Notes on Antony Gormley
From Antony Gormley: Learning to Be, Schauwerk Sindelfingen & Kehrer Verlag, Stuttgart & Heidelberg, Germany, 2021
To be born is to be seized, but by what? By everything that the subject henceforth calls its reality, by the subject’s possession of reality. That is the price of existence. Its immediate seizure or expropriation. Consequently, to exist is to be deprived of existence.
I exist = I am robbed of my existence. In de facto self-deprivation every self generates the essentiality of itself. It is in a state of continual disappearance. Through disappearance, it constitutes itself as a subject, which is to say, as the arena of constant loss of the self, the scene of sometimes desperate, sometimes cheerful appropriation of the self.
The stage that is its life allows it just one role: protagonist of its disappearance, subject without subjectivity. What we call art and philosophy can’t get by without a touch of the theatrical. In broad daylight, by light of the enlightenment provided by artistic and philosophical thought, the subject glides towards its negation. It does not arrive at negation through death, because negation arrived long before. Death guides the subject’s every step. Its guidance, which proves to be unpredictable, is what is known as known as life under the conditions of an automatism, which it is futile to resist. As an automaton of itself or of that which it mistakes for itself, the thinking animal speeds towards a dispossession that can be liberating. Ultimately, it implies renouncing total self-control. Precisely for this reason, it motivates the subject away from being I myself and towards freedom.
Freedom beyond any imaginary self-appropriation, which makes do without any displays of authenticity, so that it still refuses to affirm ostensible inauthenticity. Both registers are suspended. Authenticity and inauthenticity prove to be unusable tokens in an unfamiliar game. Driven by its realities towards its unreality, the subject moves in the space of ontological irreality. The game loses none of its gravity in the process. It demands that thought be concentrated on everything that deprives it of its authority and abilities. In successful cases, it opens a space of indeterminacy to thought, in which it experiences the coincidence of freedom and unfreedom.
The experience of this coincidence becomes self-awareness. Only by rejecting sovereignty does it become sovereign. This sovereignty is like that described by Georges Bataille. It manifests itself as the affirmation of a heterogeneity that functions as the law of all that is alive. On the stage of such strangeness, autonomy is possible. Not in the sense of successful self-legislation, but rather in the mode of affirming its impossibility.1
An experience differs from an occurrence in that the former intervenes in existence. Occurrences happen every day, but experiences are rare.
While occurrences roll off of those that they occur to like droplets of water, the content of experience penetrates the subject of experience, carries it along with it or causes it to freeze. This isn’t necessarily an existential drama, though. There are experiences whose effects are discreet and impalpable but intense.
The intensity of experience means that it is always existential experience in the sense that it seizes the subject, objectifying it a little. To have an experience—as Martin Heidegger and Michel Foucault knew—is to enter into a dynamic transformation, of becoming other. The self-experiences itself through self-estrangement. It comes so close to itself that it no longer understands itself. Self-constitution through self-awareness, the experience of the self, must consent to the adventure of self-estrangement. Hegel said the same.
Crucial is the fact that experiri (experience)is articulated in a broad spectrum of forms. It means to attempt, to try, to test, to find out, to prove, and so on. Its decisive dimension lies in what we might call the self-destabilizing effect of experience. An experience only occurs when the trace of a certain uncanniness passes over me. It is always the experience of an exterior, however nearby this exterior may be and however compelled I am to recognize that experience of the exterior ultimately represents experience of the self. Undoubtedly, it initially constitutes an estrangement, a shrinking back, a confusion.
3. Contact with the exterior: first-hand experience
Antony Gormley knows that testing the skin is what separates us from our surroundings. It is about feeling along the border that separates the body from its surroundings, both extracorporeally and intracorporeally. External space is social space and it is the space governed by physical, climatic and digital laws. Every embodied subject is in unbreakable contact with it. Everything takes place on this fault line of an unbreakability that causes the subject to experience closeness and distance, self and otherness as compossible.
The diversity of Gormley’s sculptures and drawings allows us to register a few constants of his experimentation. It is always about existence, about the body in its surroundings, the subject in relation to what is external to the subject and about what he calls first-hand experience.
First-hand experience concerns both the self-experience and external experience of the human subject in space, as well as the experience which Gormley's artistic work offers to viewers. It entails a certain immediacy, the concrete nature of an occurrence that can become an experience. This has nothing to do with existential pathos, or only insofar as we remember that the ancient Greek verb πάσχειν (páshkein) means to suffer in the sense of experience or endure.
The existential dimension of Gormley's work lends it its universality and makes it, to risk a word, comprehensible. Since it is addressed to everyone, regardless of their cultural, ethnic, religious, gender or national ‘identity’, it opens up to them and offers dialogue, without reservation, as only art can. That is, it does not exclude anyone, it eludes the narcissistic imperative of certain identitarian or particularist positions by insisting on an encompassing equality (not the sameness) of all people.
Herein lies the cosmopolitan and emancipatory character of Gormley's work. It demonstrates a generosity beyond grandiosity (however large certain works and projects of Gormley's may be). This is also the reason for their tremendous sensitivity: Gormley's work invites us to have sensations and experiences that encourage reflection and thought.
It is obvious to call Gormley the philosopher among the contemporary sculptors. Not that he is the only one, and not because being a philosopher would be an honour, but because his entire artistic practice revolves around existential questions. It not only revolves around these questions, it isolates them, differentiates them and formalizes them, all without minimizing the openness of the work of art, the of experience and dialogue that it always offers by implying the invitation to question it.
Samuel Beckett was unafraid to speak of the ‘artist who stakes his being’ and ‘comes from nowhere’. Artists have no brothers. No school or family would give them support. Beckett evokes the drama of the Antigoneian frenzy as the truth of art, though not without being aware that sacralising ‘cliché interpretations’ are dubious. Despite his closeness to Maurice Blanchot and Marguerite Duras, his concept of art functions without sacralization. An insistence on loneliness remains. He has no use ‘for the sedative of commentary’. He can't stand explanations of art for the public.
As an artist, he cannot not overlook the reductive, levelling and narcotic aspects of explanation. Art is neither democratic (which does not mean that it is anti-democratic!), nor is it exhausted by communication. In the midst of society, in confrontation with it, it emerges from isolation, which is why Beckett can speak of "great solitary oeuvre" in his Homage to Jack B. Yeats (1954).2 It expresses how far art is from parlour games and their imperatives. Rather than loneliness, it is about the minimum requirement for art: to refrain from compromises, opportunism and empty courtesy.
Like Beckett, Gormley knows that human existence takes place in the social fabric to which it belongs. Human beings are social animals. It would be nonsense to deny this. Even when they are alone, the artist is never alone. In the midst of this not-being-alone, which can have a slightly anaesthetic effect, Gormley insists on the possibility of singular as well as collective first-hand experience. Because social space, cultural space, is precisely what risks paralyzing the subject, its sensitivity and reflexivity. The socio-cultural space not only dictates what we perceive and what we don’t, and to what degree; it also determines the forms and means of perception and the ways in which we react to their results.
Gormley's art counteracts this predetermination. It refuses to give in to the general drugging of our senses. Herein lies its political aspect: in this resistance to the perceptual dictates of whatever perceptual culture the subject finds itself in. In the activation and mobilization of processes of experience that are as direct as possible and that make the perception of others and the self dialectically compossible.
In fact, the questions Gormley poses are always existential. Not that they are always a matter of life and death, but the most elementary parameters of human existence (such as sensitivity, disorientation, fear, experience of one's own limits and vulnerability) are never left out of his artistic practice as reflection.
Sensuality and reflection go hand in hand in Gormley's art. It is art that invites viewers to feel as well as to think. Neither of the two registers dominates the other. Rather, they prove to be compatible through Gormley's art. You might say that in it and through it the subject plunges into the element of the world. As if it were swimming in the dark water of an as yet undifferentiated substance in order to test new limits with each stroke that it swims, to feel the skin of things, to adjust and readjust how it spends its time in the world.
The strength of Gormley's art lies in its implicit ontology. It perceives the subject in its capacity to open itself again and again to the elementary, its own corporality, just as it registers itself as the surface of perception of the environment in which it is located. The subject is not only understood as a social animal, its ontological inclusion in the indifferent substance that is the totality of the elements is taken as the starting point for a possible redefinition of its time in the world. The focus is always on the orientation of human beings in their factual disorientation, on testing the body's limits and fathoming the sense and reflective faculties in the face of an infinitely broadening horizon.
In the here and now of its situation, the embodied subject experiences its limitations and weaknesses, as well as its ability to cross boundaries, its capacity for a certain self-transcendence. In the process, Gormley makes no compromises regarding any obscurantism. His body ontology and body mysticism never lose contact with their material basis. They are almost Cartesian in clarity and lucidity. Which does not mean that they get lost in the rational.
It is precisely the cooperation of body and soul or sensuality and reflection that Gormley affirms and activates again and again. Thought begins from the senses, but it does not trump them. Conversely, sensation does not overwhelm the subject in such a way that it loses its reflective power. In Gormley's art, knowing and un-knowing, blindness and insight, rationality and its excess coincide.
Artistic practice includes self-transcendence, that is, going beyond to something that is outside art, which can be called nature or society, the historical sphere or economic space, the political zone or the texture of culture. Art does not take place in a vacuum, isolated from what is outside of art; at the same time, when it is actually influenced by this outside, it creates resistance to it. Only so does it constitute itself as art: in opening to it, and in closing to it.
It is above all Nietzsche who handed art the task, as it was beginning to round off in the Apollonian style, of maintaining contact with the Dionysian abyss, and with everything that allows it to restrict its affirmation of the nonidentical.
The self-transcendence of the work of art aims at this dialectic of the Apollonian and Dionysian, of immanence and transcendence, of identity and non-identity. The only works of art that count constitute the scene of such a dialectic, a kind of force field within which the energies colliding in it do not reach equilibrium. The work of art does not work towards any metaphysics of pacification. On the contrary: it limits such metaphysics by trying to give a difference-tolerant form to the irreducible conflict of evidence and non-evidence, calm and restlessness, the beautiful and the sublime.
As if it set the scene for a dispute that cuts through the embodied subject like a rift, this conflict is present in all of Gormley's works. They never try to resolve the conflict or achieve reconciliation. Rather, Gormley's sculptures help the viewer to gain insight into their own inner conflict and primordial fragmentation. The subject does not dissolve in its entirety. It experiences itself as opposed to itself, ontologically incongruent, incomplete, but also open, not entirely determined and, yes, free. Gormley is not a determinist or a fatalist who tries to convince people that they are nothing but a senseless effect of contingency.
In the midst of contingency, art opens up niches of possible freedom. A freedom that needn’t be absolute in order to exist—freedom in objective bondage. Spinozist freedom of continuous self-experience in the medium of the single substance. As long as the subject can combine reflection with experience, it is more than an object among objects. It constitutes itself as the scene of experiencing the world in the medium of self-experience, which implies insight into its limits as well as the possibility of expanding and occasionally transgressing them.
Adorno's aesthetic theory repeatedly returns to the question of form. Art without form is not art. At the same time, the form paradigm risks the totalization, monumentalisation and self-closure of the work of art. It implies the temptation to turn away from formless – which is the socio-political world, the fragmentary world of facts and opinions, economic conditions and arbitrary cultural specificities – and to anesthetize oneself in relation to it, so to speak, aesthetically. The basis of Adorno's considerations is evident: the work of art is the theatre where form and formlessness are negotiated in the medium, though that form may be fragile.
Fragile does not mean completely torn apart, without unity or coherence. Works of art whose intent is to question those values still retain a minimum of that very unity and coherence. Giving form to the formless means training an eye on a “principle of form” that makes room for the doubtfulness and the necessity of form in the field of aesthetics.
It's about the intertwining and togetherness of both registers. Just as the purely fragmentary would only be legible against the backdrop of (past) expectations of form, pure wholeness would be an expression of the false or untrue due to its complicity with the fantasy of undifferentiated unity, as Adorno occasionally says.
Identity and non-identity cooperate in the work of art, under the sign of an overriding non-identity. Transcendence loosens the grip of immanence, while immanence declares transcendence an impossibility in the emphatic-metaphysical sense.
Gormley's art is an example of this opening up of forms. Like every artistic work, his is also charged with the question of form. He is always interested in opening form to that which escapes it. The sculptural form or situation becomes one of openness and opening, of encounter, of dialogue.
The embodied subject proves to be co-constituted by an exterior, which permeates it, even as it provides resistance to this exterior. The category of resistance is consistently present in Gormley's sculptural work. It is eminently political without being political in the narrow sense of the word, but rather the a priori politicality of corporeal presence in space. Where there is a body, there is resistance. And this resistance constitutes the space of the political in a very elementary sense. In addition, a body is flanked by the presence and sometimes the counter-presence of other bodies or the bodies of other subjects. The multiplicity of bodies spans the public space. What is important are the gaps between them, an in-between that is not nothing. Rather, it is a completely non-imaginary field of forces that these bodies constitute jointly: the space of their togetherness, which is also the space of their separation, their differences.
As such, it is a question of activation. The force field is constituted and activated. It is affirmed as a space for actual and possible encounters between embodied subjects, whose relationship must always be renegotiated. Not primarily in writing or language, but initially on a spatial, topological or ontotopological level.
This is where Gormley's sculptural thinking begins, on this elementary plateau of the presence of the human body in space. It mobilizes our reflexive ability to locate the origin of very specific political or social issues in the body's presence. Gormley’s radicalism lies in his insistence on the simplest and most elementary parameters for understanding fundamental existential questions of human orientation in the world. His art poses questions more than it answers them, since the space of answers must remain a space of dialogic openness.
The questions have been posed, and everyone must constantly attempt to answer them for themselves. The experimental dimension of Gormley's artistic thought includes activating the thinking of others, of viewers who do not simply freeze while contemplating his art. The primary approach here is not viewing art, but rather being activated or made dynamic in the force field that the individual works create.
8. Learning to be
Learning to be = this formula is reminiscent of another from ancient philosophy: learning to die, which presupposes having lived a life, a conscious existence. In his last interview, Apprendre à vivre enfin, Jacques Derrida repeatedly emphasized the affirmative character of his thinking (deconstruction). The ‘unconditional affirmation of life’4 underlies everything with him. I wonder if this is not equally true of Antony Gormley. Without asking him, I answer: Yes!
I believe that Gormley's specific existentialism, his ontology of the body, his sculptural measurement of the relationship between body and space is founded on an affirmation of life, which includes the affirmation of what a body is capable of, to put it in a Spinozist way. Gormley's entire artistic oeuvre is based on an affirmation of the body and of life, which makes encountering his work a cheerful, uplifting experience instead of something doubtful or even depressing.
Learning to be also means engaging with being as something positive and unique, remaining joyfully open to the ontological experiment that is our life, with all of our senses, as well as by activating the reflective faculties that make us the thinking animal. Gormley's art is also always about thinking; thinking is not taken exclusively as an intellectual, purely noetic practice, but thinking as being, as an existential dynamic, rather than as an academic exercise.
Art = thinking = being. Perhaps this formula holds if we give each of these three words a specific meaning. It discloses itself during engagement with, that is, experience of Gormley's artistic project, insofar as it always activates the viewer’s own being. Gormley's art has an appellative character. It implies the call to keep alive our own possibilities of being, to try them out, to mobilize them.
Drawing on the work of Jacques Derrida, but also and especially Gilles Deleuze, we could speak of a cheerful ontology of corporeal being in relation to Gormley. Cheerful because in it, humans appear as creatures of possibility, as subjects in spite of everything.
We are more than objects. We are also objects, but first of all we are imperishably subjects whose capacity for sensation and experience hold unimagined possibilities for us. Our relationship to one another and to nature can be modified again and again, redefined = redelimited, so that the space of the future remains a space of contingency, an indeterminacy to be shaped.
- See Bernhard Waldenfels: ‘Humanity overreaches itself by taking on the impossible as the possible. What it does is beyond its powers. This marks the peculiarity of a living being who not only has a logos, but at the same time lives out of pathos and who does not actually have this logos, since the word itself comes as an answer from pathos. [...] As sane beings, humans retain something unpredictable.’ Bernhard Waldenfels, Hyperphänomene. Modi hyperbolischer Erfahrung, Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2012, p. 96.
- Samuel Beckett, ‘Homage to Jack B. Yeats’, trans. Ruby Cohn, in Jack B. Yeats: A Centenary Gathering, ed. Roger McHugh, Dublin: The Dolmen Press, 1971, p. 75.
- See also: Marcus Steinweg, ‘On Via Lewandowsky / Für Via Lewandowsky’, trans. Beatrix Joyce, review of the exhibition Via Lewandowsky. Geometry of Obedience, 2019, in: Diskurs Berlin, https://www.discursus.info/exhibitions/past/via-lewandowsky-geometry-of-obedience/ (accessed 19 March 2021).
- Jacques Derrida, Apprendre à vivre enfin. Entretien avec Jean Birnbaum, Paris: Galilé, 2005, p. 54.