Transport. Antony Gormley. Canterbury Cathedral. 05-09-12

Quite rightly no photography is allowed in the crypt area and silence is expected but I was lucky enough to be given verbal permission by a member of the cathedral staff to take this shot while the crypt was empty.

Antony Gormley’s work, Transport, which was made especially for the Jesus chapel of the crypt of Canterbury cathedral is such a perfect fit for the site that you could almost believe that the whole of the chapel has been built around it especially to give it a home. It hovers above the site of the first tomb of Archbishop Thomas Beckett, who was murdered in the cathedral in 1170. This means that it has considerable history and resonance to contend with. This site already speaks and placing something new there is a dangerous, but exciting, game. The figure is made from antique nails which were once part of the south east transept roof, a light and airy presence which is made from small pieces of heavy metal. They now form the shape of a floating body, hung from a single wire which moves gently in space and seems to hang there by its own power. It seems to complete and fulfill the space.

There are so many resonances, both religious and secular, that it is hard to know where to start. It is both solid and ephemeral, reminding us that we are all only temporary inhabitants of our bodies, whether we believe that we have a soul or not. We are all suspended between birth and death and the fact that we are here at all is something of a miracle. This life journey is one sense of the word transport which the work draws on. The work is both anonymous, standing for all humanity, and specific, made with the proportions of Antony Gormley’s own body. We are all unique but we are all one in our common humanity. The figure floating calmly in its own space, contemplative and gentle, could be any one of us, or any one of the thousands of people in the past who have passed through the chapel. Those who see it in the future will be no different to those of us who look at it now. Like the cathedral itself it is outside time, just as those with a faith believe that God is. The empty central space of the sculpture is the void where a soul might once have been. A prescence and an absence. Jesus himself is seen by the faithful as both man and God, ethereal and corporeal and this is a figure floating between two worlds. An emblem of suffering and survival which speaks to, and for, us all.

The Wisdom of the Iron Man.

I have been made in the image
Of a singular man who is not a god,
A man who cast his own body
In perfect imitation of his own self
In an act of hubris and of supplication.
An earthly creator who abandoned me
In the emptiness of a sea strand
To die a slow, painless death
By wind and weather and water
In another place.

I was not created to be alone.
My companions stand alongside me,
Perfect imitations of my own self
As I am of my maker,
But they are unknown to me.
My empty eyes see only darkness,
My fading body is weary, cold and hard,
And my empty mouth cries out in the wind
Reverberating in the hollows of my iron shell.
I cannot reach them.

I take in the hopes and questions
Of those who make pilgrimage
To this landscape of the hollow men.
I say and do nothing while showing them themselves.
I am a blank canvas of humanity
Where people can see what they choose,
Hear what they want to hear
And wonder if I am all that there is,
Searching me to find their own meaning.
Perhaps I am them.

All that there is for me is to wait,
Wait and endure the blast of experience.
My only purpose is merely to be.
My other selves who stand with me also wait,
Blind witnesses to time and tide.
We endure, both alone and together, in the drifting sand,
Silent soldiers in an army of insensibility.
I have no words, no thoughts, and no feelings.
If you want meaning you must look to yourselves,
For I have only myself.

I will wait for you.

Another Place. Anthony Gormley. Crosby Beach. 14-06-12

The first thing that struck me when I came over the top of the sand dunes and saw Anthony Gormley’s work, Another Place, on Crosby beach for the first time was the sheer scale of it. Even when you already know that there are 100 identical iron men (casts of Gormley’s own body) spread out along the huge expanse of beach nothing prepares you for your first sight of them. They are all facing out to sea, some of them way off in the distance, and your eye recognises immediately that they are not living beings, although the tiny dark silhouettes of people out walking amongst them may look similar. Even from a first scan of the beach you are aware of their uniformity and their stillness. They have an eerie presence, all facing out to sea, alone and poignant but at the same time forming strong connections with each other as they watch and wait in a silent army, wearing the simple uniform of their own humanity. Those close to the dunes seem to observe their companions further out on the beach who are half submerged. They don’t judge or threaten. They just are. It is we who ask questions of ourselves when we look at them and wonder.

The day that I saw them for the first time, June 14th 2012, was showery but fine and the wind was whipping up the soft sand across the beach. The tide was almost completely out and only the farthest figures closest to the low tide mark were still partially submerged. I spent an hour and a half watching them and wandering among them and the time passed very quickly. They were first installed in 2005 and the passage of time has made them into a constantly changing work as they become submerged in the sand, gather barnacles and rust, and their surface becomes a richly textured tapestry of browns, greys and greens. As they face down the weather and one high tide after another they are becoming a monument to human endurance and stoicism. On my visit one of them carried a pair of tags on it’s wrist in memory of a lost grandfather. Two of them had been kitted out in all over knitted suits by New York guerilla knitwear artist Agata Oleksiak which were already starting to disintegrate. People seem to like to interact with the figures, almost as if they are looking for something vital and human in hard dead metal, wanting to find life and meaning. I found myself looking hard at their faces, wanting to understand what they were “thinking” and making connections between them as if they could be aware of each others presence. How can something so very hard, heavy, motionless and silent be so very much alive?

Crosby beach is a vast featureless, empty stretch of beach backed by low dunes. There is little to distract from the figures and it has truly been made into Another Place by a work of great vision and breadth of ambition. This emptiness is the perfect place for the silent iron men to make their mark, a place where they can bring whatever meaning those observing them like to project onto their impassive, still presence. There was some controversy and talk of moving them when they were first installed, but this is their home and they have rightly been given permanent residency now.

I shall be back one day and I know that I shall feel as though they have been waiting for me.

Text based Art at Tate Liverpool. 1-10-10

The poet Carol Ann Duffy has curated a room of text based art at Tate Liverpool and it makes a very interesting exhibition. I suppose the question which comes to mind before you walk in is why doesn’t an artist just write if they are interested in words, but by the time I had made my way through the exhibits I had my answer. It had not occurred to me before, but as I walked round I was reminded that many of my favourite artists use text within their work, as some of them were represented.

The letter cutter and designer David Kindersley’s piece Letters Are Things, Not Pictures Of Things ( something that his mentor Eric Gill said) provided a kind of summary for me. It’s a beautiful work with classical text spelling out the title in pale blue and red. An example of Eric Gill’s own work was also shown, a beautiful exhibit, two classical white stone alphabet tablets, one in relief and one carved into the stone.

Anthony Gormley’s work Bed was also there. He ate his own body weight in toast and the bitten remains of the many slices are arranged to form a bed with the shape of his body delved into it. The toast had gained a wonderful brown toned colour range in time, like old worn tiles and bricks.

There were some examples from Gillian Wearing’s Signs series, including my favourite; a well dressed half smiling man in a suit holding up a sign saying “I’m Desperate” ( I have always wondered why he felt like that when he seems so together which is the whole point of course) and one that I hadn’t seen before, a tattooed man holding up a sign “I have been certified as mildly insane.” I like the fact that he describes his diagnosis so meticulously. It shows that he was being truthful and not just messing around. The full title of the series is Signs that say What You Want Them to Say and Not Signs that Say What Someone Else Wants You To Say. We all spend our lives keeping up appearances of one kind or another and Gillian Wearing found a perfect way of illustrating the tension between how we are and how we allow ourselves to seem. It is a work which has stood the test of time and still works now thanks to the fact that it says something universal about being human.

Tracey Emin’s pink neon sign in her own handwriting “Is Legal Sex anal?/Is Anal Sex Legal?” is very striking although I’m not sure that I need to know the answer. Tracey Emin gets a lot of flak for being too personal in her work and using her own life too much but that is exactly why I like what she does. She has the courage to make herself vulnerable and use all aspects of her life, both the admirable and the not so admirable. I respect that.

The prize for most words goes to Don’t Look Back by Fiona Banner, which is a written record of Bob Dylan’s first British tour in 1965, a mass of simple back capitals on a brown background which covers a whole wall. I spent some time looking at it trying to work out what it was trying to do and beyond a few thoughts about its monumental scale paying tribute to an artist who is idolised obsessively by his fans, I don’t think I quite got there.

My favourite piece was by the wonderful Richard Long. “Two straight twelve mile walks on Dartmoor, England”. In beautiful simple clear text it shows a list of landmarks which he saw on his walks accompanied by a series of short descriptive phrases ( “full moon rising” ) which distilled his experience into a single frame. Long’s art is always straight to the point, and it is fascinating how a few words of text in a clear plain background can bring the reader into the heart of what was a very sustained physical experience for the artist.

There always has to be one thing which completely passes you by in any contemporary art exhibition and for me, in this exhibition, it was Bruce Nauman’s “Good Boy Bad boy”. Two television screens showed a man and a woman ranting simultaneously in a way which meant nothing to me, in fact worse than that I found it profoundly irritating.

This exhibition was fascinating to someone like me who is trying to write. Words can, of course, make pictures of their own, but in the hands of an artist they can become a visual poem which is far more than the sum of it’s parts.

Photos are included by kind permission of the Tate Archive and are the copyright of the artists concerned.