Antony Gormley, the artist of discomfort

In ‘Ground’, his new exhibition at the Museum Voorlinden in Wassenaar, British artist Antony Gormley challenges the viewer. ‘I do not want to offer comfort with my sculptures, on the contrary.’

In the auditorium at Museum Voorlinden, Antony Gormley almost carelessly takes a notebook from the back pocket of his white linen trousers. It flips through the 71-year-old artist briefly. “Today’s harvest,” he says. He shows me some blue sketches of little men. One day they can also turn into giant sculptures. “It all starts with the idea. Such a sketch is the result of 2 seconds of thinking. Maybe something happens to it, maybe not.”

As part of the exhibition, a number of sketchbooks and small-scale models of Gormley’s sculptures and installations can be seen in a display case in Voorlinden’s library. They are an essential part of his art. Sketches are the starting point for everything he does. ‘The Romanian artist Brancusi once said:’ It is not so difficult for an artist to make things, the difficulty is to get yourself to make them. ‘ I agree. Sketches help me along the way. ‘

The metaverse is good at keeping your mind sharp, but at least I will never stop sculpting.

Antony Gormley


When Museum Voorlinden, owned by former Dutch entrepreneur Joop van Caldenborgh, festively opened its doors in 2016, Gormley was there. By that time, Van Caldenborgh already owned some of Gormley’s works, and the artist immediately saw the possibilities of an exhibition. He saw an inviting playground in the large museum rooms and the surrounding nature reserve in Voorlinden.

Gormley invariably seeks out places for his exhibitions that he can manipulate and that give his images a new meaning. It makes every exhibition an adventure. It does not matter that you have already seen some installations three years ago at the Royal Academy in London, in the Netherlands they are seen differently.

teased gymnasts

On the way from the parking lot to the museum, one is immediately surprised by twelve iron statues of men. They look like teased gymnasts nicely in a row performing a throw. The first is bent on the floor, knees pulled between the arms. The latter stands straight and stares proudly up at the sky. The images are part of the installation ‘Critical Mass II’ from 1995.

“I had to think about putting them here for a while,” Gormley says. ‘I showed them not so long ago in the Kunsthal in Rotterdam. But the pictures fit perfectly here. I have long researched the relationship between art and nature. Then you can not be better than here. Although I am also aware that nature in the Voorlinden was created by man. ‘

Gormley …

… about Brexit

‘Really awful. Life has become much harder for us Brits. I found a way out. I am in happy anticipation of German nationality. My mother is German. ‘

… om corona

“The lockdowns have been an absolute blessing. For once, I was able to work undisturbed for two years.”

… about his study

“I am also committed to thinking about the practical and business side of my art practice. Sixty people are working on my projects in my studio. I have to keep them going. “

The sculptural men – always based on Gormley’s own body – return to the grass around the museum and on between the trees and in the dunes. One time a man rests with his head bowed to the ground, the other time the man leans against a tree. The men seem to give or ask for comfort to the passerby.

Gormley disagrees with that approach. ‘My art is not about comfort, even if your interpretation is as valuable as another. I just want to push the viewer to the edge where he starts to feel uncomfortable. What is man’s place in the totality of things? That’s what it’s about for me. How does he relate to the space around him? How does he fit into the cosmos? And what is your place in this world today? If I make you think about it, I’ve succeeded in my goal. ‘

He deprives his art of all romance, he says. ‘My sculptures are not beautiful. Not really. They are very rudimentary. They are iron boxes in the shape of a human body. I use iron because it is one of the original materials that make up the earth. ‘

Life’s basic questions do not stop Gormley from playing a trick on the audience. For his new installation ‘Co-ordinate’, he has rearranged the first room in Voorlinden with a horizontal and a vertical metal wire. It looks like a giant cross. Until you get a little closer. There is no cross. Both wires do not touch. Your eyes and your brain have told you something.

These Ironmen are part of ‘Critical Mass II’, a 1995 installation.
© Photo: Antoine van Kaam © Antony Gormley 2022. All rights reserved

In all its simplicity, it is an essential work at the fair. Gormley is a master at creating new spaces. They must make the viewer – the participant if you will – think about what exactly they see and how it relates to the space created. In Gormley’s art, all certainties disappear, causing him to constantly challenge you.

‘Clearing VIII’ from 2020 evokes the same feeling. It is an 8-kilometer-long installation of aluminum that is almost too large for the already large museum room. The installation is a maze that you have to fight your way through. It’s not always easy. You have to bend, overcome obstacles and most of all think about how to get to the end without breaking your legs. But you are part of the work of art.

Playful and theoretical

In addition to the philosophical reflections, ‘Ground’ is also an excellent exhibition to get acquainted with Gormley’s extensive oeuvre. After studying archeology, anthropology and art, he started his art practice in the 1970s. The focus was immediately on large outdoor installations that intervene in the landscape.

‘Mother’s Pride V’ from 2019.
© Photo: Antoine van Kaam © Antony Gormley 2022. All rights reserved

From the beginning, the human body was central. In the eighties and nineties, he used lead, plaster and fiberglass to represent people in a rather figurative way, beautifully presented in one room. In 2014, he created the colossal ‘Expansion Field’, with which he abstracted his body into various sculptures into stacked geometric shapes. For Gormley, there is no difference between the figurative and the abstract representation of the body. Twice they are only envelopes of the darkness within ourselves.

“Close your eyes for a moment,” he says during the tour. ‘What do you see? Still only dark. The external does not exist anymore and is therefore not important. ‘ Equally exciting is a sandwich wall installation where Gormley nipped his silhouette.

Gormley is elusive, the exhibition teaches. His sculptures seem at first glance accessible and playful. But the Briton is a very theoretical artist who constantly measures what life entails and means with his art.

Part of life may be in metavers in the future. What does an artist of large sculptures think about this? ‘The virtual world is good at keeping your mind sharp. But at the same time, it is a frightening thought that the physical experience would disappear. It’s basic. In any case, I will never stop sculpting. My ideas will always have a materialized representation. ‘

‘Ground’ runs until 25 September in Museum Voorlinden in Wassenaar.

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