Antony Gormley at the Royal Academy of Arts

Antony Gormley at the Royal Academy of Arts

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Is there is more to Antony Gormley than the rather stiff, unyielding and angular Angel of the North in Gateshead and his own body-casts plonked onto Crosby Beach on Merseyside and elsewhere? In the courtyard of the RA, there is there is a tiny sculpture of what, at first, looks like a sleeping cat or an enormous dog-turd, on the paving stones. On closer examination, it turns out to be a cast iron sculpture of his daughter Paloma when she was six day’s old, curled up, with an ear to the ground. Iron Baby is cute and emotive and desperately vulnerable. Gormly ruins it by resorting to cod-philosophical terms to describe it. ‘Here, this tiny bit of matter in human form attempts to make us aware of our precarious position in relation to our planetary future. It is the gesture of a body closed in on itself, needy of comfort, shelter, sustenance and peace.’ Much of the show is about the human body, and one of the last exhibits, Cave, is a highly abstracted human form made up of 100 tonnes of giant steel shapes and harsh angles that completely fill the gallery. One can either walk around the outside or, bravely, enter a dark tunnel, running one’s hand along the left-hand side of the metal walls, and stumble blindly towards the exit. His body-casts have become a signature statement, so it is with a great sense of ennui that one enters a gallery full of them entitled Lost Horizons. It’s as though he has run out of ideas as to what to do with the dozen or so casts. ‘I know, as well as standing around, I’ll have them coming horizontally off the walls. And I’ll have others hanging upside-down from the glass false ceiling. That’ll fool them.’ And clever stuff it is, too. The fatuous description in the little catalogue is helpful in explaining, ‘As we live on a ball and not a flat plane, the works around us could be understood to represent the natural orientation of humans around the globe.’ P-lease!

The logistics of assembling and installing all the works are mind-boggling. The largest room at the RA is Gallery III, to the left of the Wohl Rotunda, and that is nearly filled with a piece called Matrix III, a gigantic, interfretted, floating grid, made up of six tonnes of steel mesh, fixed together with hundreds of thousands of spot welds, hovering a few centimetres above the viewers’ heads. It is a most impressive work in terms of scale, but again obfuscated by his description, ‘the ghost of the environment we’ve all chosen to accept as our primary habitat.’ Getting away from the human form again is a gargantuan Slinky taking up the whole of the Large Weston Room like a massive 3-dimentional scribble, entitled Clearing VII. We are told that eight kilometres of square section aluminium tubing was encouraged to uncoil itself to fill every corner of the space, so that one can make one’s way around it, hearing it resonate as other visitors knock into the structure whilst clambering through it. At last, sculpture one can touch. One early work on display is called One Apple, and charts the growth of a humble apple from blossom to ripened fruit, each of the 53 lead cases containing the dried remains of the fresh apple which was moulded to make the form of each case. More food with Mother’s Pride V, made up of 500 slices of pap soaked in wax with the shape of himself as a falling man nibbled out of the middle, presumably by Gormley himself. Several thin steel rods connect one room with another, usually at an oblique angle, which adds tension to the displays. Numerous works on paper, in sketchbooks in vitrines, or framed on the walls, demonstrate his obsession with himself and his body in a space. Gormley is perceived as a bit ‘posh’, with a knighthood and an OBE to his name, and a privileged Cambridge-educated background, but that should not matter a hoot, if he is capable of making big statements and producing arresting abstract art. It is his irritating preoccupation with presenting Everyman as this six-foot-four cast iron version of himself, which can be seen everywhere, or so it seems, and his facile and pretentious attempts to articulate his motivations and explanations of his work are simply annoying.

Two very large, rusty, spherical objects entitled Body and Fruit hang like, well, low-hanging fruit, in the rotunda, made of, as the caption reads, ‘cast iron and air,’ which seems tautological, as, surely, all cast objects contain air? They apparently ‘originate from the artist’s body held tightly in a foetal position’. One of the more impressive exhibits is in the Lecture Room, entitled simply Host. He has filled the entire floor-space with a lining of primordial mud and topped it up to a depth of some 20-odd centimetres with seawater. This exactly reflects the eighteenth century coved plaster-panelled ceiling with decorative gilt ribbed mouldings, roof lantern and arched double oak doors with a dark red and blue marble architrave. There is a faint whiff of the sea, but one wonders whether it will smell like Crosby Beach on Merseyside in a month or two. The absence of Gormley body-casts in the water make it quite a refreshing scene.

Royal Academy of Arts

Until 3 December 2019

Admission £22

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