Antony Gormley is the people’s sculptor. From the outset of his career in the early 1980s he has announced his commitment to the human figure in an era when other leading sculptors – Richard Serra, Anish Kapoor, Rachel Whiteread – snubbed it in favour of abstract explorations of material and space. Of late, some critics have decried him. When he used Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth as a platform for real people to express their personal passions and concerns, many saw his populism as misguided. Gormley was too earnest, too ethical and too easy for an age intoxicated by irony, image and faux-intellectualism.
At times Gormley has looked repetitive. Another metal man gazing out at the horizon? Perched on a rooftop in existential communion with his surroundings? Yet this new show reveals his previous works as stepping-stones on the road to a vision that is radical in execution and content. How rare and invigorating to be present at an exhibition of art that announces its maker as one of the greats of an era.
The pièce de résistance at Bermondsey is “Model”, a Leviathan structure that makes its location, White Cube’s cavernous South Gallery, feel cramped. Yet to experience fully the sense of crisis induced by its awesome volumes, visitors should journey first through Gormley’s smaller sculptures. What these cast-iron forms appear to reveal is that Gormley has broken free of his fidelity to the figure. In certain works the human form is still triumphantly evident. “Hinge”, for example, articulates a couple clamped in the tension of union, each with an iron limb springing away into space; “Splay” (2012) is defined by the single leg jutting out into the room; “Tender” (2012) is clearly a man lying flat on his back, arms pressed to his sides.
But most require a leap of imagination to discern human presence. Assembled from digitally designed blocks and planes, these sculptures resemble buildings as much as bodies. As you prowl the central corridor and adjacent galleries of White Cube’s felicitously angular space, you feel as if you are walking through a futuristic city of white voids and rationalist structures. There are soaring towers and squat bungalows, asymmetrical skyscrapers and mute, shuttered factories. Occasionally a piece defies the constructivist rhythm. In a room of its own, for example, the magnificent “Mark” (2012), with two metal arms flying out from its rigid trunk, conjures both winter tree and crucifix.
Dwell on the shapes and the corporeal essence gradually returns. The snug smallholding in a corner could be a homeless man huddled in a shop doorway. That leaning tower is also a woman resting her head in exhaustion against a wall.
Gormley has been working up to these forms for years. Beautifully elaborated in the gallery devoted to his drawings and models, it is clear how he has moved away from his original, round-limbed Everyman to construct figures from chunky, rectilinear modules. Seen in the light of the White Cube exhibition, those early robotic creatures – part Lego, part Léger – announce themselves as bodies built from bricks by a sculptor playing with the rapport between architecture and anatomy. Gradually, he expands the limits of his geometric elements until all memory of limbs and features is nearly lost and a new shape, as much house as human, is born.
The symbiosis between bodies and buildings has intrigued architects since classical times. The ancient Roman architectural historian Vitruvius declared that “no temple can be put together coherently … unless it conforms to the principle relating the members of a well-shaped man.” Over the centuries, other epochs have fallen hungrily on such fantasies. Leonardo’s famous drawing of the Vitruvian Man – a figure whose limbs span the circumference of a circle – was probably doodled as he devised plans for the dome of Milan cathedral.
Yet Gormley’s stacks and storeys are resolutely Modernist. They summon the ideal homes of Bauhaus and the International Style. Carved out of flawless, manufactured lines and devoid of decadent ornament, such neo-Platonic structures would inspire the individual to devote himself to the good of the collective.
With projects such as the Fourth Plinth, Gormley has made no secret of his own utopian anima. Yet his concerns have, until now, been attuned to our exteriors – the tensions between our physical boundaries and that of the world around us – than our inner landscapes. His lonely, vulnerable figures stand existentially tall in the tradition of Giacometti rather than crippled in the intimate, personal interrogations of, say, Tracey Emin. The defining features of his sculptures here are their smooth, closed surfaces. If these are dwellings, their rooms are locked; if people, their lips are sealed.
It is this history of silence that makes “Model” such a departure. A monumental metal structure, too vast for its human template to be discernible to the spectator, it is Gormley’s version of a labyrinth. Visitors enter through an aperture that is actually the figure’s foot to find themselves embarked on a nerve-wracking yet exhilarating voyage. The artist has cracked open his inarticulate Everyman to reveal the boundless emotions within. Here are the scary cellars and punishment cupboards of childhood nightmares; yet also the secret rooms we stumble upon in our dreams that, sometimes, are the source of revelation.
Those bold enough will crouch and crawl through claustrophobic tunnels and brave pitch-black vacuums, trusting Gormley to bring them out into the light. Groping my way around a corner with a pounding heart, I came into a luminous gallery where a young attendant sat reading Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations. That Jeremiah of modern art can rest easy in his grave; the visceral shock of “Model” could never be replicated with any digital reproduction.
Until February 10, www.whitecube.com