Lunch with the FT: Antony Gormley

Over forkfuls of vegetable risotto the sculptor talks to Jackie Wullschlager about his Roman Catholic upbringing and the art he proposed for the Olympic commission

On a warm spring day, a giant in a fluorescent yellow jacket and woolly hat strides into the Lord Stanley, a wood-panelled gastro-pub in Camden, north London. A head and shoulders taller than everyone else, Antony Gormley gazes effortlessly over the throng of drinkers at his local and hastens to our table. He has a long mobile face and darting eyes behind square silver glasses. He gives me a peck on each cheek and places a solicitous hand on my arm. “Hello, how has your day been so far?” he opens. “Can I get you a drink?”

It is a vicarish approach, anxious to appear easy-going, one of the crowd. I tell him the FT pays for lunch. He requests a lemonade and peels off his cyclist’s gear, revealing dark hair flecked with grey and couldn’t-care-less clothes – brown turtle-neck jumper, beige trousers. Without further ado, he produces a catalogue for a recent show from his rucksack and shows me a diagram of a triangle within a triangle. “You see, this is so beautiful! I said to Roger Penrose [professor of mathematics at Oxford], ‘I’ve been dealing with this bubble geometry and I’m not making much sense of it, can you help?’ He was an absolute joy, so open-minded, he spent hours taking me through this jungle of possibilities.”

I try to interest Gormley in the blackboard menu but he lingers on the trisector theorem illustration, summarising rapidly: “If you trisect a triangle’s angles internally, the intersections provide the vertices of a smaller triangle. Whatever the original shape, the smaller triangle will be equilateral. It shows the relationship of the random to the absolute.”

Is Gormley a philosopher? He is aware that “either my work can be seen as really bad figurative sculpture, or as a provocation to a state of reflection”. Few artists divide audiences in more complex ways. He is seen by some as a traditional sculptor of the human form, and by others as a cutting-edge conceptualist – and he’s admired or loathed on both counts. He is popular with the public but has equally attracted opprobrium from the critical establishment for the very accessibility of works such as “Angel of the North”, his massive motorway landmark, or “Field”, an installation of 40,000 clay-sized figurines made with a community in St Helen’s, Merseyside, for which he won the Turner Prize in 1994. Last year’s “One and Other” for Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth, won widespread acclaim. So has “Event Horizon”, the recent installation of fibreglass and iron sculptures of a naked man across New York’s skyline, a reprise of the event in London in 2007.

Test Sites, opening at London’s White Cube next week, brings Gormley’s conversations between architecture, geometry and the human body into the gallery. It includes massive blocks of rusted iron, which aim “to make the condition of architecture absolutely apparent as a way of describing the body”, and a space frame: “a drawing but also an object – virtual but also real. It’s a forest of verticality, a 3D hologram but somehow you’re part of it.” The viewer edges his way through the frame in total darkness until, on a timed cycle, blinding light floods the room, recalling the installation “Blind Light” at London’s Hayward Gallery in 2007. “It’s intensely uncomfortable – what was illusory becomes visual, and you find yourself up against your fellow men. It’s very experiential – very scary. When I showed a version in New York, people became totally freaked out.” He imitates an east coast twang: “Turn those lights off!”

Why put people through it like this? “[The philosopher Edmund] Burke said there’s no beauty without terror. I want people to react by saying, ‘What the hell is this?’, then become the object and ask the same question.” This insistence on putting the spotlight on the viewer makes Gormley a modern-day grand inquisitor, an interrogator of souls.

Certainly his uncompromising conceptual focus is matched by asceticism at lunch. With barely a glance at the Mediterranean-leaning menu of meat and fish, he selects the cheapest thing on it – a vegetable risotto. Neither starter nor desert are contenders. The waiter suggests an accompanying green salad; I order an onion tart.

Gormley, 60, is lean and fit and puts himself through extreme physical trial in the bedrock of his art: casting moulds from his own body. “The idea of making a surrogate body or getting someone else to do what I can legitimately use myself to do – I couldn’t do that,” he says. “It’s my moment of truth. If there’s a truth claim in the work, it’s not an interpretation of life but that it comes from a lived moment in time. I may be applying logical and conceptual principles of the mind/body problem, but this is not expressive. I’m trying to tell things as they are – as evidence of something actual. It’s the thing people kill me for.”

He means, I think, the underlay of human figuration as a basis for conceptual art. Why has this provoked such vehement responses? “I’ve been battling this all my life. There’s a sense that somehow the work is unaccepted within the canon because it’s still going on about the body. There are people who characterise my project as a one-shout idea. But you don’t criticise a dancer for using his body. People seem to make a connection with the work. The body is capable of transcending creed, race, language, to tell of human experience including thought, feeling, indeed the fact of human existence. We need images of the body now as much as we have ever needed them and no one knows how to make them make sense.”

It is not too hard to read this offering of his body – and a certain petulance that the meaning of the sacrifice is not universally acknowledged – in terms of Gormley’s rigorously Roman Catholic upbringing. “Oh, yes, there was lots of kneeling in dark places praying to non-existent gods,” he says, but most seminal – though nothing to do with religion – are memories as a child of seven or eight of “the experience of the enforced sleep – being made to go to sleep when I wasn’t tired between two and three in broad daylight. That’s when I got to know the body as a place, not a thing. It was a feeling of incredible claustrophobia. I remember the metal-balconied room in the middle of our house in Hampstead Garden Suburb, facing south. It was incredibly hot, bright, pink, the size of a matchbox, completely suffocating. I felt almost sick with nausea from its confinement. The slow release from that into a space that was dark, cool and infinite – I got used to having that experience. The tiny room opened out, turned into something without dimensions. I can’t think of anything that I have made that doesn’t refer to that or hasn’t come out of it.”

The food arrives. My tart, served with potato and walnut salad, is rich and robustly flavoured with rosemary. Gormley takes forkfuls of risotto, a fresh, creamy-looking concoction of morels, peas, broad beans and basil, without interest. Was his childhood happy? “Not really – but it wasn’t sad either,” he answers, as if the question were irrelevant. Antony Mark David Gormley – the initials AMDG are, not coincidentally, those you encounter in churches across Europe, where they stand for Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam, to the greater glory of God – was born in 1950, seventh child in an affluent family. His father was manager of a pharmaceutical company and a “captain of industry” who “had a passion for 15th-century paintings”. He was also, says Gormley, “a maniac. He was hopeless – he believed in discipline but I’m not sure that he was particularly disciplined. Motivation is very difficult to pin down. With my father, although he took my scribbled poems to his secretary and brought them back typed out, there was always a sense that nothing was quite good enough. The whole family suffered from the feeling that in his view the potential of one’s offerings was not quite adequate.”

At Ampleforth, a Catholic boarding school in north Yorkshire, Gormley “made a radio, a boat, a sandyacht”; monks “listened to my poems and helped me find the right paints – I have a lot to be thankful for in my education.” He read architecture and anthropology at Cambridge, then travelled in India, where he developed an interest in Buddhism that has remained a constant. He did not set out to be an artist: “I wouldn’t have had that presumption or assumption. It was only when I realised it was the only conclusion to who I was. I was three months off 30 when I came out of art college. I kept my options open a long time. And I have been very wilful.” After art school – Central St Martin’s, Goldsmiths and the Slade – he worked and lived in Peckham, south London, for years with painter Vicken Parsons. “Such an amazing wife and mother,” he says, “and still my best critic, merciless and very good.” The couple have three children: filmmaker Ivo; Guy, who studied sculpture at Goldsmiths; and architect Paloma. “They are so brilliant and interesting. I say that with no sense of self-congratulation. It’s been none of my business but I’m intensely proud of them.”

Our main courses finished, Gormley eats his way dutifully through the salad. The pub is heaving but nothing distracts him; he speaks warmly of younger generations of artists. His own cohort includes Tony Cragg, Peter Randall-Page, Bill Woodrow and his great rival Anish Kapoor. Though the two no longer talk to each other, Gormley says Kapoor “still makes extraordinary, challenging things”. But, he says, “That generation has been eclipsed, quite rightly, by the very lively Thatcher’s children [the Young British Artists]. They were able to do what we couldn’t dream of – we were happy to wait for galleries and institutions to take an interest while we showed our work shyly to each other. They said, ‘We are going to take control of our destinies’ and I take my hat off to them.”

Although he considers that “Damien [Hirst] is a natural philosopher”, he distinguishes his generation from the rest of the YBAs because “there is a really deep thing for us – of thinking about the issue of where sculpture fits with the world of made things and perhaps a bit wider – an expectation that you would set the terms of your own project and articulate it as well. You had to chart your journey but also the reason for the voyage in the first place.”

Although his admirations tend to the abstract – Malevich, Pollock and Serra – a crucial point in Gormley’s journey was the “revelation” of encountering Jacob Epstein. “After seeing Epstein, I felt I didn’t have a choice. He dealt with sex, procreation, death. Epstein made a pregnant woman, Moore made a Madonna. Moore had holes but not many vaginas and giant schlongs wapping around.” Gormley waves his arms suggestively. “You don’t see many tumescent penises in Moore. Epstein was filled with American vigour and a call for this primary language of direct carving. He infected the world. While English painting was dealing with formal issues, Epstein was dealing with the question, ‘Is the human project going to last?’”

This, updated to an environmentally threatened and technology-led age, is the question posed by Gormley’s art, too – most recently in the 390ft sculpture of a naked man, engineered as a minimalist pylon, which he proposed for the Olympic commission. We are meeting soon after this was rejected in favour of Kapoor’s “ArcelorMittal Orbit”, and days after the Sunday Times published an illustration based on its own artist’s impression rather than on Gormley’s actual proposal – and he invites me to see the “true Olympic model”. I apologise on behalf of my profession, and try to prolong lunch. His lemonade never arrived, so I reorder and he downs it hastily. I pay the bill and we walk five minutes to his warehouse-studio.

Did he expect to win the Olympic commission? “I didn’t think they could possibly fail to appreciate that this is what the Olympics needs,” he answers wryly, showing me how viewers would have been invited to climb the man-pylon. “It would have been approachable but also an experience – the framing of a situation in which the viewer becomes the viewed. It’s a collective approach, where participation is essential to make a new moving body. It’s the industrial sublime, a mountain you climb in the city.”

Gormley is a paradox: a minimalist and also a romantic; an abstract thinker whose work turns on the human figure; a giant ego who denies individual expression but instals casts of his own body worldwide as Everyman. “The work is driving me, evolving and I’m keeping up with it – it makes enormous demands not just on me but on everyone who helps.” Again the absolutism, inclusiveness, recall the Catholic ideal, yet I wonder if Gormley is an optimist?

“Well, no. I probably suffer from melancholy, but we have to believe if the sun has got 6bn years of energy left, we have a part to play. I make contemporary megalithic markers in time and space. Leaving a record of human experience beyond the time when we’re talking to ourselves is a primary urge. We’re insignificant. I’m attracted to sculpture that recognises that. Most culture is a reaction to amnesia – not just human memory but the way whole galaxies disappear into black holes – cosmic amnesia. Sculpture is a railing against that.”

Antony Gormley, ‘Test Sites’, White Cube Mason’s Yard, London SW1, June 4-July 10. ‘Event Horizon’, New York, to August 15. ‘Critical Mass’, De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea, until August

……………………………

The Lord Stanley, London NW1

1 x risotto with morels, peas, broad beans, basil and Parmesan £9.50

1 x Onion and rosemary tart with new potato and walnut salad £9.50

1 x green salad £2.50

1 x lemonade £2.70

Tap water

Total (inc. service) £28

……………………………

Antony Gormley vs Anish Kapoor

Leonardo vs Michelangelo, Ingres vs Delacroix, Matisse vs Picasso – artists through history have thrived on creative rivalry. As the two leading British sculptors of their generation, Gormley and Kapoor have always seen in one another both their greatest competition and a benchmark for achievement.

In the 21st century, the ambitions of both have become increasingly monumental and their latest projects blur differences between art and architecture.

1950 Antony Gormley born in London to Irish father and German mother.

1954 Anish Kapoor born in Bombay to Indian father and Iraqi Jewish mother.

1973-79 Gormley attends Central St Martins, Goldsmiths and Slade School of Art. Kapoor attends Hornsey College of Art and Chelsea School of Art.

1990 Kapoor represents Britain at the Venice Biennale and wins Premio Duemila, the prize for youngest artist.

1991 Kapoor wins the Turner Prize with “Untitled”, a pigment and sandstone urn.

1994 Gormley wins the Turner Prize with “Testing A World View”, five identical iron body forms described by the artist as “the polymorphousness of the self”.

1995-98 Construction of Gormley’s “Angel of the North” in Gateshead.

2002 Kapoor wins Unilever Commission to fill the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern. Produces “Marsyas” – three connected steel rings, the largest of which weighs 10 tonnes.

2004 Kapoor wins commission for a memorial to the British victims of 9/11, New York.

2009 Gormley’s “One and Other” wins commission for Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square. Kapoor’s “Sky Plinth” is an unsuccessful contender.

2009 Kapoor retrospective at the Royal Academy of Arts includes ”Svayambh”, a 40-tonne block of red wax, paint and vaseline that travelled slowly on a train track through five galleries, depositing crimson goo on walls, cornices and floors.

2010 Kapoor wins Olympic commission to design a public attraction at the Olympic Park in Stratford. The “ArcelorMittal Orbit” a 115m-high looping lattice of tubular red steel is chosen ahead of Gormley’s 118m sculpture of a naked man.

2010 Gormley’s “Habitat”, created from 57 stainless steel boxes, and situated in Anchorage, Alaska, is his first permanent installation in the US.

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