Sir Antony Gormley, like Grayson Perry whose curatorship of the Royal Academy Summer exhibition I discussed here, is another Turner Prize winner who hit the big time and has never looked back. Despite a paucity of ideas that is almost laughable, Gormley, 68, a graduate of Trinity College Cambridge, St Martin’s School of Art and the Slade, has collected a great many of the prizes on the Monopoly board of British cultural life: Royal Academician; one-time Trustee of the British Museum; honorary fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts and Royal Institute of British Architects; honorary doctorates and fellowships from Cambridge and several other universities; a knighthood; high-profile international commissions plus fame and not inconsiderable fortune – his auction record is £3,401,250 for a maquette of his most famous work The Angel of the North.
The central idea in Gormley’s work is the human body, in fact his own body. He and his large team have been taking casts of it for many years and turning them into rusty-looking public statues. The Angel of the North is in fact a huge version of a cast of his body. There is something rather narcissistic and egocentric about this yet Gormley claims he casts himself only because it is easier than using someone else.
I now associate the unveiling of The Angel of the North, or ‘the Gateshead Flasher’ as it is apparently known locally, with a most unfortunate moment of British history: the arrival of New Labour with a thumping majority that in due course they would use to trash the country. However, we cannot blame Tony Blair for this ugly and monumental work. We must lay some of the blame at the door of his warm-up man, John Major, whose National Lottery put hundreds of thousands into the project, as did the EU. No surprise there. We are told from time to time that the public like the Angel. However, there was strong local opposition to it on the grounds of its being ugly and a waste of money, two very sound objections that carry absolutely no weight in modern British civil administration.
In 2010 when Gormley was commissioned to put life-size casts of himself on rooftops in New York, the police warned the public not to think the statues were real people about to commit suicide. Some found the figures a distressing reminder of victims who jumped to their deaths from the World Trade Center during the 9/11 Islamist attack in 2001.
It is hard not to think that despite their diverse locations, Gormley’s artless figures are all about him. Compare and contrast his endless dull repetition to Kevin Atherton’s 1986 Platform Pieces at Brixton Station in South London. Life-sized sculptures of three people chosen from the area, two black, one white, have stood on the platform for more than 30 years (I feel like that sometimes when waiting for a train on the Southern network, but that is beside the point). I have passed them many times over the years and thought how much better they are in concept and execution than world-famous Gormley’s attempts at universalism. These are portraits of real people by an artist looking out at the world. They also have a common bond with us. They are monuments to individuals and to the dignity and mystery of the individual. For those interested in politically correct Brownie points, Atherton’s now Grade-II listed Platform Pieces are said to be the first public sculptures of black people in Britain. I am a stern critic of publicly funded art but British Rail, miraculously, got it right when they commissioned the now evidently forgotten Atherton.
For his next trick, Gormley plans to flood the Royal Academy with seawater and mud. He has offered an art waffle explanation for this. Like a lot of conceptual art, it strikes me as one of those ideas you might have had as a student when slightly over-refreshed on a Saturday night before the wisdom of morning arrives. The wisdom of morning does not arrive with the conceptual big-hitters. They have the dosh, power and bumptiousness to make such ideas reality. The great conceptual conceit behind such ideas rests on the postmodern trope that by moving something from one location to another – usually an art gallery – you have then performed a mysterious benediction and transmogrified the object into art. Heaven knows we have seen enough of this over the years to know that if it ever did have any serious claim to be a radical idea, it is stale now. One thinks of Manzoni’s canned excrement, Tracey Emin’s bed and Mark Wallinger’s exact replication of Brian Haw’s ‘peace camp’ from Parliament Square.
Gormley says the seawater show will be ‘immersive’. One might reasonably ask: if one wishes to have an immersive experience of seawater, why not head to Brighton and go for a dip? When this show opens I think it quite likely that if you are fascinated by the sea you will be better rewarded by standing in front of, for example, Turner’s Dutch Boats in a Gale at the National Gallery.
The RA is probably lost to this nonsense. It is planning a ‘gender balanced’ show of nudes. The Renaissance Nude, opening next year, features artists including Titian, Raphael, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. Per Rumberg, an Academy spokesman, said: ‘It will show all the great artists of the western tradition side by side, exploring and rediscovering human anatomy. There’s almost parity between men and women in the exhibition, which is key.’
Retrospective political correction, a very active branch of Marxism, is on the march. In Amsterdam the Rijksmuseum is renaming works that contain words offensive to the modern ear, such as Negro, Indian or Dwarf. This may appear almost reasonable but the dangers are obvious. Travel on down that road and the censoring and falsification of history – an essential tool of the far Left – is the next stop. That is unlikely to trouble Gormley though: although his sculptures are all of one middle-aged white male, you’d never know that by looking at them.