Gormley on the loose in St Petersburg

Antony Gormley is sitting at a giant, cluttered desk in his studio in north London and picks out an image of an ancient Greek statue on his computer screen. It is Dionysus, the mischievous god of revelry. “He is looking across the room at Athena,” says Gormley. “But she is not returning his amorous advances. She is looking straight ahead.” His tone is mock-disconsolate. He is describing a display from his forthcoming exhibition at St Petersburg’s State Hermitage Museum, and there is no shortage of mischief here, either. The artist has gleefully invented a witty confrontation between the forces of wilful abandonment and cool rationality; a stand-off, if you like, between a horny reveller and a woman with higher things on her mind. It is as if these inert statues have taken on a fresh life of their own.

It is not the first time Gormley has made merry with the limits, and the limitless potential, of the human body. But this may be his most iconoclastic outing yet. The sculptor has been commissioned to “mess about” – his own words – with one of the most conservative cultural institutions in the world. His radical rehang of the Hermitage’s classical Greek and Roman galleries is more than a modish contemporary intervention: it asks us to reconsider our views of the boundary between the human and the divine.

The show, “Still Standing”, which opens later this month, marks the first time a living artist has been let loose on the Hermitage’s distinguished collections. It comprises two parts: the first a placement of nine ancient statues in a loose constellation of Gormley’s design; the second a display of 17 new works by the artist in the courtyard next door. Gormley declares himself “amazed” that he has been allowed to tamper with the museum in such a radical way. “I take my hat off to them,” he says. “The classical collections here have never been touched in this way, let alone by a foreigner. Let alone a foreigner who is a contemporary artist.”

The first part of the show is, in many ways, more shocking than the display of new work. Gormley has lowered the statues, sinking their pedestals into a temporary plywood floor, so that they are on the same level as the viewer. In one bold stroke, Olympian deities mingle with the hapless mortals of 21st-century cultural tourism.

Gormley hopes the effect will be two-fold: first, that the “de-plinthing” will democratise the works, “bringing the ideal down to the ground”, abolishing the hierarchies implicated in their previous display. In this sense, he says, it is a companion piece to “One & Other”, his commission for Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth in 2009, which asked 2,400 people from across British society to mount the plinth for an hour each. Where that work exalted the “ordinary”, the Hermitage installation does the opposite, hauling those we would name gods into the maelstrom of human affairs.

Gormley also wants to make viewers realise just what it is they are looking at. Seen up close, the statues reveal the numerous amendments and reconstructions they have suffered through the ages, in the name of conservation, or just plain fashion. A new nose here, a patched up limb there, a solemn epiphany for the visitor, Gormley hopes: “These things are fiction. Even the most complete work here is a collage of ancient bits and pieces. A pastiche. So we see that the classical ideal is something to be questioned.”

The reassessment will have a special resonance for those acquainted with the previous layout of the works. Gormley says that the statues were “pushed to the edge” of the gallery, making it impossible to see them in the round. “It is clear that sculpture became secondary to the architecture. It was the architecture that was charged with conveying the idea of permanence and eternal classical values. It shows how much the statues were made to be decorative elements in a decorative whole.”

Liberated from their superficial roles, the statues have been photographed in rotation. Gormley shows me an image of the most famous statue on show, the armless Aphrodite. “She isn’t terrific is she?” he wonders, pointing out the imperfections. “She has had a new nose. And I think she has been outside a lot.” The statue is a fixed point in the museum, at which lovers photograph themselves kissing. “So that is going to be easier now that she is on the same level as them.” Gormley revels in his reordering of hierarchies. “We are demoting them,” he says of the statues, “turning them from ideal objects to real things. I want to encourage people to see them in a more intimate and close way, as made things.”

Antony Gormley at his studio in north London

Inevitably, the artist’s rehang also asks questions of the host institution. “Why is it that in Soviet times a decision was taken to keep this imperial idea of a collection alive? While the rest of Europe was taking off all those 19th-century additions, here the heroic, classical idea of sculpture remained in deep freeze. Is it because, at a time of great social and political unrest, it was important to have something that was stable? The result is that the whole museum has been kept in aspic.

“And the ideological principles are still there. In both Russia and China, the art schools are still run on the French academy model. It is not surprising that their museums are still based on the idea of the 18th-century encyclopaedia of material culture.”

The result, he says, is that the contents of museums have traditionally been “not to be enjoyed, but to be seen as treasure or booty, and also as some kind of rather hard object lesson. It is to [the Hermitage’s] credit that it is now allowing those things to be questioned, and their context deconstructed.”

Gormley has long maintained that sculpture in the contemporary world has the opposite role to what it used to have: far from being a material manifestation of a hierarchy, as in classical times, it is today employed to undermine such notions. “That is the difference between a statue, usually a depiction of a lone hero, which has a clear political or mythological narrative attached to it, and is always a commemoration of the past, and my work, which is interested in the future and encourages a more reflexive attitude. I want to give the public a sense that they matter, that they are also makers and interpreters of their own futures.”

In the adjacent courtyard of the Hermitage is Gormley’s second display – new works that make a sharp contrast to the classical grandeur next door. Seventeen solid iron blockworks, rusted into rough, oxidised form, assume a variety of positions. The figures, deliberately echoing Malevich’s “architectons”, three-dimensional models of buildings that were never realised, are as nerve-wracked as the ancient Greek statues are confident. “It is dystopian,” says the artist. “There is a sense in all these pieces of partiality, and the potential for breakdown. They are trying to hold themselves together. They are basically the antithesis of what has gone before.”

Work in progress, as the new and classical pieces wait to be put into position at the St Petersburg show

I say they are unsettling. “I hope so. They are certainly not heroic, or moral symbols.” He contrasts the installation with another high-profile contemporary intervention in a traditional space, that of Jeff Koons’s art works in Versailles in 2008. It made for a clamorous battle between the kitsch and the baroque. “Yet the shininess and wish to please of Koons’s work suited that context,” he says. “This is the very opposite of that.”

The first time I talked to Gormley, during his 2007 “Event Horizon”, in which bronze casts of bodies were scattered over the London skyline, he spoke of the importance of art “bleeding” out of museums and galleries into the streets. “Still Standing” turns attention back to those institutions which for so long told their story with historical certitude. No longer. Gormley’s St Petersburg show comes from a similar cultural standpoint to Neil MacGregor’s ground-breaking BBC radio series “A History of the World in 100 Objects”, which took items from the British Museum’s collection and allowed them, says Gormley, “to speak for themselves, rather than stand as examples of a particular time, place or belief system”.

Gormley is subverting the very place that has opened its doors to him, and prompting its audience to question the stories they have been fed over the years. “To what extent do they have to be resisted?” he asks. “Or renewed? Or retold completely?” It sounds like St Petersburg is the place to be this winter, I say. “It is spectacular. But I did hear that three people were killed last year from falling icicles.” The fragile nature of the human condition is never far from his thoughts. It is a miracle we are still standing at all.

Peter Aspden is the FT’s arts writer

‘Still Standing: A Contemporary Intervention in the Classical Collection’, runs September 23 to January 15 2012 at the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg; www.hermitagemuseum.org.

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