entire room Matrices and Expansions, 2006-7, that grow at you like hollow crystals made of wire, like the bonds of enormous molecules or iron filings trapped in space by a complicated magnetic field, unable to fall. They are not "random matrices" as Gormley asserts. There are of course patterns in a random distribution, which is why leukaemia clusters occur even when there is no cause.

But I cannot see Gormley's spaces fitting this model. Also he spoils his work by hiding a wire figure of a human body in the middle of each of them, which parents point out to their fractious, fractal children. Yet for the adult viewer, putting bodies everywhere so that Gormley can prattle about "the body" or the relationship between the body and space is very heavy handed.

Indeed many of Gormley's bodies are heavies. Cast iron corpses moulded to match his own body hang from the ceiling to prove how strong his ropes are and lie on the floor like people caught short by the fumes when fleeing from Pompeii to be swallowed in ashes, their forms preserved for archaeologists to gawp at centuries later. Archaeology is an affront to human dignity, since people are dug out of their graves and burial chambers without their written informed consent and the tragedies of the past are turned into spectacle. Gormley's own odd obsession with "the body" may well have begun when he took Part I "Ark and Anth", the Archaeology and Anthropology Tripos at Cambridge alongside Prince Charles. For Charles it was a suitable preparation for a future career of ancestor worship and sitting through exotic Commonwealth dancing in grass skirts. But it warped Gormley.

At times there is a touch of humour as in Mother's Pride III, 1982/2007. Gormley has made a wall out of slices of cheap white bread, the kind eaten by the lower orders, as in all senses a way out of their existence. In it there is a corpse-shaped hole, like the outline American detectives draw around a murder victim to show where he landed. The bread-dead edge consists, appropriately enough, of nibble marks. When the King of Denmark presented his oppressed colonial subjects in Iceland with a statue by the assimilated Icelando-Danish neo-classical sculptor Thorwaldsen, the angry Icelanders cried out: "We asked for bread and these pigs of Danes have given us a stone". I hate to think how the Icelanders would have responded to Mother's Pride III.

It is at this point that the guide book, and presumably the artist, lapse into nonsense and say:

Dating from the late 1970s and early 1980s Gormley's early works were made during the Cold War when anxiety about the possibility of a nuclear attack was at its height.
Except among the nutters in CND, people were not anxious about such a possibility. Even in CND many of them either did not believe in a Soviet nuclear attack or were assisting it, since they were Soviet agents or stooges, notably at that hot bed of intolerant leftism, Leeds University, in favour of having more Soviet SS20 ballistic missiles in Eastern Europe. This was widely known at the time and has been confirmed by the Stasi and KGB files.

There is an odd cross reference to the Civil Defence slogan "Protect and Survive" which says that Gormley's work takes up their theme of food, shelter and defence, shown as bread, an old hospital blanket and hundreds of lead, mock 38-calibre bullets piled up to make Seeds III/V, 1989-1993. Yes, well.

I also have grave doubts about the way Gormley and Co. throw around phrases like "event horizon" or "critical mass". It is rather like politicians talking about a "quantum leap". Or Eng. Lit. types holding forth about relativity. Artists and catalogue compilers should be more wary about using such metaphors unless of course they are being humorous; they rarely are. They should stick to making things and not talk "scientific" nonsense about their art. That is my job.

But I should not carp and grumble at their verbal clumsiness. I will forgive Gormley anything for having made the statement:

I have never been interested in making statues.
Instead of filling the world with bodies that look like blown-up chess persons or Victorian worthies in turn-ups or Dr Ambedkar in spectacles, he has mastered space. Roll over, Thorwaldsen.

Christie Davies is the author of the science-fiction Dewi the Dragon, Talybont, Y Lolfa, 2006.

To read Lilian Pizzichini's rather different take on this exhibition, see: 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.

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(1) “I don’t know much about art but I know what I like”. I’ve looked at the online links, and I like what I see.

(2) I more than heartily agree with what the author says about artists, etc., abusing scientific terminology.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at June 27, 2007 08:45 PM
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