In a wide-ranging interview, the sculptor discusses his problems with entitlement, being brought up by nuns and monks and why sculpture 'stands outside the nature of time' — extracted from London Burning: Portraits from a Creative City (Thames & Hudson)
Your parents named you Antony Mark David Gormley. AMDG: Ad majorem Dei gloriam, ‘for the greater glory of God’. How did you live up to that?
It was not a bad thing to be given if you were the seventh child of seven, because I came into this world at a time when family rituals were already established, and the room for me to contribute to this small nuclear tribe was limited. I could break the rules and challenge both the collective
will of the household and the individual power of the father, which was quite a big deal.
Was your father a God figure?
In my mother’s eyes, my father and God were indistinguishable.
Is it your view that the concept of patriarchy in the art world represents order and management, and is an important factor in stymying creativity?
Yeah. That’s very beautifully my problem, if you like, with all authority. I’m unusual insofar as I had a traditional British education and went on to Trinity College, where a high proportion of the alumni are landed gentry, in other words kind of an old power. I have a problem with the sense of entitlement that comes with that, the degree of laziness that comes with established patterns of thinking and doing and human organisation that don’t fit with the way the world works now, particularly with all of the tools that we have for cross-cultural and cross-class communication. I question it as a viable foundation for social justice or the distribution of resources. Having been through it, you could say that I was playing a double game. I’ve accepted a knighthood; why did I accept it? For two reasons. One was because there are few ways in which there is public recognition for something as marginal as sculpture; to get that recognition and to not accept it would be churlish. The second reason is that I can use it as a position to speak out about things, use the system to change it.
Gormley often begins new works with moulds of his own body, a process he describes as capturing a ‘moment of lived time’. His 2007 project EVENT HORIZON featured life-sized casts of himself sited across London’s rooftops, bridges and streets.
Do you believe that creative people like you have been a spur in bringing about change in British society as a whole?
The huge revolution that has happened in terms of our culture within the last quarter of a century is still not recognised by the majority of the population. What is that change? It is that, as a result of separating itself from Europe as a result of the Reformation, culture became bound by the word, not the image, and lost its embodied celebration of the physical. In the last twenty-five years that has changed; now we could arguably be leading the world in terms of visual creativity. So there is a lot to be celebrated and talked about, and positions to be argued and questioned.
Art that should not be about spectacle or distraction or decoration for its own sake. Art should be, hopefully, an instrument by which you become more alive
You experienced a cultural revolution of sorts yourself as a young man, didn’t you?
I have absolutely no regrets about being brought up by nuns and then monks. If one’s life is determined by significant others, and the first significant others are one’s parents and siblings, to then find that there were other people in the world who cared about one not because of achievements but as a total person — that is what I found at school. People who I still consider friends were remarkable guides for intelligence and the beginning of feeling and being. It was only coming out of that monastic environment and recognising the degree to which it was founded on a myth that I didn’t really trust it anymore.
To my mind, in fact, your figurative, imposing, simple style has monastic overtones...
I would say that is simplistic. What are the tools that you need in order to examine your life and give it worth? The monastic ideal — certainly in terms of the Carthusians or similar orders that related physical work to meditation or prayer and some creative activity (usually in the scriptorium, where you would illustrate manuscripts or write) — that balance is a good basis. So when you say to me that my art looks a bit monastic, I like the model of art that should not be about spectacle or distraction or decoration for its own sake. Art should be, hopefully, an instrument by which you become more alive.
Gormley descends the stairs to the studio’s forecourt terrace. The floor was made of 140 tons of steel and reinforced concrete to support pieces which can rise to 10 metres in height.
Did your own journey in art have to do with being based in London, or could it have happened anywhere?
It was almost in spite of London. It wasn’t until I left Hampstead and escaped to the North Yorkshire countryside and experienced weather and moors, heather and forests and deep winters, that I began to live properly. One lives one’s life in the hope that they will become a whole person. London was my birthplace and it remains my home because it is this critical mix of comfort and disturbance, but it was by leaving London that I realised what London is worth. When you think about London, it’s difficult to think about one thing. It is what its history tells you it is: a group of villages in the Thames Valley that slowly became an aggregate of cells. That’s why it is impossible to talk about it in any definitive form, and that’s where its richness comes from. London is an extraordinary place. It’s a disease of a city, but once it gets you, you can’t really leave it. It has more surprises than most places.
Since the last time we talked, three and a half years ago, there has been a total transformation around King’s Cross. It’s unrecognisable.
It’s happening at the end of my street. Every week there is another floor going up.
How much is that operation gutting the city’s creative soul?
I was saying to Roger Madelin and Peter Millican, the prime developers around here, ‘Please keep studios and art spaces in the mix!’ Peter really responded to that. Kings Place is a good example of enlightened development in which they built this wonderful auditorium and a gallery space so that art is integrated within the building. All new developments should be forced to put 1 per cent into the creation of artistic spaces.
The artist in front of pieces inspired by EXPANSION WORKS, a series exploring the expansion of the universe through 3.5-ton cast-iron forms.
But how much of that sort of tokenism is merely paying lip service to the arts?
It has got to be done for the right reasons, and you can see it when it is done properly.
I’m trying to explore how a creative city unfolds, or how some areas become creative and others do not. As a born-and-bred Londoner, what do you think the prerequisites are for a creative city?
The reason I’m here is that when I came back from India in 1974, I couldn’t afford anywhere to buy or to rent. So I squatted a studio that has since been knocked down, literally half a mile away, between Caledonian Road and York Way. I was living on a boat that somebody gave me in Paddington Basin and cycling over here every morning. One morning this little kid said, ‘Ay mate, don’t you wan’ a house?’ I thought, That is exactly what I need, because the boat I was living on wasn’t tall enough and I was constantly doubled over. We went to see the house and it was empty so we broke in and moved in about two days later.
Eventually we swapped that one for a larger house down the road. Anyway, that was just to say that the first thing most artists need is space, space for free, space that nobody else wants. What that would mean in global terms is that the entire artistic community would move to Detroit! What you need is a balance between space that nobody wants and people that are interested in the products of what people might do in this otherwise unusable space. That’s the alchemy that grew up in London.
In the Seventies we had a number of organisations like Space and Acme that were actively searching out Council properties that weren’t due for redevelopment because they said there wasn’t enough capital and they would turn them into artists’ studios. Those sorts of organisations are critical because they act as a bridge. Once you have a mass of creativity, an informed and interested public can start sharing the energy of that place.
We are the society of the spectacle, and we are in a period of cultural narcissism of an extreme form
Why is London perhaps the most creative city in the world now? Space alone doesn’t explain it...
It’s difficult to say. What would be the critical things? The rise of artist-led organisations, and then you need characters like Nick Serota, Charles Saatchi, ambitious individuals who absolutely identify with the energy of visual culture. The Turner Prize has to be in there somewhere. Would there be five million people visiting Tate Modern now or would Tate Modern itself exist had it not been for the Turner Prize and what the Turner Prize did as far as opening the general public up to the idea that visual art could be as fun as sport in terms of a betting opportunity?
There were huge shifts in what people were prepared to be interested in. You could say that, whether the Angel of the North was a symptom or a cause, the fact is that a highly resistant northern population only interested in ball sports, particularly rugby and football, suddenly become interested in art. The fact that you could turn the Baltic Flour Mills into a contemporary-art venue is an example of a radical cultural shift. The transformation of an old power station into an art gallery was another key moment. The dialogue between the dome of St Paul’s, the City, the Bank of England and the old Bankside Power Station: that says it all. In power terms, it shows the vision for setting up contemporary visual culture directly in relation to the established order of money and state religion. I don’t know what happens when the whole of the core of the city becomes, in a way, cleaned up. King’s Cross is one of the last central London areas to remain resistant to gentrification. But when it’s all cleaned up, where is there room for the mess that artists make and feed off of? That’s a good question.
Gormley beneath the Hardy Tree amid tombstones outside St Pancras Old Church. The writer Thomas Hardy was tasked with relocating the graves while serving as an apprentice architect in King’s Cross in the mid-nineteenth century. The churchyard contained thousands of human remains, including those of victims of the Black Death. Mary Wollstonecraft, author of The Vindication of the Rights of Women, and Sir John Soane are among the notables buried beneath the ash tree. ‘It has become the most powerful and beautiful memorial,’ Gormley notes. ‘These were tombstones brought together eternally by the hand of man, and are now held together by living roots’.
From what you are saying, one could suggest that these cultural changes are somewhat engineered. But what is the initial spark, the key link in the chain, behind creative rejuvenation?
There is one factor that I haven’t mentioned, and that is the degree to which the present state of artistic confidence in Britain is the result of the foundation laid by the art schools, all of those late nineteenth-century realisations and questioning about the nature of urban life. You’ve got to be careful with what’s happened; the art schools have become administered, not inspired. There are a few that have resisted — Goldsmiths is still a great college. I’ve got postgraduate students who come from Central St Martins because I thought it was immoral for me to be so close and to not have them. It’s great. They come here and get what they missed over there because they missed out on that tradition of learning through doing. You don’t get a studio anymore, as you did twenty years ago. In the old days you were given a bunch of materials and a place to mess about with them.
You’ve been quoted as saying that ‘most culture is a reaction to amnesia. Not just human memory, but the way old galaxies disappear.’ What did you mean?
We are the society of the spectacle, and we are in a period of cultural narcissism of an extreme form because of the speed of the instruments of distraction. I’m not interested in tradition for its own sake. However, I do think it is important that everything that is made is conscious of the dialogue that it has with everything that has already been made. The danger of the society of the spectacle is that that dialogue never takes place because everything is so immediate, that history becomes the length of time between takes. The reason that I am passionate about sculpture and that I deeply believe in its value is that it stands outside of the nature of time.
Are you saying that sculpture is almost like an interrupter of time, an interloper between history’s visual takes?
It does two things. One is that it insists on you stopping for a while, not as it were being entertained but having to do some work and walk around it and poke it a bit and make you see what you feel or think or do. The other is that it reinforces a bit that there is a thing in the world that isn’t an image. It doesn’t move or do very much; it’s just there. With any luck, its ‘there-ness’ is enough of an impediment to a constant searching for new distractions. It can reposition you in your own space and time and allow you to re-lock onto what it is to be alive, aware, conscious, feeling. The tragedy in all of this is that in bringing everything to the surface and making everything so visually fascinating, we lose the sense that the human is the most evolved life form on the planet; the human mind-body complex is about the most complex and subtle instrument there is for life. I feel that we’ve become somehow obsessed with our own toys.
Materially or metaphorically?
Take the great standing stones on Orkney. Just the fact that they are there in rain and storm and light and dark, bearing witness to a time no longer remembered, but they were there then, forty-five hundred years ago, and they still mark a time and a place and command our attention. Through the very existence of those things, we sense something of the provisional nature of our own time, but we are also invited to join them in this elemental world. That is why I’m committed to sculpture. It doesn’t need shelter, it doesn’t need a wall or a roof, it doesn’t need electric light, it definitely doesn’t need a label. It waits.
What is it waiting for? An answer?
No. It’s a question in itself that leads to other questions. I don’t think there is any closure in this.
Where do you yourself fit into this elemental body that you have created and installed around the world, in various casts of your own shape? Do we have your physical representations registering symbolic emotions all over the globe?
It was for other people’s emotions; I am still an empty vessel myself. Through trying to make these objective correlatives of a subjective state, I ask myself, ‘What is a human being?’ I take myself as a control case. You could see this whole project as some vast narcissistic exercise not dissimilar to Alexander the Great having sculptures made of himself, but I would be keen to argue the opposite. I used my body because it was the thing most available to me.
Main image at top: Antony Gormley checks his emails at the top of a galvanised-steel staircase outside his purpose-built studio. Architect David Chipperfield’s seven-bay design took its inspiration from the industrial vernacular of the warehouses and rail yards nearby in King’s Cross.
London Burning: Portraits from a Creative City, Author & Editor Hossein Amirsadeghi, Executive Editor: Maryam Eisler, is published by Thames & Hudson, priced £58 (hardback). All images are copyright Transglobe Publishing.
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