Antony Gormley Opens Up About Drawing’s Role in Sculpture and His Relationship with New York

"What is a sculpture? What is a human being? How does the existence of one form change the other, and why have we always found it necessary to make models of ourselves?"

Booker Prize 2023 Award Ceremony in London
Sculptor Antony Gormley attends the Booker Prize winner ceremony in 2023. Photo by Wiktor Szymanowicz/Anadolu via Getty Images

Last week, White Cube New York opened “Aerial,” which showcases a room-sized work by Antony Gormley from 2023 of the same name. The work is a bit like walking into one of Gormley’s deconstructed human bodies or perhaps a visualization of cyberspace from a movie in the 1990s. It’s an ambitious and lovely show from an artist whose appearances stateside are too rare. On the occasion of the show, Gormley sat down with Observer to tell us a little more about how the work came about and his relationship with New York City.

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Please tell me a little about the work, which takes up the entirety of the gallery’s ground floor, from which the show takes its title. What’s appealing about working at that scale?

I wanted to activate or implicate the air in the room. I think of Aerial as a nervous system: a neurological matrix of the space. The work is called Aerial but it could well be a transmitter as much as a receiver. As urban animals, we take the built spaces of our surroundings for granted, but I think they change the way we are. I wanted to make architecture conscious or us conscious of architecture. I was trying to find a rational equivalent for the branching system of mycelium, the branches of trees or the branched geometry of flowers or fruits and then apply it to this space.

I have always been very fond of the character of Ariel in Shakespeare’s The Tempest: a creature of the air, a sprite that appears and disappears and seems to be everywhere. I hope that his spirit somehow animates this work, an ally that allows us landed creatures to become aerial.

You’ve referred to Aerial as representing, among other things, the “antenna of architecture.” Do you think your work takes on a different feel amid all the skyscrapers of New York?

New York remains the Ur-model of a high-density human habitat. The skyscraper was invented in New York and this model has been copied all over the world. We are well past the time when over 50 percent of our species live within the urban grid, and by the middle of this century, it seems likely that 80 percent of us will live in man-made environments. Our dependency on and immersion within the built environment has changed the way we move, breathe, think, feel and communicate, both with each other and with the greater-than-human world.

I began showing in galleries in New York 40 years ago, and it has always been a point of reference for me. Its grid system, its granite, its admission of first-nation pathways, and the way that the cross streets and avenues bring the wind and smell of the sea and the Hudson make it, in scale and exposure, an extraordinary context, a coral reef on a granite rock surrounded by water. I want New Yorkers to feel that their rooms have antennae because, in a time when we have built many extended ways of sensing or deriving information from our environment, this has been achieved at the expense of firsthand physical perception. If we as a species lose an ability so alive in the extended intelligence of our forgotten Pleistocene ancestors, it’s good to become aware of the way that the containing systems that we have built around ourselves are beginning to sense us.

I admired your “Event Horizon” project, where you positioned figures at the edges of buildings, here and in other cities. I remember reading that the NYPD was called on these would-be jumpers. Did that happen in other cities? Are New Yorkers too uptight?

I’m glad that you made the connection between Event Horizon and Aerial. They are both projects to do with perception and the way that perception can so easily be replaced by information. The Event Horizon project was about trying to raise our awareness of the built world by animating the skyline, that jagged horizon where a human-made world interfaces with the infinity of the sky. In this work, I was trying to bring that perceptual awareness into the very cells of the city. By the way, anybody giving any of the works that make up Event Horizon full attention could tell pretty quickly the difference between a sculpture and a human being, a distinction that I am always interested in both reinforcing and questioning. What is a sculpture? What is a human being? How does the existence of one form change the other, and why have we always found it necessary to make models of ourselves?

An industrial-looking sculpture roughly in the shape of a person
Antony Gormley BIG SIDLE 2023 Cast iron 267.8 x 87.5 x 63.5cm. Photograph by Stephen White & Co. © the artist

You’re best known as a sculptor but have several drawings in this show. How do the two disciplines inform each other?

Drawing is the fertile ground out of which all my work comes. It is an activity that I depend on both to develop and extend the imaginative space of the work and also to go to places that perhaps could never be manifested. Many of the drawings I am showing actually come from thinking about the spaces created within sculptures. All of the Darkness of the Body drawings that are in the stairwell come from trying to evoke compressed spaces inside a series of recent Bunker sculptures. These are cast-concrete buildings at the scale of the body, designed to contain exactly the kind of compressed body shown in the drawings. The Lux drawings all come from the experience of making Cave, a large reclining body that takes sculpture into a form of architecture and allows light to come indirectly into its interior. Other drawings in the exhibition express an intuition about bodies in space: supernovas and neutron stars that represent the beginning and end of cosmic objects and a relationship between light and space that connects with the Lux drawings.

I always carry a workbook with me. These are small notebooks that easily fit into my back pocket, providing a ground to make a mark. The impulse to capture a thought or a feeling directly can only be done in drawing. Drawing is a form of material thinking and without it, my work would have no roots. I have increasingly included drawings in my exhibitions because I feel that they add an imaginative layer or dimension. They are small windows into other ways of thinking and feeling that benefit the works in dialogue with them.

Three works in this show, the Big Double Blockworks, came to you in response to the Covid lockdowns. How was your pandemic?

I loved the time of the pandemic: no cars on the roads, no planes in the sky, you could hear the birds sing, you could smell the air without hydrocarbons. We could look at the habitat we have made for ourselves and see it as a picture conveying the values of our time.

The way that society itself reformulated with condominiums and whole streets helping each other, the way that people began to notice things in their neighborhood and take an interest in a tree, a particular building, a park or even an unused bit of open ground, it was as if the texture of everyday life suddenly took on the mantle of the exotic. Covid showed us another way of being. We didn’t have to get on planes the whole time to escape ourselves – we could live in our own space with our partners and families. Sometimes this was difficult: tensions that would not have arisen otherwise did arise, but so did the opposite, and that’s what I’ve tried to capture in the ‘Big Double Blockworks’. Here is the human subject represented as a space materialized in the syntax of architecture and made massive, talking about the way in which, during Covid, those with whom we shared our lives and spaces became an extension of our own thought and body-world. I chose to show the first of these large Double Blockworks in New York because I think they resonate with the city. In any society constituted by high-rise structures, there is the potential for jeopardy: a nagging worry always at the back of peoples’ minds. These works, where two bodies share a center of gravity, are an attempt to evoke our dependency not just on the architecture and shelter of our cities, but on the intimate bodies of others. We need them if we are to remain alive, alert and aware.

A man standing in a series of tubes
Antony Gormley’s “AERIAL” is at White Cube New York through June 15. © White Cube (Theo Christelis)

I had the pleasure of seeing your recently closed “Critical Mass” installation at the Rodin Museum. How do you see your work in relation to Rodin’s?

I have spent a lot of my life, perhaps too much of it, rejecting Rodin’s gestural forms. But in doing that exhibition, I came to see him less as the end of a long European tradition of public statue-making and more as the beginning of the age of Taylorism and mass production. The sheer industry of Rodin’s example is extraordinarily inspiring; the liberties that he took with his own work, making new assemblages out of earlier works, transformed his facility with modeling and reinforced the thingness of sculpture, his work becoming almost as abstract as an Anthony Caro.

As a student and young artist, I was powerfully influenced by the example of American sculpture. Carl Andre, Robert Smithson, Richard Serra and Walter de Maria were all in different ways inspirations to me. What I admired about their work was that they accepted the Industrial Age as the reality of our contemporary condition. What I realized in making this show was how much Rodin had anticipated the part/whole relations so powerfully expressed in the works of Serra and Andre: the way that Rodin incorporated the story of the object’s making into its nature and surface, the way that he allowed the silent and still object nature of sculpture to become evident in works like the Large Head of Iris and Iris, Messenger of the Gods, the way that he explored figure/ground relations in works like La Terre, but mostly for the way that in The Gates of Hell, we have a great abstractionist field that became a productive palimpsest or placenta in redefining a body’s relationship to space and gravity. It was this and the object aspect of his work that I tried to connect with in “Critical Mass.”

Your own body is the basis for much of your work. How has growing older affected the professional relationship that you have with your body?

I don’t have a very professional relationship with my body! It’s just the place where I happen to live. I use the advantage of working from the other side of appearance: within a body. Here I can work from direct firsthand feeling rather than through appraisal through distance. The body is the most direct vehicle for all thought and feeling. I may not be as supple as I used to be; I fell off a cliff in Uzbekistan and injured my left knee a month ago and then broke a bone in my right foot running for a vaporetto in Venice last Friday. So it’s quite good that I am more interested in unbalancing the body, and I’m quite glad that I’m getting a bit wobbly.

I’ve been using scanning rather than plaster molding for the last 20 years, which has really allowed me to continue using my own body as a template—it’s much faster by digital means. I have always wanted to break the artist/model trope, particularly the male artist making a perfect copy of a naked female body seen at a distance. I use my own body because it’s the only bit of the material world that I inhabit—I can work from the inside and I use it as my first material, my instrument and my subject.

Antony Gormley Opens Up About Drawing’s Role in Sculpture and His Relationship with New York