If a lesser artist would propose to flood parts of the RA with sea water, splash around with clay, build giant walkable metal structures inside several of the halls, the ancient institution’s answer would be quite predictable. However, if you’re one of the most revered living artists and a knight of your kingdom then you won’t even be asked to explain why. Consider it done.
At the age of 69, Sir Antony has reached that point in his career, and this is the most important exhibition of his work worldwide in over ten years. Don’t miss this. Like art? Whatever. Don’t like art? Frankly, my dear, I don’t riverdance. Everyone who lives and breathes should see it, as long as you’re in Europe, the UK, or any adjacent continents between now and 3 December, when it closes. For clarification, Pacific islands including New Zealand count into Asia/Pacific, and Asia does indeed border Europe. Equally Greenland was part of Europe, last time I checked.
What were we talking about, yes, the exhibition. There are pieces from all periods during his long career that spanned 45 years so far, some have been specifically commissioned or re-created for this exhibition, others have been loaned by their owners. However, out of the eight most important pieces of the show only two are not from 2019: the giant dangling iron pendants called Body and Fruit from 1991/93, which weigh a total of 7.5t, and our absolutely favourite bit of the exhibition, Lost Horizon I from 2008, which consists of 24 cast-iron, identical body-forms, each just under 190cm tall.
The figures are spread over the space, with some ‘standing’ horizontally on the walls, or upside-down “on” the ceiling, others standing upright between the crowd, on first glance looking like they’re part of the crowd, if the room is busy with visitors and the crowd includes a sufficient number of tall people. Especially the statues hanging from the ceiling look dramatic, because you cannot quite see how they are attached to the illuminated glass. We were surprised how when you look through a lens or on photos, you can extremely easily reach an effect of ‘turning the space around an angle’, so that suddenly the wall or ceiling becomes the new floor and the floor becomes the ceiling or wall.
Most of Sir Antony’s well-known themes jump right at you from everywhere: bodily erotic versus rational geometries and straight lines, the dialectics of tender versus tough, void versus the extremely dense, body of space versus body in space.
When you enter the premises you’re being advised to simply let the sculptures impact you with an open mind and to explore the idea of the ‘body’. The first room shows the artist’s Slabworks series, which is very similar to previous series in that it consists of clearly human-shaped and -sized bodies assembled from metal blocks, even though these blocks lack rust, look more elegant, and are of different sizes. From a purely aesthetic point of view Ms B & I found these the most accessible, rather beautiful, and mostly un-creepy. The latter usually carries major significance for Ms B.
Host, a whole hall filled about a foot deep with seawater on a layer of clay (and presumably plastic below the clay), was not very impressive to me, to put it mildly, probably even more so, because the hall intentionally relies completely on natural light, meaning it was extremely dark when we visited there after sunset. Ms B however felt it was a close runner-up for best piece of the exhibition and she insists we come back to check it out during broad daylight.
Subject II, which, despite being of the same size as any of the 28 figures of Lost Horizon I, had its own room all for itself. The sculpture consists of 1cmx1cm square steel bars of different lengths that have been welded together in a grid pattern to form the sculpture of a depressed man. It had an unexpected mesmerising effect on me, physically. It does not offer an even surface, your eyes don’t necessarily automatically focus correctly right away (or maybe I just need to see an optician, hard to tell, really).
Clearing VII is without any doubt that one piece that drives security stuff nuts like no other. This is because every other visitor seems to struggle to avoid contact with the eight kilometres of black aluminium tube that are going around the room in loops a bit like a child’s drawing. According to his own review, the Spectator art columnist even managed to trip over one of the wires and fell over. The guy right in front of us tried twice to intentionally walk towards the centre of the wire mishmash until the security guard found words of great clarity about the consequences he would face if he even remotely thought about trying it a third time. Some people really have no manners (talking about the visitor, for the avoidance of doubt).
If you’ve only seen one picture of the exhibition, then it is almost certainly Matrix III, which consists of 6t of steel reinforcing mesh hanging from the ceiling. It fills the majority of the largest hall of the museum and looks impressive from all angles. You can walk beneath it, around it. From every angle it looks very different, sometimes completely chaotic with only a hint of symmetry, clearly structured and perfectly symmetric from other angles.
Cave, which looks a bit like a rock formation from the outside and like a cave from the inside, consists of 27 (in words: twenty-seven) metric tons of steel. It is beyond me how the museum found a structural engineer that looked at the plan and said “yeah.. sure.. by when do you need this”. Art critics who always have to find something to criticise in order to build or keep their profile had a field day with this one, called the walkable tunnel, that leads through it to and from the central cave “crowd-pleasing” and “dumbing-down”. To us this criticism completely misses the point.
People like Grayson Perry base their whole “art” on pleasing the crowd and using cheap effects to grab attention, and they attract very little criticism. Gormley on the other hand has spent the best of half a century building up to this sculpture, which explores his main theme, space, in a more monumental way than ever before. How on earth can this be crowd-pleasing?
At the risk of weakening the point I’m making in some people’s perception: the sculpture pleased us and the rest of the crowd very much. At times there were queues forming at the entrance to the tunnel and you could see plenty of grown-ups with big smiles on their faces.
I can’t believe it took me until now to discover that despite the Angel of the North and some time spent in Yorkshire, the master is actually a born and bred Londoner and based here. And his mother is German, how cool is that (just like mine; his father is of Irish decent).
This was without any doubt one of the three best art exhibitions we’ve seen so far this year in London or elsewhere. Easily 5 out of 5.
Looking for more reviews of art exhibitions? Check out our posts about Ai Weiwei at the Lisson Gallery, David Hockney at the Tate, the immersive Leonardo experience at the National Gallery, or Chihuly in Kew Gardens.