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23 July 2012

An audience with Antony Gormley

Last week, what felt like nearly everyone in the art community of Somerset arrived at Barrington Court for an afternoon with Antony Gormely. There was little in the way of advertising about this event so it was surprising at how quickly the power of 'word-of-mouth' led to an audience, I'd estimate, of 200-300 people attending the hour talk and presentation by the famous artist in a marquee in the scenic grounds of Barrington Court last Tuesday 17th July. Currently on show (and the reason for his visit) in the manor house at Barrington is one of Gormley's early works, 'Field for the British Isles'.
"Field for the British Isles is an installation made in collaboration with a community in Merseyside. 40,000 hand-sized terracotta figures were produced by old and young alike, the shape of each determined by the person making it.
The installation is an Arts Council Collection Exhibition from South Bank Centre and is one of five artworks on loan as part of the Trust New Art programme 2012."

Even if you have never actually seen a work by Gormley it is undoubtable that most people will have at least heard of or seen images of the now, iconic, Angel of the North or bronze figures on Liverpool's Crosby Beach which arguably makes Gormley one of the most well known and influential British artists alive today. Prior to going to a talk like this, there is always a certain degree of expectation and sort-of pre-conceived thoughts and opinions of what it may/may not be like. Funny, I thought because for every one person that was excited about Gormley coming to Somerset I equally met those who weren't fans of his art work or more to the point, the more successful and 'famous' the artist can sometimes create a real marmite affect of opinions. In my view, this is healthy, as art should always spark debate and my personal view of Gormley's work prior to the talk was very open-ended, I wasn't a big fan and neither was I a loather to his work. I was curious to hear what the man had to say, and I did also wonder what the creator of the Angel of the North would think of Somerset's Willow Man? A question I never asked at the time, but one I’d like to ponder the possible answer to...

By arriving at Barrington dead on time, 3.45pm that Tuesday, we were somehow actually late as when we came to the marquee at 3.44 the place was entirely full! Everyone else, it seemed must have got there incredibly early. No matter, we opted to stand at the back instead of sitting so we had a 'fairly' decent view, or so we thought, until the slide show started...As it turned out it actually paid to be 'late' as our standing at the back of the marquee and well-timed bobbing up and down choreography to see each slide proved to be too distracting for Gormley and he invited three of us to take up the three free seats in the front row! Whoop! Now we were out of the way, the presentation could begin properly. Gormley discussed several pieces of work in his career, from the figurative cast bronze sculptures made from moulds of his own body to his more abstract works such as the fog piece, 'Blind Light'. I think what I initially noted as being interesting was that I had always seen Gormley as a 'sculptor' and hearing him talk about any of his work, the thing that seemed most crucial in all of them was the context, location or space that these sculptures were in. Whether it was the gallery or the beach the important factor was space. This makes sense as whilst all of his work is about the body it is important to remember that we 'know' our body in relation in context to the space it inhabits, or as Gormley put it, 'the body as a place to live'. The body is both a 'place to live' and a place which also lives within a bigger place, 'the body inhabits architecture'. Sorry, I have been reading a lot of Heidegger recently, and the idea of existing, as in 'to dwell' as Heidegger puts it, seems to have a strong resemblance to some of what Gormley was talking about. In this way I began to see him less as a sculptor and more of an installation artist. The labelling might not be too important as they are often one and the same but I found the shift in my thinking about his work to be interesting. The other thing that really struck me as I was listening to this talk was that, this is the man whose image I have seen cast hundreds of times on Crosby Beach, I've stood next to them, leaned on them, watched dogs bark at them, children climbing on them and yet here is the actual person in front of me that those figures have been cast from its a feeling of knowing someone yet not really knowing them at all. Its kind-of a weird feeling. But then, Gormley was all about experience, as he said, ‘experience over representation’ and how it seemed that he felt that the interaction, and sometimes pilgrimage to see his work (namely the figures that appear like mirages on Lake Ballard in Australia) is as much part of the work as the sculptures themselves. The reason for this, is because by making work about ‘the body’ and forcing the audience to interact with that work, it makes them think and engage with their own bodies with that space/in relation to that sculpture. For me, the work that I think best conveys this out of all the pieces Gormley showed us in his presentation were the more abstract pieces where the recognisable human figure wasn’t present instead in its place, a box with four holes in it, or a room full of fog, or a gallery space inhabited by a vortex of wire spiralling around seemed to place the viewer in the work more, for me, than the figurative stuff. It also de-clouded the somewhat cynical viewpoint that Gormley is an artist obsessed with his own image, clearly not true, when you see his other work. Besides, if you are making work about the body then surely there is no place better, than starting ‘close-to-home’ and using yourself?

This was a really interesting artist talk, and whilst not full of the humour that I had previously experienced seeing artists like Grayson Perry and David Mac, it was incredibly articulate and sincere. I am also learning about the depth and the ‘how’ artists talk about their practice, and I think there is a fine balance to be achieved between the thinking behind one’s work and how it is then applied and interpreted. I now also understand and indeed will look/experience his work a little differently in future. There’s a post in there somewhere, on ‘artists’ talks’ that will be coming to a post near you soon!

 You can visit Gormley's installation, 'Field for the British Isles' at Barrington until the 27th August. Visit: for more info.

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