Antony Gormley and antiquity: positioning the body in time and place

‘Art is about reasserting our first-hand experience in present time’ (Antony Gormley)

Antony Gormley’s sculptural installations are now-familiar additions to landscapes, from the Angel of the North to the beach at Crosby. Two recent exhibitions of his work extend the temporal dimension of his work, engaging with the human past. They reconfigure iconic spaces and works of art that represent two important moments in the history of the sculptural representation of the human body, archaic Greece and Renaissance Italy. Each era offers a distinctive view of the male body as a universal ideal, a central theme of Gormley’s work. By installing his sculptures within the Uffizi gallery in Florence (Essere, February-May 2019) and on the archaeological site of the sacred Greek island Delos (Sight, May-October 2019), Gormley engages in a dialogue with these sculptors of the past.

Antony Gormley Shore exhibited on Delos
Antony Gormley’s Shore (2012) looks out across the harbour of Delos.

The Delos installation, a collaboration with Greek contemporary art foundation Neon, characterises itself as a repopulation of a depopulated space. The population of Delos was removed in ancient times, first by the Athenians as they sought both to gain the favour of the gods and to assert their imperial strength, and later as the once-flourishing Roman trading community abandoned the island, not long after it was sacked by Mithridates in the first century BCE. Only archaeologists and site staff now live there, amid the stacks of sculptural and architectural fragments that hint at what is now lost.

Discussing the exhibition in a video accompanying the exhibition, Gormley likened these fragments to pixels and the simplified elements that make up his own sculptures. He also noted that his sculptures, cast in solid iron, are materially different from their bronze and marble classical predecessors, and cannot be seen as replacements; asserting this difference perhaps forecloses possible resistance to Neon Greece’s installation on the island, and also sidesteps claims that Gormley’s work has a direct affinity to the archaic kouros. The exhibition guide notes that a figure installed outside the island’s museum is seated on a replica, not an original column drum. In the fine print, a boundary between ancient and contemporary is asserted.

Another Time XIV in the sea at Delos
Another Time XIV (2011) on rocks at the northern end of Delos, passed by approaching ferries from Mykonos.

The first of Gormley’s figures, from his Another Time series, looks out from the island, one standing in the sea as the ferry from Mykonos rounds the northern edge of the island. Another stands in the harbour, one greets visitors as they enter the site, and others can be glimpsed on its higher ground. They produce a sense of isolation as they watch ships pass the empty island; these figures are, in Gormley’s words, ‘[bearing] witness to what it is like to be alive and alone in time and space’.

In antiquity, communities from across the Greek world dedicated kouroi, idealised sculptures of the youthful male body, within the sanctuaries on Delos, recognising the island’s status as the birthplace and sanctuary of Apollo. Cult figures of Apollo himself were also placed in the temples built by cities such as Athens on the island. Gormley’s abstracted versions of his own body seem in dialogue with this tradition, which raises some questions. Is it hubristic of a sculptor to place images of himself on Apollo’s island? Can Gormley’s figures be equated with the idealised archaic kouros? In a 2013 interview Gormley identified the kouros with its characteristic pose as an important moment in the history of sculpture.

The abstraction and severity of the figures that result from Gormley’s meditative and intellectualised artistic practice, and his repetition of types, suggests his continuing engagement with the kouros, but also a development. While the Another Time figures are recognisably casts of Gormley’s own body and features, the more recent figures constructed from blocks, rods and spheres, often mathematically calculated and computer-generated collocations of simple solids, are only visibly so through their continuing proportions, rather than their surface appearance. One might apply Nietzsche’s categorisation of art in his Birth of Tragedy; Gormley tends to the austerity that Nietzsche associates with Delphic Apollo and archaic sculpture. perhaps Delos, the other Panhellenic centre of the cult of Apollo and still home to many kouroi, is an appropriate location for Gormley’s project.

Shift II (2000) lying prone in the main gallery of the Delos museum.
Shift II (2000) lying prone in the main gallery of the Delos museum, looking towards sculptures from the classical Athenian Temple of Apollo.

Gormley’s account of the relationship between his sculptures and their archaic forebears is perhaps given by Shift II (2000), a figure prostrated on the floor of the Delos museum, offering itself in an imagined gesture of proskynesis towards the remaining sculptures of the classical Athenian sanctuary. Within the museum, the dark iron figure contrasts starkly with the light stone of the temple and votive sculptures, although a different contrast would obtain if those sculptures retained their original polychrome surface and applied decorations, hinted at by the remaining attachment holes in the statue of Athenian princess Oreithyia.

Signal II (2018), site-specific installation at the top of the ancient path ascending Mt Kynthos, Delos
Signal II (2018), site-specific installation at the top of the ancient path ascending Mt Kynthos, Delos

The sculptures placed within the most sacred locations – Chute II (2018) in the mysterious grotto of Heracles on the slopes of Mount Kynthos, Signal II (2018) at the final turn of the main path leading up to its windswept summit, home to sanctuaries in antiquity – represent perhaps a nervous system, perhaps a lightning strike, but hint at connections between the soul and the divine, a spiritual rather than physical body.

These recent works were produced for the site; finding them takes you away from the short circuit of the ruins of Delos town trod by tour parties. There is much fun to be had spotting the many sculptures resting in the houses and shops of Delos’ Roman town, but only a few of them offer such a rewarding connection between site and artwork. Again, the site-specific Water (2018), gazing mournfully into a cistern at the edge of the agora, suggests the sense of loss that Gormley aimed to invoke.

Water (2018), site-specific sculpture installed overlooking a cistern at the edge of the Italian agora, Delos.
Water (2018), site-specific sculpture installed overlooking a cistern at the edge of the Italian agora, Delos.

Before the Delos installation, the Uffizi in Florence hosted a small retrospective as well as sprinkling a few sculptures around its galleries (February-May 2019). In this show too, signature Gormley figures looked out from iconic viewpoints, a figure from Another Time from the corner of the galleries to the Ponte Vecchio, barely noticed by tourists looking at the same view, and a fibre-glass Event Horizon figure on the roof of the Loggia overlooking the main piazza, with his back to the café’s outdoor terrace. While Gormley suggested that this ‘Event Horizon’ intimates the meeting of sky and earth, its position in this significant space also sets it over the many iconic sculptures of the Loggia and piazza, including Michelangelo’s David, that Renaissance reimagining of the classical figure.

Event Horizon (2012), fibreglass sculpture installed on the parapet of the Uffizi galleries, overlooking Florence towards the campanile and dome of the Duomo.
Event Horizon (2012), fibreglass sculpture installed on the parapet of the Uffizi galleries, overlooking Florence towards the campanile and dome of the Duomo.

Just as with the Delos installation, the figure installed in a less prominent location suggests a dialogic encounter with a past culture, but that of classical antiquity rather than the Renaissance context of the Uffizi collection. A small side-room contains a Roman sculpture of a hermaphrodite, and for the duration of the exhibition Gormley’s Settlement IV lay alongside it. The Uffizi’s display prevents one from engaging with the classical hermaphrodite sculpture as originally intended, by walking around the figure to encounter first its female and then its male attributes. But placed next to the male figure of the Gormley, the hermaphrodite’s designed ambiguity and playfulness offers a counter to the austere masculinity of the pixellated but recognisably gendered modern work. Arguably Gormley’s adaptation of his own body into a universal is politically problematic – some critics (such as Skye Sherwin in the Guardian) have questioned whether it is an appropriate stance for a privileged white man to take – but in positioning a sculpture derived from his own body next to the Roman type of the hermaphrodite he anticipates the critique of the gendering of his work and invites debate on the construction of gender and its reinforcement in visual art.

Two sculptures side by side - Antony Gormley's Settlement IV (2018) and Roman hermaphrodite
Two sculptures side by side – Antony Gormley’s Settlement IV (2018) and Roman Sleeping hermaphrodite, Uffizi galleries, Florence

Gormley is now taking over a third iconic space, the Royal Academy’s main display galleries, for a major retrospective. Here too the reduction of the complex human form to groupings of simple solids (even Platonic ones) is on display in groups such as Slabworks (2019).

  • Meanwhile, Gormley is not the only contemporary artist whose work is on show in the Cyclades. Organisers Neon have a further installation, The Palace at 4am, in the Archaeological Museum of Mykonos, in which work by several artists is displayed alongside its collection. Some of the works make a profound and telling connection with the ancient objects; Rena Papaspyrou’s set of ‘Small Samplers from the Urban Landscape’ assemble found materials from the city streets into aesthetically pleasing collages, which complement the museum’s fragmentary pots and grave goods, excavated from the Delos Purification Pit. The placement of these works together highlights the transience of settlement in the ancient and contemporary Mediterranean.

References

  • Jessica Hughes (2014) ‘Antony Gormley’, Practitioners Voices in Classical Reception,  – interview with Gormley covering an earlier museum installation at the Hermitage.
  • Nietzsche, F.W. (1999) The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writings, eds R. Geuss and R. Speirs, trans. R. Speirs Cambridge.

Author: Carol Atack

Researcher in ancient Greek political thought and history, and its contemporary reception. Post-doctoral researcher on Anachronism and Antiquity project, Faculty of Classics, University of Oxford.

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