For ISSUE#1 of CON.TEXT, we visited Antony Gormley at his studio complex near King’s Cross, London. Between accidentally knocking over a maquette and exploring his vast studio, we discussed the importance of ritual within his practice and why archaeology and contemporary art are more similar than you would have ever expected.
HARRIET THORPE: The theme of our first issue is RITUAL and we’re exploring how artists use ritual in the process of creation. Can you discuss how your work relates to ritual and do you follow a certain ritual while you are creating?
ANTONY GORMLEY: Yes, I think that Anthony Giddens has dealt with this whole issue of ritual best in a reflection of the western society looking at the loss of repetition and the need for things to be done again and again in order to deepen the experience of them. He characterises the loss of ritual by the rise of addiction and the repeating of pleasure which becomes increasingly shallow. I think that’s a very beautiful unlocking, of both the need as well as the loss of something that exists so fundamentally in all non-literate culture and non-urban societies. But in a way we have replaced the rituals of daily sustenance with the going and coming to work, the providing or seeking of nourishment, the catching of a particular bus… In a way the dispersion of the cohesive rituals of collective life by the replacement with personalised, repetitious actions that at their worst become psychotic. I’ve put all of that as a preface to I suppose, my need to do the same thing again and again. I ask myself that question a lot, is there not a better way, and why am I so conservative? Why for 32 years have I found it necessary to deny myself in the ritual that lies at the core of my work. Taking a lived moment and registering it in matter by this artificial act. You would have imagined this ritual would have been replaced by something, and you’ve arrived at a time where it is being replaced by digital scanning.
“…the space of ritual simply allows you a foil, a measure against the flow of daily life. One is very aware of how ones state of mind, mood, even heart-rate, at the time of feeling. You return to this place that is very familiar even though your experience of it is every time is completely new.”
HT: Do you think the repetition of this routine is a positive process, do your feelings change or stay static?
AG: That’s the whole point of ritual. When I was at school, it was a monastic school, we had to stop and pray seven or eight times a day. It would be very good to be on the rugby pitch and the angelus bell would go, everybody had to stop and do something very different than chasing the ball. You would stop that goal orientated activity and replace it with a space and a time in which there were no goals. I think that’s still really important, the space of ritual simply allows you a foil, a measure against the flow of daily life. One is very aware of how ones state of mind, mood, even heart-rate, at the time of feeling. You return to this place that is very familiar even though your experience of it is every time is completely new. It’s a paradox for me, in order to understand difference you have to go back to the same place and I think that quality of recognising finer and finer, qualities of difference is where enrichment becomes. You could say conversation itself is ritual. The way in which, this isn’t much of conversation we’re having because I seem to be doing all the talking, but the way which the sharing of the time of togetherness is expressed by an utterance from one person being followed by a pause and from an utterence from another, that notion of the rituals of human communication, they’re very deeply embedded. And I think that the idea we can escape them is a false notion of modernity in a way. So its a really interesting question, how do we recognise the need for that return to repeated activities in a world in which, certainly organised religion has lost its hole in our imaginations.
“I have these fantasies that at some point perhaps in the deep future along with other bits of human artefacts, these things that I’ve made now will be discovered and play their own part in a conversation across time.”
GUILLAUME VANDAME: This makes me think about your sculpture in a different way through the way you work. What do you feel is the place of religion in our culture today?
AG: Most sculpture is the history of human making and particularly the making of images of ourselves has a sacred function. I strongly recommend to go and see the Dawn of the Modern Mind and the Ice-Age exhibition at the British Museum. At a time when there were only 100, 000 human beings in what’s now Europe, part of their arsenal to survive was the making of objects that obviously have a sacred function. The fact that they also often share consistencies, so these highly abstracted female forms have something to do with the aspect of continuance or the fact that bodies come out of bodies. I think the connection between that and what I do is that in making these imaginative reflections on being in the body and our dependency on other bodies. I think it has to do with putting the mind to work on things greater than simply surviving. This is a way of communicating across time to other beings, and I think that that, on the one hand is intensely physical and on the other hand has in built desire to transcend over time.
GV: I understand that you studied archaeology at university when you were at Cambridge. I’m particularly interested in this relationship between contemporary art and archaeology, could you elaborate on that?
AG: I absolutely believe that we cant imagine the future without understanding our past or anyway engaging with it. I think it’s quite possible to make new things but it’s unlikely that the newness of that thing is not connected with something which has already been done. I’m concerned everything I make has to have a relationship to something that’s already been made, and its a question of how much you take that forgranted and how much you want to explore the relationship between this and an Egyptian scribed figure from Middle Kingdom Egypt, the casts of the vapourized bodies found in Pompeii or a Peruvian mummy which has been left in a cave in the Andes. I’m not saying these are reflections on all of these things, I would say that I’m aware of them and there’s a silent conversation. I often think that the way that I make the work is using this absolute mineral iron, in a way that a meteorite or asteroid is the residue of history and is indestructible. I think the same of my work, I have these fantasies that at some point perhaps in the deep future along with other bits of human artefacts, these things that I’ve made now will be discovered and play their own part in a conversation across time. That idea that things don’t have to be fully revealed at their time of making or that they might have a future life that has nothing to do with our current concerns, that interests me quite a lot.
HT: That reminds me of Field. You say that new things are always appropriating the past, but the context of the present changes. Do you think the reception of that work has changed throughout your career?
AG: Field is about the individual pieces in a collective condition of being a landscape and its about reconciling the spirit of the ancestors and the unborn, it has a lot to do with all the things we’ve been talking about. The consolation is that previously religion provided the idea of a repeated action. It is very powerful when you gather a group of people, the larger the number. In the making of Asian field we had about 5, 000 assistants who over 300 of them were makers. That repeated action being shared by 300 people on a common ground and even on the first day after tentative beginnings, recognising that this empty school ground was now inhabited by these creatures that didn’t exist before, these animated lumps of clay but still very much lumps of clay in a sense not fully formed. Is this a surrogate religion, are these objects made for a reason that doesn’t exist anymore? For me it’s a replacement of the icon, but there is no singular object, there is no body nailed to the cross, no idealised Virgin Mary, no Buddha, Vishnu, Brahma. There is just this proliferation of eyes that gaze at the viewer and try in some way to find a place within that consciousness. Field is about making the viewer into God, the viewer is made to feel that he or she is in the position of having what every single one of those possible beings doesn’t have: consciousness, feeling, freedom of action. The moral imperative of Field is saying, you are the ones with all this power. The space of art as a reflexive space in which those big questions: Who we are and where are we going? And to what extent we can call ourselves civilized in a world in which evidentially there are sources not equally shared, the population is overgrowing and there are limited abilities of this planet to sustain this level of this extremely successful species. Field is probably my most environmentally activist work.
GV: So on that same idea, do you believe that there is a direct relationship between the development of your work and the changing environment?
AG: Yes I think it’s getting more desperate, in that respect. Our inability, it seems to me, is that we are unable to recognize that we are well into the sixth great extinction of the biosphere – we have enormous responsibility. It is very clear that we were gaining a new species every million years and losing one with every million years. We seem to be losing a species every year. It does not seem that we are actually at a time when new species are arriving because their habitats have been diminished so far. But we as organisms have within ourselves about a trillion bacteria, of which we know 500 are living in our mouths, of which we know nothing. I put that same form either high up in the mountains or dispersed over the skyline of the city, I am asking whether the human project fits in the scheme of things and it’s becoming more and more desperate.
“The Angel of the North is a totem, it’s another example of me returning to an archaic or animalistic attitude to how art might work.”
HT: And do you think you use your own sculpture as a tool in these environments and these landscapes as a form of a social responsibility to open people’s eyes to this? AG: It’s the best I can do. I am trying to allow art to escape its specialization, which is part of our problem, as a species. I want to put the power of art back in the common realm. I don’t want it to be institutionalized. The Angel of the North is a totem, it’s another example of me returning to an archaic or animalistic attitude to how art might work. The pieces on Crosby Beach are the same, but they do not have labels. They are not mediated, they have escaped from a condition of predigestion, and hopefully can act in the world as an open space for people to think for themselves about where they fit in the scheme of things at a time when I think you’ve got very little time. In a time when time is running out.
GV: At your recent talk at the ICA, you expressed the idea of the viewer becoming the viewed, which is something that we discussed today, and to my eye responds to other artists or other artists are responding to the same theme such as Anish Kapoor. Do you see this as a trend?
AG: I think that Olafur Eliasson, in particular; Tino Seghal, in particular, recognizes the object nature of art is much less important than it as an area of participation, in which the collective engendering of a reflexive environment is the most important. I am more interested in the acoustic effects of Anish’s dishes than his shiny, distorting mirrors because I think their spectacular optical effects rather outweigh your ability to use them, actually in a deeper reflexive manner. I recently went to France and was in an earth chamber made by Andy Goldsworthy. It was just absolutely extraordinary. It was his acoustic womb. A chamber built under the earth, created by oak branches that got smaller and smaller as the dome was created. You got into a single stone step passage, there was limited light. It was something that had a conversation with the Tombs in Mycenae, with the central chamber pyramid of Cheops, with a yurt, with a snow cave, with the caves in the Pyreness and the Dolduynes of early man in Europe. It was highly reflexive. I think the idea of art as an open space, in which people look at each other as life lived, rather than as idealized presences. I think there is a move towards the collective participation in the space of art and away from, the individual objects of high exchange value that are seen as precious masterpieces that you are expected to worship in some kind of aesthetic revelry. I think the certainty of all those aesthetic absolutes has to be replaced by skepticism – something much more meditative. The function of labels and curation and catalogues, in a sense the categorisation of art has been to take the perplexity out and assure you that the experience you are having has a predetermined value. I think that the real value of art is when you really don’t know what’s happening, when you are faced with an experience that does not concur with any category. Where you are left, having to deal with your own experience first hand, unaided by the ropes and crampons of institutionalised acceptance.