Gormley on Giacometti

Antony Gormley in conversation with Frances Morris at Tate Modern

Listening to Antony Gormley talk to Frances Morris about the work of Alberto Giacometti was a real treat, as I love the work of both artists. Their stripped-down visions of the human form have a powerfully universal and even primal quality, although they can be seen as polar opposites. Gormley’s famous ‘Angel of the North’ is 20m high with a 54m wingspan, a striking statement of what he called “trying to detach the notion of being from the accident of appearance”. Giacometti, on the other hand, made dozens of spindly figures imbued with an almost frightening fragility. There’s even a story that he could fit one particular five years’ worth of work into a matchbox.

I found Gormley a fantastic speaker; cerebral and vividly eloquent. One point which he kept referring back to was the importance for Giacometti of the process of making sculpture. He said that Giacometti was “trying to see through making”. It is this process of seeing, rather than the appearance itself, that Gormley believes was of the most importance to him. I found this really interesting, because this priority is shared by Cubist art, but instead of trying to get an understanding through formal disintegration, Giacometti’s art is, as Gormley said, very aware of its solidity and physicality. The way he used plaster is not unlike Rodin: with a reverence for its rawness and roughness. Gormley called this a “complete rejection of virtuosity”, giving his art a freshness, as if every piece was the first thing he’d ever made.

“Our drive is the same” said Gormley. “To give some account of presence.” For me, this is what makes both artists’ work so great. As a viewer, you aren’t just looking at their sculptures, you are aware of their presence in the space. I think that this is down to their very basic use of the human form, as it is a shape that speaks of individuality, but represents everyone. It’s instantly recognisable and so full of emotional potential. Gormley phrased this beautifully: “the body is the primary instrument of experience.” Listening to him gave me a strong sense that he has a very philosophical awareness of the potential of the human form for expression.

My favourite example of Giacometti’s which was used as an example was ‘Falling Man’, which was compared to Bernini’s St Teresa because of its sense of abandon. It’s so expressive and yet so simple. We recognise the motion instantly, but there is a mystery to it. Gormley talked about the contradiction here between the essential stasis of sculpture and the inevitability of time. The figure, attached to the base just by the tips of its toes, appears caught in motion. Once again it is Giacometti’s simplicity that takes the key role here. It brings the conflict between movement and stasis to the forefront, and perhaps here we can see Giacometti’s interest in his artistic process; what Gormley called his “appetite for the possibility of sculpture.”

One concept that he highlighted which I’d never really considered before was the importance of space for both his and Giacometti’s sculptures: “a body cannot be seen independently from the space around it.” It is this space which places stark emphasis on the delicacy and loneliness of Giacometti’s figures.

In ‘Four Figurines on a Stand’, Giacometti has completely dwarfed the figures. This gives them an insignificance which contrasts so interestingly with the way in which they immediately draw the viewer’s gaze, because of that instant visual connection we have to the human form. For Gormley, Giacometti’s work exposes the awareness we have of ourselves in relation to our surroundings, especially when we feel that there is a distance between ourselves and others.

There is a similarity between this and Gormley’s work ‘Inside Australia’, in which 51 sculptures each stand around 170m apart from each other on an Australian salt lake. The space between them heightens the sense of their physicality and presence, both dwarfing and empowering them. Morris and Gormley talked about this key difference: Giacometti’s art is “confined to the studio”, whereas Gormley’s takes place on an “expanded platform for art”. ‘Four Figurines on a Stand’ relies on space constructed by the artist, but ‘Inside Australia’ uses ‘natural’ emptiness, as well as the landscape and even the weather, to create its powerful effect.

I felt very privileged to have heard Gormley talk about his work and that of Giacometti with such passion and insight.

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