Review: Antony Gormley

September 23, 2019
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The Royal Academy

Works from this giant Antony Gormley retrospective are drawn from four decades of output, but they feel so indelibly fused with the famous halls of the Royal Academy you can barely imagine them anywhere else.

The artist bends and shapes the gallery to his will like a potter at a wheel; you worry that it might never be the same. One room has been torn apart by monstrous cubes that seem to make the walls bulge; a ceiling looks ready to collapse; one hall is completely flooded. 

A recurring theme is the impossible weight of existence, often expressed through a literal impossible weight. Apples bigger than cars hang inches from the ground, pregnant with the expectation of an impact that never arrives. Elsewhere tonnes of metal mesh dangle from up high like the skeleton of a bombed-out building. Standing beneath it you can feel the awful power of gravity bearing down on you, unseen but tangible, held back by nothing but a few slender cables.

Gormley plays with three dimensions the way a graphic designer manipulates a flat surface, relishing the authority of an unbroken line. A series of cables whoosh from room to room, luxuriating in a commendably profligate amount of space (a real palate cleanser after the chaotic minutiae of the Summer Exhibition). Elsewhere lurks an angry scribble of coiled wire, as if a vast presence were desperately trying to get its biro to work, but in three dimensions. You have to stoop to make your way through it, and on the far side, isolated in a room on its own, stands a single figure built from blocks. 

The artist has lost none of his fascination with the human body. There are piles of blocks that only assume human form after you stare at them for a while, jagged heaps becoming elbows and knees and noses. Later jumbled pieces of clay look like dismembered cadavers placed clumsily back together.

Then there are those famous nude self-portraits that gaze dolefully out to sea at Crosby beach. Here they’re clustered together in a single room, jutting unnaturally from the walls, hanging from the ceiling, the same penis repeated a dozen times, defying gravity. Gormley seems desperate to find some essence of what it is to be human, some shared property that might make sense of it all.

If this sounds a bit maudlin, it’s really not. Gormley knows how to play to the crowd. One piece has you crawling through metal blocks that make up the insides of a giant. You fumble your way through the dark, searching for the light. An existential crisis has never felt so invigorating.