Groping around in the dark, I’ve banged into a work of art again. To be fair, the work is all around me. It lies on the ground and creeps towards the walls, a giant complex of iron crates, but ever so slightly human. Not least because a dozen of us are inside it. This is Antony Gormley’s Model exhibition in the South London White Cube, and the artist’s most startling intrusion into the gallery space to date. Famous for populating the heights of such cities as Oxford and Rio with iron sentries, this exhibition explodes the figure into architecture itself.
The series of rooms are at pains to reinforce the conventional narrative of Gormley’s art, to ground his radical figural distortions in studies of space and the human body. The Model Room naturalises Gormley’s figures by juxtaposing preparatory models and sketches, and lining up progressive abstractions from the body into broken, blocky, almost pixellated forms. In this he is implicitly compared to the likes of Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, cornerstones of the British story of art. As the story goes, British artists could never really ‘hack’ abstraction, radicality or politics – wherever they looked there were reclining figures in a bucolic English landscape. Part shame, part pride – above all, it’s about tradition. The concern of the sculptor is meant to be the body in space: because it’s old, it’s safe, it’s polite and it’s established.
But crouching inside the black iron of Model, airy concerns of form and aesthetics are far from my mind. I certainly don’t feel any of the ‘human empathy’ the catalogue speaks of. But maybe that’s because it, like the ‘British story’, is a throwback to the critics working in the 50s.
In this dark cavern, the body isn’t just abstracted, or sublimated, or suppressed. It’s oppressed. My senses fool me, an infinite darkness comes up short and resists my elbow. Hints of white reflections hang out of reach, cold mirages, numb ghosts. If Gormley’s figures can be said to haunt the cities they perch above, this dark bunker makes me ask: “where, and whom, do I haunt?”
In Brazil the emergency services were overloaded with calls last year when Gormley’s figures descended. Thousands were convinced that these statues were people on the verge of suicide. Slowly and politely our news services told us that these poor foreign types didn’t really ‘get’ Gormley’s art, the Humanism, the body in space, the sombre reflections one should have about aesthetics, empathy and universal human experience. But that ‘British story of art’ is a simple lie, and the reporters naive and quite offensively dismissive of the perspective of the concerned thousands. When people experience the body in mortal jeopardy – a terrifying apparition of death and fragility – they feel the effect of Gormley’s dark and haunting work more sincerely than the critic.
Inside this cavernous cadaver, it doesn’t feel abstract, nor entirely human – but something out of joint. Something real, dark and haunting.