On the Skyline

Peter Campbell

It is like the first paragraph of a bit of old-fashioned science fiction: ‘Overnight, figures, the size and shape of men, mysteriously appeared on high points of city buildings. All could be seen from the grey windowless bunker that crouched by the river. Some were near, others far off. All looked towards it.’ That is indeed what has happened. One of Antony Gormley’s armies has settled on us. If it really was science fiction they would have marched with rusty squeals from Cuxhaven, or from Crosby Beach by the Mersey where their brothers stand, washed by the tides, staring out to sea. As it is, they dot that part of the London horizon you can scan from the Hayward Gallery sculpture terraces.

Figure from ‘Event Horizon’ by Anthony Gormley

Figures in the distance, seen against the sky (a sniper, a watcher, a lone rider approaching over the plain) are always a little threatening. Westerns make good use of them. Gormley’s figures are similarly effective and equally spooky. It is typical of him to take an object – the body cast – multiply it many times, and work it hard for dramatic effect.

Inside the Hayward bunker he develops three or four more ideas with his habitual thoroughness: other makers of installations are sometimes playful in cheerful, childish or mysterious ways. Gormley never is. His games test the potential of ideas which are simple in themselves, but often intricate or laborious in the making. Among the items inside the Hayward are more life casts, spaces filled with a triangulated mesh of slim welded wires – some, as they become dense towards the centre, resolve into a blurred figure (Ferment) – and a field of concrete blocks, arranged in rows, a small one on top of a tall one. Each pair, one discovers, follows measurements taken from real-life heads and bodies (Allotment II). The results suggest the habits of an obsessive collector and arranger of information rather than one who likes to make-believe.

The highly effective piece which gives its name to the Hayward exhibition is Blind Light: a glass-walled box something under ten metres square and about three metres high, lit from the top and filled with dense fog. The materials used to enclose and make the fog include toughened glass, water and ultrasonic humidifiers. From outside you see a luminous block of whiteness. Visitors are ushered in through an opening from which the fog oozes. When one of them, feeling his way about, approaches the perimeter and reaches out towards the glass, a hand becomes visible. Where it touches the wall it cuts a track in the condensation. Sometimes faces and bodies loom through the cloud. Get inside the box and as you approach the wall you suddenly become aware of the clear space beyond. The fog has, as it were, lifted. There is water underfoot, and (as with natural fogs) you can hardly see your hand in front of your face. If you are old enough to remember the last London Particular you know that the real thing was not as bright as this and smelled not faintly of rubber but strongly of sulphurous coal smoke. Yet much is familiar: the isolation, the way you have to concentrate to keep your sense of direction. I suppose it’s much the same with white-outs in the Arctic or the mountains, but I’ve never been in one of those.

Once you enter the bright clamminess of Blind Light the experience you have is about as structureless as any a three-dimensional work can offer – more so, for example, than what happens to you with James Turrell’s light pieces, even the most minimal. The rest of the Hayward (Gormley has used every gallery and taken over spaces in corners and behind the stairs as well) is filled with things. Some are as much architecture as artwork; many, like Blind Light, demand that you participate rather than contemplate.

In the case of Hatch you are again invited to enter a room-like box, this time penetrated by a grid of square aluminium tubes. These project inward and allow one to look through the little holes that the open ends make in the plywood wall to catch sight of people moving about in the iron-maiden-like field that meets you when you get inside. Once there you have to pick your way through, over or under menacing projections. The field of concrete blocks that makes up Allotment II suggests a maze, not because you can’t work out how to cross it but because it seems impossible to plan a path that would take you past each person-sized block.

The negotiations these works force on you – shuffling through the fog, taking a winding path through the concrete blocks, choosing where to put your feet among the projecting tubes – generate, or are intended to generate, states of mind. This, rather than any general aesthetic response, is what Gormley is working for. Space Station, a heavy construction of overlapping boxes made from Corten steel plates fills the double-height entrance gallery. Gormley says he wants it ‘to unhinge people’s comfort with the existing dimensions of their habitat. In doing this a certain space is created that hopefully triggers feelings of exposure, nausea, perhaps fear, yet also excitement.’

The catalogue has a number of comparative illustrations: Moshe Safdie’s Habitat (housing made from stacked, cantilevered, concrete boxes that was built for the Montreal Expo in 1967), ranks of tombstones in a First World War cemetery, and a view of Manhattan skyscrapers. The parallels are clear enough and the first is an acknowledged source. Gormley’s own Habitat is a small construction of bright mild steel blocks stacked much as Safdie’s boxes are stacked, and Space Station is an enlarged, tilted version of the same sort of thing. Fields of replicated items, all of them man-made (there is also a picture of the Chinese terracotta army), suggest the authoritarian symmetry of military march-pasts and Fascist architecture. Why would an artist working today turn to repetition and enclosure for his effects?

One reason – it is perhaps why Gormley has become so popular – is that the kind of repetitive regularity the life casts and the tombstones share has become harder and harder to find in the world around us. Terraces of house, ranges of docks, even arcades of shops and streets of office buildings, once formed a regular enough fabric for pieces of sculpture to take their place on them like medals or badges. That simplicity is now overlain by discordant styles of building, and by all the images, signs and words that guide us from place to place, forbid or license action, and, above all, persuade us to buy. In this context Gormley’s uninflected repetition, like Richard Serra’s great sheets of rusting steel, offer simplicity and induce calm or even simple terror (Who are these eyeless figures? Will the steel wall fall?) in a way the world we have made no longer can. When one artist’s work takes over a large space – particularly when the work is simple and abstract – the gallery becomes a place of retreat. Art is not religion, but galleries can offer sanctuary.