Autonomous anatomies

December 24, 2023

Antony Gormley’s sculptors resemble African stick figures, Greek idealised anatomies, Polynesian idols and stylised Cubist individuals.

Autonomous anatomies


We mostly see our fellow humans clad in clothes, though varying on the basis of region, religion, profession, resources, trends and tastes. As we come across a man covered in a vest, shirt, necktie, cardigan, jacket and overcoat, we are aware of the anatomy of the person, as well as his skeleton. It is the same with a woman wearing traditional garb, comprising kurta, shalwar, sweater, shawl, under a burqa; her fellow females may not be able to see her body but are familiar with it due to their own physique.

Along with dresses, wraps, veils, uniforms, armours, there have been other layers on the human body - often invisible, but perceptible - of conditions, customs, beliefs, traditions, obligations, frustrations and desires. The covering envelopes the contour, yet conjures up the presence of a body, like a sculptor’s mould.

Antony Gormley, the celebrated British sculptor, has been creating human figures that look as if still embedded in the moulds, particularly with marks of seams, not removed, hence part of the artwork. These monumental figures, simultaneously remind viewers of African stick figures, Greek idealised anatomies, Polynesian idols and stylised Cubist individuals.

Gormley’s sculptures are often installed at sites close to nature, away from the white cube of an art gallery. Currently the White Cube Bermondsey, London, is holding his solo exhibition Body Politic (from November 22 to January 28). It comprises work installed in five rooms, each based on human figures, interpreted with a shift in scale, composition, material and intention.

A gallery visitor has to locate the human in these sculptures, some of which could easily be described as geometric compositions. Human anatomy was created by God; geometry was produced by mankind. Only through a careful inspection can a viewer start deciphering seated, lying, crouching human beings in the concrete blocks titled Retreat. The eight exhibits are identified as Rise, Shift, Lounge, Tuck, etc. A small square orifice has been left at the position of the mouth in every structure. “Conceived by Gormley as ‘intimate bunker for one’, each iteration of Retreat (2022-23) is cast to the scale of the artist’s body.”

One is able to decode postures, even moods, but at the same instance these grey sculptures also suggest the silence of death: graves, fossilisation, sarcophagi. A similar sense of mortality is felt on walking amid the installation Resting Place, composed of 244 terracotta pieces. Each sculpture from this group is made of blocks of different dimensions, balanced in such a manner that you recognise multiple postures, i.e., crouching, standing, stretching, resting, leaning, turning, bending from this immense human labyrinth, a hieroglyphic essay about the body that could be an urban landscape, too. The human bodies are frozen in an eternal time, quietness and stillness. However, the scent of death is still apparent, because many of these look like a merger of living beings and graves. In Abrahamic religions, a dead body is buried in a grave. Thus a living, moving and breathing being, eventually is converted into a rectangular block with a plinth (the headstone) attached to it.

The floor plan of a standard Christian cathedral is also a geometricisation of Jesus Christ’s body, translated into a Latin cross, indicating Christ’s head, body and outstretched arms (on the cross), in stone, bricks and concrete. Antony Gormley’s sculptures evoke a similar link to the body – even though a visitor registers a variety of activities, postures, states in these human sculptures. Each figure from this installation echoes Gormley’s bodies composed of small blocks from his exhibition. Still Standing is at the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, Russia (2011-2012), while the Resting Place from the White Cube, created in 2023, could have an imprint of the unusual experience of Covid-19, the pandemic that brought death to every doorstep, regardless of power, wealth, health, sex, age, faith, nationality, class.

This reading is enforced by looking at the haunted, desolate and dead city of silence: an archaeological site, unearthing a settlement of human-buildings.

Another body of work, produced in cast iron and steel and displayed in three spaces of the gallery offers a different version of the human body. If the concrete and terracotta figurines are the human bodies – not waiting for Michelangelo to remove the extra substance, the metallic sculptures of Gormley also refer to human form, but stripping it to a skeletal level. Made of straight lines, shapes, pieces; and produced “from orthogonal, latticed cast iron bars and exposed to the elements, these rusty sculptures allow space and light to pass through them, creating an illusion of shifting density and bridging sculptural and architectural space.”

Broadly titled Test, with different words connected to specific pieces (Lean, Butt, Brace, Submit, Contract, Buttress), these life-sized sculptures are installed in such a manner that the background becomes an essential part of the artwork. Thus the space becomes an essential part of the work, as Gormley explains: “All of them are in contact with the walls, the floor, and the pillars that hold that building together in order to question and recognise that we are conditioned by the world that we have made. They make you aware of your own position of being contained by these spaces.”

An artist who has been using human body as a means of expressing ideas, captures the similar sensation by joining one piece of metal bar to other; in the form of a giant compilation of geometric units that become a standing figure (Stand, 2023), or a similar type of body (Blind, 2023) composed in the centre of a room, marked by x-axis and y-axis metallic line, emerging from the walls and floor of the gallery and culminating/ completing into the human figure; powerful, erect, overpowering the background, yet mechanical and an edited/ sublime version of the reality.

Encountering these figures, we read them as human beings but these are devoid of flesh, skin and body, turning out more like a mechanical product, recalling the South Korean-born German philosopher Byung-Chul Han, who observes “We are today experiencing the transition from the age of things to the age of non-things. Information, rather than things, determines the life world. We no longer dwell on the earth and under the sky but on Google Earth and in the Cloud.” In that context, what we view as humans are no more than a composition of components. The work alludes to the disintegration of a person into multiple selves, roles and identities, as well as the mechanisation of a living person. A comparison can be drawn with the British author Ian McEwan’s novel Machines Like Me, in which a robot ends up being a human being and takes over its keeper’s physical, emotional and sexual life, suggesting that a mechanically/ technologically created semblance could replace God’s creation.

In Gormley’s work (especially the Test), instead of skeletons, figures have dashes, marks and lines and appear as humans, due to the precision of their postures. A man rests his arm against the wall; another is stuck to it; one is standing in a relaxed manner touching a flat surface; another is perched on the floor; one is pushing his head against a pillar.

These mechanical figures (much like Lego pieces) turn into living beings and lead into a new reading of our reality and the world around/ beyond us; because the artist believes that “The art of our time has a responsibility to reflect on it and provide instruments for examination and self-awareness.”

The writer is an art critic based in Lahore

Autonomous anatomies