Antony Gormley, the renowned British sculptor, explored the body, community and how to capture ‘lived time’ at poetryEast with Maitreyabandhu
Maitreyabandhu: You studied meditation with Goenka and have described it as a ‘life changing experience’.
Antony Gormley: I was lucky enough to have a relatively classical and privileged education, but it was all about stuff that came out of books. In a way it was about learning to respect and reverence great writing and great thinking. And suddenly here was this very humble man who said that in a sense, all you need to know you already have – you just need a means of accessing it. I’d never spent ten days without talking before – that in itself was a really good thing to do. Yes, you get pains in the back and legs, but at the same time I felt there was a lot of falling away, and the beginning of making sense of what it really felt like to be alive. And I’m still on that journey. Certainly I think all of the work I do in sculpture wouldn’t have happened without that experience. What I learnt from Goenka was probably that it’s essentially about creating the space in your life to focus on being. I don’t want to make art that is a distraction; I want to make art that allows you to become aware of yourself in space and time. This body I have is my closest experience of matter – so the question is, how can I use it from the inside? Rather than being preoccupied on skilful depiction, can I just try to make an honest account of a moment of lived time? Sculpture is like three-dimensional shadow, it’s something that comes from a real event in time, a real body; can you capture that?
M: A sense of belonging has become very central to your work. Increasingly you’ve wanted, it seems to me, to move beyond the individualistic into a sense of community. I’m struck by the fact that in your studio you all have lunch together, for instance.
A: I think community is the most important thing. It’s the community that makes the work possible. The kind of sculpture I’m most interested in often comes from cultures that don’t have writing or armies or grain stores, but who nevertheless achieve extraordinary architecture and complex mythological narratives which are all created collectively. The power of coming together to do something that isn’t to do with food or money, or the expression of dominance over nature, but that is about making something more alive – that’s what I’m interested in.
Most of my sculptures have been collectively made and I couldn’t dream of them making
them by myself. The Angel of the North for example, couldn’t have been done without the shipbuilders. That project was so much about a particular community that had been told that it had no meaning. Margaret Thatcher closed the coal mines and soon after that all the shipbuilding stopped. Suddenly this whole community that had existed, and had really been the crucible of the industrial revolution – of that extraordinary relationship between coal, iron and engineering, which led Britain to lead the world in our capability in making ships and bridges and locomotives – was told, ‘We’re going over to a services industry now, we’re going to make financial instruments, you’re not needed any more. Furthermore, we’re actually going to annihilate all that physical memory, we’re going to turn those slag heaps into new landscapes, we’re going to get rid of all the winding.’ I mean, it’s absolutely extraordinary that this history that is, in my view, as important as the gothic cathedrals, was suddenly annihilated from our landscape.
So there was this need to say, ‘Look, the experience of 250 years and thousands of men living, working and dying underground in intolerable circumstances: we can’t allow for collective amnesia. But furthermore we can’t allow for those skills not to be celebrated.’ I’m talking like a politician now, but at the time we just had this maquette that we put in the back of a Luton van and drove round Hartlepool, Middlesbrough and Newcastle asking, ‘How can we make this? Who can do this? Who do you know who can bend ship plates?” And it was a fantastic thing – finding the people who’d basically been made redundant. It takes hundreds of years to build up these communities of capability. And finding them before they totally disappeared and bringing them together to make this thing – this angel – was an amazing privilege. In a way we repositioned art as a place.
It’s very important that the mound that the Angel sits on, which is actually made of the old pit-head baths where the miners would come up and wash off the dust from down below, is shared with its visitors. In fact it doesn’t mean anything unless, in my view, you see that relationship between that horizontal of the top of the wings and then the silhouettes of people walking on the hill below. For me it’s a place where people can go. Somehow this community that had been told it had no place, no value, could say, ‘Yes we do, here is a place we can go, and look – this is what we can do.’ And I think people can project on to it, we can project on to the Angel our hopes and fears.
M: Sometimes you say the work isn’t religious, and yet the Angel of the North and so many of the works have a sort of aura – ‘projection’ is one way of putting it – but also a sense of value enlivening the imagination. So why that distinction?
A: This is interesting because I think religion does try to answer the big questions. I remember the Catechism for instance from when I was born. I still think those questions: What are we here for? Who are we? What are we made of and where are we going? Those are all relevant and central questions that religion tries to answer, but the questions are not only the remit for religions.
I think that what I’m trying to do is to make objects that in some way ask those questions in physical terms. I don’t know whether such objects can offer comfort in themselves, I mean they’re usually rather hard and cold things. They’re objects that stand to a certain degree outside time but that have time on their side. And they wait, they wait for those with feelings, with thoughts, with the freedom to move – they wait for their projection. I think it is about projections. If there is emotion, it’s in the viewer; it’s the viewer making something of this empty space that is silent, still and waiting. I spent a lot of time as a child praying to plaster virgins, which I guess may have something to do with it. But maybe I found them not empty enough.
M: Do you still have faith in art?
A: In a time when organised religions have failed us and politics continues to obscure us from real needs, I think art that has freed itself from the politics of power is an open space which hopefully can be shared. Art is about providing tools for self-determination. That sounds like a highly instrumentalised idea about art…. And some will say, ‘No, art is about escape, or it’s about giving you window on an alternative’; I’m not sure about that. For me the adventure of making art is not dissimilar to what scientists do, it’s an examination of reality. Scientists do it in entirely material terms by empirical experimentation with matter or energy. And I think art does it in another way, by saying ‘Can we look at the world like this?’ ■