Antony Gormley has made his reputation as an artist with a series of bold pieces reflecting form, usually the human body. The most notable of those pieces is The Angel of The North, just outside Newcastle. Never does a train journey to Newcastle or beyond pass without the whole carriage craning to see the soaring figure of a winged human shape, standing guard over the adjacent motorway.
In Blind Light, his first major London show, Gormley has pulled out all the stops in his exploration of space. Several large scale instillations have been ensconced in The Hayward Gallery, the most memorable and affecting being the title piece. Blind Light is a large glass room filled with dense white mist. It is a thrilling and frightening experience, you literally can’t see a thing, nervously feeling for the glass walls and embarrassingly knocking into people all around you (the room contains up to 25 people at one time, you have to queue to get in). The piece is nothing without spectators and participants, it perfectly illustrates the artist’s views on engagement with art in general. Watching from outside you can see people inside the glass, but only when they are close to the walls, their hands tentatively reaching out, and of course they can’t see you, it’s a wonderful image.
The other piece that you are required to queue for is Hatch. Only two people are allowed into this small room at a time, it’s made up of endoscopic tubes, allowing you to look out and others to look in. Inside, from the walls and floor protrude metal bars or varying size randomly positioned. This makes you acutely aware of your environment, every step carefully judged, the fact that people are looking at you makes you feel slightly self conscious, if not uncomfortable. When walking around in our daily lives such judicious thought or specific scrutiny is not our general experience.
Other than this, the exhibition takes a more conventional Gormley form; casts of the artist feature in several works, in another concrete boxes (one for the head, one for the body) are cast representing the measurements of his volunteers, an army of them filling up a room, also positioning the various bodily orifices as holes in the concrete. Everywhere at the exhibition you are required to look at things slightly differently, often confronted with human form in strange positions, or a environment where you have to think carefully about your own position, as it Habitat.
My favourite piece is not in the Hayward itself, it is Event Horizon, 31 metal statues taken from a full body cast of Gormley, and placed around, but radiating towards, the gallery, dotting the skyline on top of buildings and even on Waterloo Bridge. These expressionless creations bring into scale the hugeness of the urban environment, or the smallness of the human form, and make us reflect on our place in the landscape (a further variation on ‘Habitat’). You actually don’t notice the statues at first when busily walking along The Southbank, but when you do want to see them they are everywhere, you’re amazed they didn’t strike you straightaway. These weird people amongst the familiar skyline are unsettling, but also feel like they belong there. Already people are wondering if they can ever be removed.
Judging the exhibition overall, I think Gormley’s motif is almost worn out with repetition, the grand new works going through the motions. Certainly the high blown language of the exhibition guide can be off-putting, I personally either feel a visceral reaction to something or not, I don’t think people need a paragraph or two to tell them how to feel about art (a simple statement can be useful, granted). I’m certainly not saying that the exhibition is not worthwhile, it is, but with the familiarity in the work, queues at the gallery and hyperbole surrounding the show, it can feel a little bit like a theme park ride.