Gormley Challenges Michelangelo With Walk-In Sculpture

Antony Gormley Installation
A view of Antony Gormley's installation at White Cube, Bermondsey, U.K.. It contains many works in which the human body is transformed into the cubic shapes of architecture. Photographer: Ben Westoby/Antony Gormley/White Cube via Bloomberg

In one respect at least the contemporary sculptor Antony Gormley has outdone Michelangelo.

The latter, with tongue in cheek, once discussed installing a colossal statue in the center of Florence with a barber’s shop under its buttocks and a chimney inside one arm.

Gormley, however, has actually created a walk-in sculpture, large enough -- if not sufficiently comfy -- for several family homes.

It is the main exhibit in a show of new work by Gormley at White Cube in London’s Bermondsey (until Feb 10). And even Michelangelo would have been impressed by its vital statistics.

Made from 100 tonnes (110 tons) of weathered steel, “Model” (2012) fills the largest gallery in the very spacious new White Cube building.

It’s 106 feet (32 meters) long, 44.6 feet wide and 16 feet high, and -- although you may not realize it at first glance -- it’s not really an “it,” it’s a “he.”

Like many of the other, smaller, Gormley works on display, “Model” is based on the human body. It is an anatomy “pixelated” -- the artist’s preferred word -- into a sequence of rectangular box-like shapes.

The White Cube galleries are scattered with Gormley men metamorphosed into angular structures resembling cubist petrol-pumps, juke boxes and dock-side derricks.

Walk-in Artwork

Gormley has been playing around with this idea for decades, and it goes back far into cultural history. Michelangelo himself believed that the geometrical forms of architecture were derived from a person’s arms, legs, head and torso.

With “Model,” Gormley has gone further than he has before. This is not just a piece of art that looks a bit like a building. It’s a sculpture to step into.

You enter, in fact, through one foot. Once inside, you discover a series of rooms, dark passages, some with very low ceilings and one -- not obligatory -- though which it is necessary to crawl on hands and knees. Not surprisingly, but a little unusually, visitors are asked to sign a form detailing the dangers of engaging with “Model.”

In an ideal health-and-safety free world, the artist has remarked, he would like people to clamber on top of it as well as wander through its 24 internal spaces.

Personally, I must admit, that while prepared to shuffle along a corridor as dark as an ancient coalmine and creep under the lowest of thresholds, I’m not sure I’d want to risk a 16 foot drop onto the beautifully polished concrete floors of White Cube (even if the gallery’s lawyers would allow it).

Cereal Packets

Going inside “Model” certainly is an experience. How does it rate as art? The first impression of the piece isn’t beguiling. It looks as you’d expect a set of windowless steel boxes to look: grim. Because of its sheer scale, it takes some time to comprehend that it’s body-shaped at all. A collapsed stack of cereal packets made of metal sheet might look similar.

“Model” becomes more interesting as you explore his interior.

That, perhaps, is its point. Bodies have insides, and most sculptures do not (or at least, don’t have interiors you can explore).

Gormley has spent his whole career playing around with the possibilities of the human body -- usually starting from his own. He has made a metallic angel with airplane wings, cast-iron sentinels on the sky line, a giant of interwoven girders on a Dutch shore.

Even for Gormley, “Model” is a first. While it’s not beautiful, it is fun. It raises a question: what to do with a work this vast after the exhibition? Perhaps, following Michelangelo’s idea, someone could put some shops inside and add a chimney.

Antony Gormley “Model” is at White Cube, 44-152 Bermondsey Street, London SE1, until Feb. 10, 2013. Prices of the works start from 17,500 pounds ($28,200).

(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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