Saturday 19 August 2017

'I'm not dangerously perverse'

Antony Gormley smears his body in Vaseline and wraps himself in clingfilm -- all in the name of art, of course -- and readily admits he is a bit kinky. But as he prepares to unveil a giant sculpture on the Liffey, he is also refreshingly populist, says Lynn Barber

Lynn Barber

I'm staring hard at the back of Antony Gormley's balls and wondering why he doesn't have more of a cleft in his buttocks while he expatiates on his new technique for 'drawing' bodies. Instead of making a mould of his body and casting it in solid iron, as he did for, say, Event Horizon (the figures on rooftops round London last summer), he is now covering the mould with a sort of metal mesh which retains the body shape when the mould is extracted, but in a lighter, airier, see-through form.

We are looking at a mould of his body from the back, which gives me ample time to study his buttocks while he holds forth about duodecahedrons and the 'bubble matrix' on which his metal mesh is based. There is no hope at all of my understanding the scientific theory he is talking about but, on the other hand, there is no hope at all of my stopping him, so buttocks it is.

We are all pretty familiar with Antony Gormley's body by now, what with his fondness for scattering it round the place, and a very fine body it is too -- well over six feet tall, thin, athletic, well-proportioned, altogether in good nick for someone of 57. But his face is more doubtful. He has a strange habit of peering at you from behind thick spectacles, as if you were a bug on a leaf.

Moreover, he gets a bit too close for comfort, so that he is literally 'imposing' to a degree that seems odd in someone whose work is all about bodies and their space and place in the world. Once or twice, when I am sitting on a sofa and he is leaning right over me, I want to say: 'Back off.'

We meet at his wildly glamorous studio, designed by David Chipperfield, behind London's King's Cross. When the gate slides open, you see a yard full of rust-streaked bodies -- Gormley's again -- lying on pallets like stretcher cases on a battlefield. Straight ahead is the great sculpture studio rising the whole height of the building with offices and smaller studios on either side. Gormley comes lolloping out and walks me round the bodies; the prone ones are new and waiting to be shipped to the White Cube gallery for his latest show, but there are also four standing figures from last year's Hayward retrospective.

He takes me up to his drawing studio to talk, which is quiet after the bustle of the sculpture studio, yet says he doesn't want to talk about his own work (he will, of course) but about a book, Images of Change, for which he has written the introduction. It is an English Heritage production, but an unusual one in that it is all about motorways, mobile phone masts, container depots, multistorey car parks, all the stuff that heritage enthusiasts generally dismiss as eyesores.

"I want people to be excited about cooling towers and mega-sheds; they're as much part of our history as the rural barn," he says.

Gormley is dauntingly articulate. I can see why he is so embedded in the arts establishment: he was on the Arts Council for three years, was a trustee of the Baltic, is a trustee of the British Museum, an OBE, a Royal Academician, an honorary fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, etc.

"I went to public school!" he says with a laugh. "I'm trained to be a pillar of various sorts."

Given his patrician background, it is perhaps surprising that his work is aimed so firmly at the general public and not at the art elite. This means he has never been a great hit with collectors and he says ruefully: "I'm one of the old pre-Damien farts who has not mastered the fine art of business. So I've ended up with an awful lot of work that is unsaleable, that costs a fortune to make but is actually useless.

"I mean, 300 lumps of concrete weighing 120 tonnes [presumably he means Allotment] needing 5,000 sq ft to show -- what museum is going to want to deal with that?"

But he did cast a duplicate set of the 100 figures used for Another Place (on Crosby Beach, Liverpool), which are now being sold as single works around the world at £100,000 to £200,000 each, so they should pay the bills for a while.

Would he have been so keen to reproduce his own body if he'd been short and potbellied? "I guess you have to work with what you're given and it's probably not a bad thing in terms of certain kinds of scale and proportion that I've got a tall, skinny body. I'm accused by women critics of being whatever it is." Vain? "No -- I was thinking more of being all male and standing erect. [Oh, phallic!] But I always say that I didn't choose to be a man and, had I been a woman, I would have been able to do the same thing in a different way."

He says he likes the process of bodycasting, having his body covered in Vaseline and wrapped in clingfilm, being swaddled in plaster-soaked bandages with just a breathing hole for his nose and waiting an hour or an hour and a half for the plaster to dry. He can't really enjoy it, can he? "Oh god, yes, I do." Isn't that rather kinky? "I'm very kinky, oh yes!"

It all started, he says, because he suffered terrible claustrophobia as a child, hated being enclosed even in a car and taught himself to conquer his fear. "I started training myself by going backwards in my bed, forcing myself between quite tightly hospital-cornered bedclothes in the dormitory and lying with my feet on the pillow and my head down the bottom and saying to myself I must not panic.

"And that links to another experience of enforced sleep probably from the age of three to 10 or 12, being sent upstairs to have a rest. But I was never tired enough to sleep, so I would lie there and tell myself I couldn't move.

"It was that experience of lying there totally awake but with my eyes shut and feeling this incredible claustrophobia of being enclosed within, as it were, the darkness of your body, and then just dwelling in it and feeling it slowly fade until you're floating in this infinite space."

This takes me right back to my years interviewing rubber fetishists for Penthouse and I find myself breezily asking whether he likes wearing diving suits. Far from being annoyed, he says yes, he does, and fetches a diving magazine from a shelf and starts showing me photographs of cave divers in the Yucatan.

So, since he seems quite comfortable in this vein, I ask whether the pleasure he gets from body casting is more masochistic or sadistic? "I think it's got a lot of Sacher-Masoch in it, although I don't get sexually excited doing it. There were two very early casts that have erect penises." But how could he hold an erection long enough for the plaster to dry? "I think we did the penis separately, in the manner of the Plaster Casters of yore [they were Sixties groupies who made plaster casts of rock stars' penises]. Yeah, I think there must be a bit of both sadism and masochism in what I do, even though I sort of think it's the thing that keeps me balanced. I don't think that I'm dangerously perverse!" he says with a laugh.

Does he remember the first time he cast his body? "Oh God yes, I do. All the bad things happened, all my pubic hairs got stuck in the plaster. I'd used vast amounts of Vaseline, but even the biggest amount is not enough. And it was a very crunched-up pose. No, it was terrible, terrible. That was in 1980 or 1981. I'd made these two works, one called Bed and one called Room, which was my clothes made into an enclosure, and I thought, "Well, the next step is to work with my own body directly." I didn't ever think that I'd still be doing it 28 years later!'

For 12 years, his wife, painter Vicken Parsons, used to be his bodycaster, though now he has two assistants to do it. Did he ever cast her? "Yes, once. It was really sweet of her to do it and it was as if she wanted to understand what she was doing for me." Did she like it? "No, she hated it." And said never again? "No, I said, 'Never again', because I didn't like it." Nor, he says, has he ever cast his three children -- he carved sculptures of them when they were small (they are now grown up) but: "I didn't submit them to actual casting; that would be an act of terrible abuse. Because even if I were to ask them and they were to agree, I think it would be exploiting them."

But hang on -- he asked loads of people to submit to casting for his Baltic show, Domain Field, in 2003 and that included children. "Yes, but I think that was a sort of free choice. They were not artists who were obsessed with making bodycasts." Strange.

He has talked vaguely of his childhood; he wasthe youngest of seven children in a devoutly Catholic family. They lived in a house his father built in Hampstead Garden Suburb (his father was a pharmaceuticals magnate), with a chauffeur and maids, and Gormley followed his four older brothers to Ampleforth, the Benedictine public school in Yorkshire. Three or four of his siblings are still practising Catholics, but he lost his faith when he left school.

The monks of Ampleforth gave him every encouragement to become an artist; they allowed him to paint a mural on a corridor wall when he was just 13 and bought eight of his paintings when he left. But his parents wouldn't let him go to art school because: "Art wasn't on the list of accepted callings. Bank manager, priest, anything other than an artist, would have been more acceptable. They thought being an artist was pretentious maybe or not realistic enough."

So he went to Trinity College, Cambridge, to read archaeology and history of art, where he earned money by painting murals for the college balls and saved up enough to go travelling to India and the Far East and stayed away for two years. Eventually, he came back and got a grant from the then Greater London Council to go to art school.

"They interviewed me, looked at my drawings and reckoned I was worth paying for, which was fantastic." I ask if he still has the drawings that so impressed the GLC and he digs around in an old plan chest and produces a portfolio of wonderful drawings from his travels -- people, architecture, temple carvings, birds, rabbits -- all showing enormous skill.

He trained at Central, Goldsmiths and the Slade, where he met his wife. His first sculpture was carving, but in 1980 he made the two seminal works, Mother's Pride and Room, which led to his interest in bodycasting. Throughout the Eighties, he worked mainly on figurative sculpture and often in lead (he shows me an exquisite lead sculpture of his daughter Paloma as a baby), but gave up when he found he was beginning to suffer from lead poisoning.

He was also depressed, working in a cold studio in south London, and rarely selling anything. Things cheered up in the Nineties when he signed with Jay Jopling of White Cube, abandoned lead and started working on more collaborative projects. It was one of these -- Field -- a group of 40,000 tiny terracotta figures that won him the 1994 Turner Prize.

And then in 1998, The Angel of the North was unveiled and made him, almost overnight, the most popular sculptor in Britain. But now his work is undergoing another shift in that he is moving from casting to 'drawing' bodies in the air. He has applied to erect a 50 metre-high sculpture of a man standing in the River Liffey in Dublin, two-and-a-half times as tall as The Angel of the North.

"It had to be that big in order to work. It's a drawing against the sky. The light comes through it and it looks down on people crossing the river."

In May he will hear whether he has won the competition to fill the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square; his idea is to invite 8,760 members of the public to stand on the plinth for an hour each. If it happens, it will lead to more accusations of 'populism', which the art world seems to regard as a sin but, luckily, he believes that anything that encourages public interest in contemporary art is worth doing.

I'm not sure what to make of him. In a strange way, his articulacy tells against him. His brother Brendan once said that the family believed he was "a better bullshitter than he is an artist" and certainly when he is spieling away about his bubble matrix, I want to say: "Oh stop trying to blind me with science, just go away and make something." But you can be a good bullshitter and a good artist and with public projects like The Angel of the North or Another Place you have to be, because you have to bullshit the council or whatever into believing the work will be important and then produce a work that actually is important.

It's interesting that he says what drives him as a sculptor is: "How do you make the timelessness of inert, silent objects count for something? How to use the, in a way, dumbness of sculpture in a way that acts on us as living things." Perhaps he, too, distrusts his own fluency.

'Images of Change', by Sefryn Penrose, with a foreword by Antony Gormley, is published by English Heritage, £17.99. Gormley's show Firmament is at the White Cube gallery, Mason's Yard, London SW1, until April 12.

© Observer

Also in this section