Participatory Promise: Antony Gormley at the GSD

For the last major lecture of the fall semester, the Margaret McCurry Lecture in Design Arts, the GSD community enjoyed an evening with celebrated British sculptor and installation artist Antony Gormley. Gormley creates spaces that encourage active participation with art rather than passive observation, calling into question the exclusivity of art along with art’s relationship to design. Toshiko Mori (professor in the practice of architecture) commenced the evening, noting her own admiration for Gormley and the GSD’s tremendous respect for artists. Gormley kept the audience engrossed throughout the evening with conversation and images of his work.

"I make big things,” said Gormley, "and increasingly, things that become situations.” Having tested and explored the expanded field of sculpture, he brought the audience through his transition from creating and placing sculptures in space to choreographing spaces and situations.  Well established and gracious in his accomplishments, Gormley rooted his talk in the belief that art allows us to dig deeper into ourselves.  Though varied in medium, his work insists upon a thorough investigation of the body in relation to time, space, and the cosmos. "The subject is me,” he said.

Gormley said his desire for creating participatory work is a way of returning art to the commons. "No one asked for art to be privatized,” he remarked.  Rather than just pieces meant to be bought and enjoyed in private collections - or admired from afar - his work exists most successfully in landscapes, in intriguing configurations in galleries and in public spaces. Gormley’s artistic predecessors and noted influences—Donald Judd, Richard Serra, Sol LeWitt, among others-- underscore both his position to art’s past and his unique artistic identity.

Though Gormley’s work is related to that of the land artists, (he cites the Lightning Field as influential), the progressive aims of his sculpture, even when in a gallery, is evident in its scale and orientation.  A case in point is his sculpture Scribble, a large tangle of metal tube meant to be explored and inhabited by viewers. He recounted showing the piece to iconic modernist painter Cy Twombly, whom he encouraged to physically enter the piece by stepping in. "I just want to stand back and enjoy the nest you made,” Twombly said.

It is this firmly distanced attitude toward artwork that Gormley has challenged: instead of privileging the piece, he privileges the viewer, "giving back to the viewer the freedoms [art] called for itself in the transition from modernity”.  His earlier work includes mechanical registrations of his own body, placed in space to invert the viewer-object relationship, while acting as an "indexical register of a lived moment.” Among an audience of many architects and landscape architects, Gormley said that his work actually serves to loosen the permanence of architecture by challenging assumptions about space.

Yet his work also takes on architectural form.  For Oscillation, which continues exploration of the body, Gormley constructed a suspended platform where people are "redirected” to their own experiences. The floor of the structure, which is enclosed with glass walls, is polished and reflective.  Up to one hundred spectators at a time remove their shoes to enter and walk around the slightly oscillating structure, all the while feeling the movements of others. Gormley’s interest here is the variety of human responses to uncertainty, and to the individual’s relationship to an abstracted plane that traditionally would be on a wall in a gallery.

The most obvious derivative of Gormley’s thoughts on liberated art is a more recent project called One and Other, a public art event that took place over 100 days in central London.  While in earlier works Gormley doesn’t favor any one particular setting, One and Other zeroes in on a plinth in Trafalgar Square that has remained empty since the era of George IV. Individuals were selected by lottery to occupy the plinth for one hour each to do whatever they pleased.  Twenty-four hundred performances were conducted during the period from July through October.

The transition from pieces like Scribble to One and Other indicates both a bolder instance of Gormley returning art to the commons, and also a larger movement and support for public art, particularly in Europe. The British arts organization Artichoke produced the event, in a similar belief that art should not be relegated to the gallery.  Artichoke produces large-scale events for the broadest possible audience. Helen Marriage (LF ’13), co-director of the organization, was instrumental in bringing Gormley to the GSD.

 Along with Artichoke, Gormley worked with an organization called Sky Arts to broadcast the individual performances with a 24-hour webcam. The broadcast allowed website viewers to vote for their favorite performances, and the British Library to maintain an archive of the events. In One and Other, participation is not only encouraged but elevated.  With no restriction over the types of performances, Gormley essentially creates the conditions for the public to command the space.  There is an opportunity for even the least art-savvy individuals to reflect and comment on the performances, on themselves and on society. It is with work of this nature, and the support of organizations such as Artichoke, that we see the promise of participation for art of the future.

In response to final questions from the crowd, Gormley stated that there is no "audience” for his work other than himself.  However, when an artist’s work takes on such universal questions as Gormley’s, it resonates with the public in a profound way. Gormley’s work continues to fulfill one of his apparent missions: to create active participants with art.  The interactions and situations that he configures subtly shape the people who come in contact with them, and in that way exist beyond the their physical lifetime.  As Gormley continues to explore the deepest questions of life through shaping space and place, he alters how we see ourselves and everything around us.

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