“Italy is the greatest challenge, for any artist.” Antony Gormley was speaking at a press conference to launch his latest installation of sculpture, “Time Horizon”. In the cradle of western art, the British sculptor went on to explain, all contemporary artists are faced not only with the legacy of great predecessors but also with the meeting of time and influence, the very history of our ways of seeing.

In his new show, Gormley has met this challenge head-on. “Time Horizon” is set on the site of the Roman city of Minervia Scolacium, near Catanzaro on the southern Italian coast of Calabria. The parco archeologico stands within acres of 200-year-old olive groves, their dark squat trees with their thick trunks and solemn loads of fruit marching off in military ranks on either side of the excavated forum and amphitheatre.

Immediately below to the south is the glittering sea; above, the ground slopes up to where the solemn hulk of a 12th-century basilica stands, close to the 19th-century villa of the original noble owner of the olive groves. The villa has been converted into an archaeological museum that houses some of the hefty toga-ed marble figures that once lined the sides of the forum. In the outbuildings, giant olive presses of the 1930s add an element of industrial archaeology to the already elaborate strata of human life and endeavour that this place contains. And since the site was also home to a substantial Greek colony before even the Romans built here, it is a timeline that stretches across some 5,000 years.

“Time Horizon”, therefore, is cleverly named. Curated by Alberto Fiz, it is a brave commission by the local authorities, the second in a series entitled “Intersezioni” – intersections or interpolations – that aims to explore the meeting-points of ancient and contemporary cultures through the work of artists now.

Gormley’s response to this potentially daunting assigment is an installation of 100 lifesize iron figures, apparently identical but in fact with subtle variations – again, as so often with this sculptor’s work, casts of his own body, this time in various stages of breathing.

The trope is a powerfully simple one. The figures are set, apparently more or less at random, across the forum and throughout the olives groves surrounding it. They are all at exactly the same height – that is, an imaginary horizontal (one of the many horizons of the title) runs across their heads. But on this sloping site, hilly by nature and then excavated, cultivated, built up and razed back by successive waves of human occupation, the uneven ground means that, in order to maintain the horizontal, some of the figures stand up high on tall plinths, formal and monumental, while others are sunk to the knees, to the chest, even to the neck in the warm earth.

As with “Another Place”, Gormley’s large installation currently on show at Crosby Beach near Liverpool, it is not intended that the whole work be seen at once. Here, the great classical rectangle of the forum reveals a vista of a dozen or more of
Gormley’s iron men, never looking at each other, as if in isolation within an invisible crowd, or as if going about their daily business within that vanished world – an echo of the static marble forms that once stood here in their pomp.

Then an exploration of the olive groves gradually shows us other figures, piecemeal, suddenly framed in the perspective of a long row of trees or, surprisingly, on a hillock, where a lonely figure sinks into the ground up to its knees and another, higher up, is sucked down to its chest. It is as if the earth is swallowing them, the iron returning to its original element. Or, more humanly, as if they are rising from the ground, pushing upwards like the trees, aspiring, yearning, growing.

The layers in this “time horizon” resonate slowly. It conveys a powerful sense of geological strata and the human remains that lie in them: Gormley has said that his project “engages with two axes, the horizontal, extended axis of space and
the vertical axis of time: historical and geological”. But if this sounds a bit heady, the installation also works on us at a more visceral level. There is something straightforwardly disturbing about a half-buried figure: apart from confusing us, it brings
vividly to mind the sense of
one wholly buried, already victim to the quicksands of time, the visible conjuring up the invisible, the palpability of the figure before you bringing with it
the imagined figure beneath
your feet.

This may be a dusty piece of Italian ground in our own time-line, but down there are not only the shops and streets and houses we learn about, and the coins and pots in the nearby museum, but also lives and hopes and desires and miseries. Under that stone a baby was born, under my sandal a man died. A man who would have looked just about like this figure lording it on his plinth, in his moment in the sun, or that half-buried one whose time seems to be up, being sucked down into the inexorable history of the earth. Gormley has even described the figures as a sort of “acupuncture”, needles that penetrate the depths of the body of time to set up currents of energy across and between them.

Another of Gormley’s descriptions is of his own recurrent image, a mould of his own body, as a means of representing the obvious, the human condition, but also as a sort of resonating vehicle for the emotions and
perceptions of the looker.
It seems as if he is stating the obvious when he says that his sculptures “require the immediate presence of the viewer”, but it makes sense here, where seeing is feeling.

But here another investigation takes place – appropriately for a patch of ground in which flourished the civilisations from which the western world learnt its abiding notions of how societies are organised. “Time Horizon” makes us think about hierarchy and social status in a way that few of Gormley’s works do so acutely. The point is an obvious one: these figures are all but identical, yet those that are raised on plinths seem to carry an air of importance, assurance, literally of stature, while those that are half-submerged seem either beaten-down or struggling upwards with furious energy. The same set of the shoulders, the same angle of the jaw seems to breathe solidity and self-confidence in one figure, but conveys submissiveness in another, a sort of driving anxiety in another. Context is all.

It is already 7.00pm, but the air conditioning in the packed press conference is struggling to cope with the summer heat. Gormley’s Italian is coping valiantly with routine questions about his methods and his materials – a eulogy to pig iron seems to come easily to him in any language – when a journalist from the Corriere della Sera (all the way from Milan, another world) raises the temperature considerably. In an area with so many pressing social and economic needs, she asks, how can the local authorities justify the expense of such an ambitious exhibition?

It is a question the local press has been worrying at in recent days, and the answer proves contentious. It brings forth an impassioned defence from the park’s director, stressing the need to revitalise and look to the future as well as the perpetual task of caring for the past. But it also provokes something close to a public squabble among the assembled dignitaries, about budgets and funding. It begins to seem as if the intricacies of local politics will keep us there for a long time. But eventually we are released into the warm evening, to wander among the groves and the iron figures with the crowds of local visitors to the opening.

Later still, the region’s director of culture, Francesco Prosperetti, reverts to the tough question that hovers behind controversy over this sort of work in this sort of area: whether the investment in an injection of cultural riches can promote the cultural tourism that will reinvigorate the regional economy. He explains some of the difficulties of regeneration in parts of the south, with a tourist infrastructure that is often far from adequate. But the attempt is bold, and hugely valuable.

It is true that Catanzaro is not the easiest place to get to, but it’s not so hard either. And for this particular work, time presses. “Time Horizon”, a complex and brilliant hymn to history and permanence, ends in a matter of months.

‘Time Horizon’ is at the Parco Archeologico di Scacium, Catanzaro, Italy until October 8. Tel +39 0961 391356

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