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Antony Gormley: Test Sites

The revered sculptor talks about transforming the White Cube into an evocation of the unified field and communicating a brutal vision of humanity

The sculptor Antony Gormley is one of the most celebrated artists of modern times and has been questioning the way in which homo sapiens define their space within the infinite flux of the world for over 25 years. In Test Sites, his latest show at White Cube, he juxtaposes rusting geometric takes on his infamous human casts in the upstairs gallery with the immersive, three-dimensional fluorescent grid he has created downstairs (Breathing Room III). Lost among the glowing architecture in the almost pitch-black darkness of the downstairs installation (an environment erratically punctuated by bursts of intense white light that make you feel as though you are being scrutinised by a malevolent omniscient entity), I asked the artist whether all creative enterprise was still ultimately concerned with exploring our relationship to death: that mysterious state of non-being Shakespeare coined as the undiscovered country…

Dazed Digital: Being within the grid is a little like being lost in the maze of life until an archetypal white light comes along and just kind of ends it all: it seems like a metaphor for death…
Antony Gormley:
 I like that interpretation very much. I think that both of these rooms are in a sense, labyrinths: places that I hope make you very conscious of the way you are moving through time and space. The reference to the labyrinth or the maze is quite important. Downstairs, it’s kind of a meditative space cut through by this white light that in some way takes you out of the dreamy, touchy-feely environment. It also illuminates everybody else that is kind of locked in that matrix with you, and together you are all interrogated. For me, it’s about the dialectic between interrogation and meditation, but I like your idea: I think that the threshold of life is what happens to the mind and the body on the other side of the door of death, as it were, and I think that sculpture has kind of always referred to that – it has always been trying to project. When I think of the sculptures that really move me, such as the heads on Easter Island, I can’t see them without imagining what lies at the other side of the horizon.

Dazed Digital: In the event of atomic destruction, would you hope the works you have placed in the world might one day be seen as mysteries akin to those on Easter Island?
Antony Gormley:
  Well, I think the fact is that sculpture has always wanted not just to communicate between people in the same layer of time, but also to those beyond. In the end, maybe it’s about not just about communicating between human beings, but leaving some trace of the human experience for other life forms on a planet that doesn’t need us.

Dazed Digital: In the works upstairs you are kind of encasing a void, but downstairs you seem to be inviting people to contemplate a void. Do you think of the void as a collective space that we can all tap into?
Antony Gormley:
 I think it is the subjective collective, and if we can access that we can find freedoms there that don’t exist in the ordered, categorised, politicised and administered world in which so many of us live, linked to duty, obligation, work… all of the social pressures that living in cities exerts on us.

Dazed Digital: Do you think consciousness may be something that exists in this collective unified field?
Antony Gormley:
 I like the idea that consciousness is a field activity as much as an individual one. We have been sold a western idea of self-determination and individuality that is based on a very Christian notion of an eternal soul, but in my experience that’s just not the right mode. I think that human beings are immersed in space and time and matter, and that within all of those three fields of experience there are enormous connectivities. We are just part of that field activity, and when I say ‘we’, I mean the individual as a small part in an interactive field. Perhaps because of the recent activity at CERN some those connectivities that we can’t quite see will become apparent and explain the 90 per cent of gravitational mass that is presently missing.

Dazed Digital: Would you agree that if we conquered death, life would have no meaning?
Antony Gormley:
 I hate the idea of conquering death. We don’t need to embrace death, but we should embrace the fact that we are here and that this is a brief opportunity to find extension. The body is a workshop and the world itself is a workshop: everything is in a state of becoming and transformation, and so are we within it; there are no permanent states. Indeed, how the human project fits within the unfolding of time or the scheme of materialised matter is very, very uncertain. I think we have an incredible opportunity now – never before have so many tools been put in our hands that allow us to relate to the sub-optical world and to understand and communicate the mysteries of matter. I think we have a chance of discovering that our nature is dependent upon nature at large, and of using our intelligence to overcome this rather greedy and exploitative nature, or character, that we have evolved. Perhaps then we can participate in more of the six billion years that are left in the great nuclear reactor at the centre of our solar system.

Dazed Digital: I suppose we are still in a fairly embryonic stage of our evolution…
Antony Gormely:
 If life appeared here as single cell organisms about 3.7 billion years ago, we have still got twice that time to run on. The question remaining is how much are humans going to participate in the evolution of the biosphere? At the moment, it looks very unlikely that we are going to participate for long, and that the human adventure will be very short in relation to the total length of time conducive to life on this planet. What does art have to do with all of this? Well, I think that in the failure of politics – in a time in which politics has kind of collapsed into economics – art simply provides an arena in which human identity and human aspiration can be reconfigured outside of this obsession that we have for making more, and doing more without any real purpose.

Dazed Digital: Are the geometric humanoid objects in the upstairs space evocations of where we might be headed?
Antony Gormley:
 These works are kind of the core of the show. I mean, homo sapiens are spending more and more of their time seated, looking at a monitor: interpreting the world and relating to it entirely in terms of meta-language. We spend more time relating to the design world or the material world through the culture we have surrounded ourselves with than we do directly with the elemental world. These are all evocations of us now – you may not like them, you may resist them, you may feel this is just ugly, clumsy stuff and that it doesn’t touch you, but I am trying to find the objective correlative of us now and for me, this is it. It’s ugly, brutal, insensitive and somehow an evocation of the fact that we have almost given up our primary body and are now bounded by cars, rooms or architecture; bounded by the urban grid and the world that we have made around us.

Test Sites is at White Cube, Mason's Yard, SW1 until July 10