Over the past 30 years, Antony Gormley has carved out a distinguished place for himself in the pantheon of modern and contemporary British sculpture. While corporeality has always been his preferred subject, it is rarely an end in itself. In his recent exhibition “for the time being,” he continued his ruminations on the human form as an indexical sign of space and time. Beginning with casts or molds of his own physique, which were mapped and mathematically retooled on a computer, the artist purposefully moved from the specific to the general, the personal to the universal.
Varying in scale, volume and mass, the 27 cast-iron and steel sculptures on view (all 2010 or ’11) were foils for one another. Outside the entrance stood Clutch V, 4 tons of rusty cast-iron blocks of different sizes. Circumambulating the 6-foot hulking architectonic assemblage, one realized that it represented a cyborg-like figure bent over at the waist with its chest pressed against its thighs. Downstairs, Clutch VI and Clutch VII depicted the same abstracted body using thin pieces of steel, the former in the same outsize scale and the latter in miniature. Their open construction, however, emphasized line rather than volume and mass.
Facing one another in the front gallery, Construct IV and Construct V portrayed the same erect, life-size figure. The first, in cubes of cast iron, exuded a volumetric weightiness, while the second, an ethereal lattice of narrow stainless steel bars, resembled a three-dimensional drawing. Similar pairs of full-scale human forms populated the back gallery. In producing these duos, Gormley seems to encourage the viewer to take stock of his or her particular corporeality, the ontological reality of which fluctuates between solidity and immateriality.
The 13 Lilliputian cast-iron figures (none over 15 inches tall) placed on the floor around the upstairs gallery belong to Gormley’s series “Meme,” a name appropriated from the 1976 book The Selfish Gene by the British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. Gormley built each figure from a set of 27 blocks, which he variously assembled to create bodily postures that evoke diverse mental states (shame, guilt, pride, tranquility, strength, etc.). Based on an architectural lexicon rather than traditional anatomy, these diminutive schematic models catalogue a spectrum of human comportment with which the viewer is invited to empathize. In doing so, they call to mind Man Ray’s 1927 series “Mr. and Mrs. Woodman,” tiny generic wooden artist mannequins that the photographer captured in innumerable sexual positions.
In his ongoing sculptural exploration of how we inhabit our bodies and how our bodies occupy space, Gormley resuscitates those eternally vexing queries for which Gauguin became famous: Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? Repudiating pat answers, “for the time being” suggested that such existential questions necessitate perpetual reflection.
Photo: View of Antony Gormley’s exhibition “for the time being,” 2011; at Thaddaeus Ropac.