When I spoke to Antony Gormley at the opening of his 2016 White Cube exhibition in London, it was four months after the UK had voted to leave the European Union. Though to some extent everything you read after a huge event feels colored by that event, this exhibition felt particularly like a reaction to the issues that had caused Britain to leave the European Union.
One piece, Sleeping Fields [above], for example, saw casts of hundreds of bodies lying across the gallery floor. Gormley described its message: “We are asleep while the forces around us, that seem to be beyond anybody's control, are changing the nature of our context”. It was hard to miss, however, the references to growing homelessness problem in the city, caused by years of austerity - austerity that Leave campaigners had made the country believe was caused by immigrants and high bills from the EU. It also was testament to what the artist called “Our witness and inability to act on a migrant situation that is catastrophic,” another hot-button issue in the lead-up to the referendum.
For Gormley, Brexit was “A completely unexplainable disaster”. But his work teemed with explanations. Another piece in the exhibition, Passage [top image], was a tunnel in the shape of a human body. It seemed to talk of the alienation and selfishness of the modern world, in which we can only see what was directly in front of us, and only in our own image. I asked the artist whether he saw us as a nation heading into the darkness of the tunnel or out of it into the light. He called the suggestion of Christian salvation of the latter “a horrible idea”. He thought that it was for each of us to decide which way to head. He said, “The passage is a sort of litmus test of our freedoms, isn't it? We can choose to face our fear and go in knowing that we can turn around and come out, but a lot of people don't have that choice. I think it's an open question as to which direction we're going in. The Enlightenment and everything that happened since would like us to feel that we're moving towards the light and towards, in a way, open space. Whether we are is, I think, unclear.”
“Brexit was a completely unexplainable disaster”
Whether the UK was heading in the right direction was a notable theme of the exhibition. His last show at the gallery had been in 2012, the year of the London Olympic Games. The opening ceremony of this event celebrated the National Health Service and the positive impact of immigrants in Britain. The games as a whole saw the country at its most united, and yet only five years later it was perhaps the most divided it has been since the English Civil War 350 years ago. Gormley saw those games as a symptom of what had caused the change; “the rise of foreign investment in London is just a very, very confusing moment. We’re seeing London selling itself to the highest bidder.”
Though Gormley’s work obviously reflects what he calls his desire to “Confront the ideas that we might have about where we live and our participation in their actuality,” he has his eyes on the future as much as the present. With so much of this show focusing on migration, I asked why he used such solid, immovable metals in most of his work here, rather than the more transitory materials of some of his previous work that might act as potent symbols of the refugee crisis, like bread or cardboard. He answered, “I'm very keen that sculpture resists the immediate gratification and instant obsolescence of most of our consumer culture. Even if these works are incomprehensible, I want to make them in a way that means that they will survive, hopefully, but also be a confrontation. In other words, the ground for a first-hand experience for a reinforcement of the palpable over the provisional.”
So what we have, then, is an exhibition with two faces, matching the two strands of my conversation with the Turner Prize winner. On one we have Gormley the British Artist of posterity, the one who makes huge public sculpture commissions, and who asks questions of his own work like “What was the space/object dialectic, what was the narrative?” The other was Antony Gormley, the Labour Party donor and political activist offering political statements like “I thought Brexit was as unlikely as the Scottish referendum withdrawal,” and who makes sculptures that stealthily engage with migrants, refugees and the lamented failure of the left. Both of these combine to make his White Cube exhibition an immensely powerful statement of a unique year for the United Kingdom.