Field for thought

Turner-prize nominated sculptor Anthony Gormley talks to Beatrice Colin about art, life and little clay figures.

‘You have to stand back and really look,’ insists a tall man in blue with long arms waving in semaphore. ‘Looking is the most important thing.’ In one ofthe main exhibition spaces in Edinburgh’s Gallery of Modern Art. a team of helpers are unpacking and placing 40,000 roughly moulded clay figures on the floor. Arranged by colour and height, the figures are a mob ofdifferent tribes. a crowd ofstrange, haunting clay people made by 40 Liver'pudlian volunteers of all ages.

Thousands of eyes poked into the clay with a pencil peer out at the open door and thousands of strange bodies create a terracotta carpet which spills from window to skirting board. The artist, Anthony Gormley, like a rebel force, oversees the hi-jack of the gallery with infectious enthusiasm. ‘The viewer’s body is excluded,’ he says. ‘They find themselves looking through the threshold at the proscenium arch of a stage in which life itself has become the subject. They are under the scrutiny of countless gazes.‘

‘In this case the invasion is total.’

Fieldfnr the British Isles is an incredible, captivating work. Apart from the sheer spectacle of the texture and form ofthe clay figures, the atmosphere they create provokes an emotional gut reaction. The figures seem to have taken over the room and look set to march out through the door and take over the building. ‘People normally come into a gallery and walk around objects expecting to be aesthetically possessed or to aesthetically possess the work,‘ he explains. ‘ln this case the invasion is total. the occupation is total.’

Gormley‘s work is predominantly concerned with the human form. Earlier pieces include cast iron figures standing spread-eagled. their arms smoothed out into wings. others lie prostrate on the floor in simplified form without fingers or toes, and slabs of concrete are indented with hand and foot prints as if there is someone inside. Gormley‘s approach involves a rethink of Modernism which has in the past transposed the viewer from reality into abstraction.

‘I think we have to recognise that the idea of art as the sublime. other pure place removed from the street and from reality has failed,‘ he says. ‘Here we are in one of these specialised environments with a humidifier and closed windows and low lighting which is not dissimilar to a morgue. It is at pains to tell us that we are somewhere insulated from the real


Instead. Gormley employs the body as a messy. indeterminable subject which reminds us of our own

mortality. ‘The frame of a museum and the frame of a frame in another way where art is constantly pushed into this position ofapart,’ he points out. ‘I use the body as given to bring back first hand and primal experience to the appreciation ofart in which no prior knowledge is necessary. Here, in some way. the mind and the body. the feeling and the entire being of the viewer is not only engaged but made the subject ofthe work.‘

The work has several strata of meaning as Gormley attempts to undermine all pre-conceived notions of what art is, who creates it, where it should be experienced and what it means. ‘lt’s concerned with the idea that creativity is universal and that it lies in all people. You can take 40 tons of earth and gather 40 people together and say let us make something which will be a reservoir for our feelings.‘

Yet the work is far more than just a comment on the exclusivity of art. Gormley goes on to talk about the role of culture in our life. ‘I think the subject of the work is the biggest question, and the subject is us,’ he says. ‘Each of these figures is looking for a place and the place they are looking for is within our conscience. The negotiation of gazes that happens across the threshold is about our relationship to the earth and whether in being the conscience of the

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ulded clay figures invade Edinburgh’s Gallery of Modern Art

earth. we‘re going to take responsibility for its future. People are not used to being implicated in an artwork.‘

And this work could be an illustration of the core of Gormley’s work. He is concerned with coming face to face with our own individual, imperfect humanity.

Gormley employs the body as a messy, indeterminable subject which reminds us of our own mortality.

‘Our being is still tied to an organic system which we are increasingly trying to place in an inorganic context,‘ he says. That dream ofthe total control of our environment which Virtual Reality represents is to me the thing which has to be questioned. This work is primitive because it deals with basic things. life, death, shit and mud. It is a tool for perhaps beginning to realise that the whole division between West and the rest, and civilised and uncivilised in a global world is nonsense. Because when we talk about undeveloped. we realise we're actually talking about ourselves.’

Fields for the British Isles is at the Gallery of Modern Art tutti! 15 Jan I995.

68 The List 4—17 November 1994