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Art that doesn’t need a label

John Evans on Sir Antony Gormley’s latest at the RA and Koestler Arts at Southbank Centre

26 September, 2019 — By John Evans

Antony Gormley, Subject II, 2019, 10mm square section mild steel bar, 189 x 51.5 x 37.5cm, installation view. All © the Artist. Photos: David Parry / © Royal Academy of Arts

THE curator of the Koestler Arts annual show in 2017 was none other than the artist Sir Antony Gormley.

Two years on and it is fitting that the charity, that has been championing and inspiring participation in the arts by people in the UK’s criminal justice system for 57 years, opens its new show, Another Me, at Southbank Centre in the same week that the Royal Academy turns over its entire Main Galleries to a one-person exhibition simply Antony Gormley.

At Southbank, where the guest curator this time is jazz musician Soweto Kinch, there is a striking triptych in oils – Boxed in Trilogy – by “N” from HM Prison Hewell, where three colourful, but almost grotesque, figures are seen cowered and crouching in a painful solitary confinement.

Turn to Sir Antony’s works and in one room of this major exhibition can be seen a selection of his workbooks showing development of his ideas over four decades.

And here, in what celebrated art historian Kathleen Soriano tweeted is, “Probably my favourite room” of the show, can be seen a number of crouching, tormented, figures confined and boxed in. One small sketchbook page features, for example, 22 figures pressing every which way to get out of the rectangular frames which contain them.

Of course, there’s much more to both shows but neither is confined to artworks as objects merely to be viewed, rather we are offered philosophical insights and interaction with challenging and entertaining pieces.

Antony Gormley, Royal Academy of Arts, London, September 21 to December 3

When Sir Antony curated Koestler, the title was Inside and he said then that he saw art as a conversation rather than an object: “…it’s what happens between the object and somebody rubbing up against it, coming across it, and that can happen anywhere… and people don’t need to know that it’s art, it doesn’t need a label, doesn’t need a context”.

Nevertheless, described as not a retrospective the RA exhibition is a meticulously and well-planned collection of objects, that was four years in the making. Some of the ideas behind it can be seen in the workbooks too.

Leaving commentary or interpretation aside, this is some of what can be seen.

Iron Baby, on the ground in the RA’s courtyard, is a life-size form of a new-born.

The first room has Slabworks, 2019, sculptures made of weathering steel. Early works in the next gallery feature natural and man-made objects wrapped in lead.

Antony Gormley, Clearing VII, 2019, approximately 8km of 12.7mm square section 16swg aluminium tube, dimensions variable

One whole room features 24 familiar cast iron figures in different orientations.

One has concrete works which contain body “voids” with a glimpse of a body part breaking the surface.

Another has kilometres of coiled and flexible aluminium tubing from ceiling to floor and wall to wall.

The largest gallery features “a cloud of intersecting rectangular dark steel mesh suspended above head height”.

A new work, Cave, is formed of “huge rectilinear cells of steel tumbled together to make a bodyspace that visitors can enter”.

An entire gallery is filled to a depth of 23cm with seawater and clay.

The Central Hall features two large hollow cast iron sculptures, suspended just inches from the floor.

A “rich selection” of Sir Antony’s works on paper can also be seen, some of which use linseed oil, blood, earth, even rabbit skin.

The Test, HM Prison Greenock. Courtesy Koestler Arts

It’s an eclectic mix and one highlight is a new, stand-alone sculpture Subject II, 2019, a body-form of horizontal and vertical steel bars.

At Southbank the 2019 selection has been made by Soweto Kinch from the 7,610 entries to the Koestler Awards, submitted from across the UK and from British prisoners abroad.

He’s split the show into three scenes, with accompanying music and artists’ statements: visitors are met with masks, costumed figures and games, then intense colours and “anthro­pomorphised animals”, then a “contemplative” finale.

There are some fine and poignant poems and portraits – and other highlights include a detailed board game, the Holloway Women’s Building, “ideal for 2-8 players” where the winner is the first to enter the “dream” building. This is a potted history of the now-closed institution with squares such as “Miss a throw, you got caught breaking visiting rules” and “1923 Edith Thompson hung, miss a throw”.

An entry from “E”, Camden and Islington Probation Service is called Nitrouonites: Future Fossils & Hi Man, and features 16 found nitrous oxide canisters, dated with locations, all in a display case. For example, Highonite 2018-06-21-N6 6PJ Under Bush, Highgate Cem, and Euphorianite 2018-10-20-NW1 7JE Kerbside – Outside KOKO. As with many others here this artwork is for sale and there’s also a pop-up shop.

•Another Me is free entry and runs at Level 1, Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre until November 3. www.koestlerarts.org.uk
• Antony Gormley runs at the Royal Academy of Arts, Piccadilly, to December 3. www.royalacademy.org.uk

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