March 30, 2009

they never run, only call

I meant to write about Rachel Goodyear’s superb show “they never run, only call” at International 3 while it was still on but didn’t get round to it. But I have been carrying the experience around with me of her intense concentration of the drawings since I saw it. And this was magnified the other day when I happened to be in Manchester Art Gallery for the launch of Manchester International Festival – of which more in future posts. No, the specific trigger for reconsidering Goodyear was seeing the Gallery’s newest acquisition Antony Gormley’s Filter (pictured). “It’s a hanging figure made of flat mild steel rings welded together. The sculpture is hollow and holes in the rings allow you to glimpse inside the body, which contains a suspended heart.”

During his siting visit, Gormley said “The work hangs in space as if in orbit, open to light and the elements, it is a meditation on the relationship between the core of the body and space at large... It suggests that, while movement, freedom of choice and the exercising of will is one way in which life expresses itself, there is another axis: the relationship between emotion and spatial experience." I was particularly struck by these comments in part because my next book “Space” is examining these very questions; but as I say, when I say Gormley’s metal sausage, Rachel Goodyear became an even stronger presence. The work itself I have already dismissed formally with the reference to metal products; but the sculptors claims for his work are more interesting because of what they tell us. Some of the chaff can be cleared straight away: it is not open to the elements because it is in an environmentally enclosed atrium. There is no suggestion of orbit or movement because it is suspended at a height, relation to other structures (lifts, staircases, etc) in the space and angle to suggest stasis not movement. And then the two claims that it suggests 1) movement, freedom of choice etc are herein represented. 2) that there is a relationship between emotion and spatiality. The first one hardly needs repeating – there figure is static. It’s casing with arms at its side and legs together suggest no internally generated motion (something you would expect even a subtle indication of if you were going to claim a relationship between the internal emotion and the external space), and as already noted there is no external motion either; it can’t even be said to hover in the space as it quite clearly hangs, nor is there dynamics that move it because you can see stablizing wires so there is no suggestion of imbalance or spin. But, as if to anticipate formal critique of the metal sausage, Gormley says: "My work continues to be misinterpreted as some form of representational art. It's useless if you take it as that. It's an invitation for you to think of yourself being there, an invitation for you to think of those moments when you are, like it is, detached from the flow of everyday life. We're always doing something, fulfilling some kind of command, some kind of duty, some kind of work and this piece is trying to think of a human being as being not doing." That is dangerous ground for Gormley to tread because this claim of existentialism invites not a location as representational art but rather a comparison with artists who could actually make work that coalesces being, such as Giacometti. However, I think there is a way in which Gormley’s self-casts engage with “the flow of everyday life. We're always doing something, fulfilling some kind of command, some kind of duty, some kind of work”; in the context of the UK’s regimental institutionalising ontology Gormley’s work does say something to us: it is the apotheosis of the mediocrity expected of us; as (most of) his oeuvre are casts of himself, they represent are our standardisation, but without ontological insight the artist, mediocre himself, this New Banality to which we are directed to aspire is writ dismal and large which ultimately is more denigrating than hopelessness. Gormley’s planned installation for the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square,, “One & Other” inadvertently but openly displays this for all to see. No doubt it will be surrounded by some bollocks of celebrating ordinary people (in the context of the imperial sculptural landscape of the square) but actually what it does is offer up our interchangeability and therefore lack of value. No doubt the selected 2400 people will have be unutterably worthy New Labour diversity, but I find the safety net around the plinth the hilarious Health & Safety coda – the work celebrates its absence of artistic and physical risk.

Criticising Antony Gormley is really too easy to take so much space, ordinarily I wouldn’t give it brain space. It was the context of remembrance of Rachel Goodyear’s show – even the title “they never run, only call” could be a description of establishment artists such as Gormley (or Motion and Armitage for that matter). But to mobilise her to that cause would be a disservice and a paltry use for something so powerful. It may seem strange to compare stodgy metal sculpture with fine small scale drawings, but it is an ontological comparison: Goodyear’s investigations are mystical, edgy, humorous and sexy, desperate and transcendent. Even ontological grounds though, it is still an unfair and unnecessary comparison: Goodyear is fascinating and Gormley is Official stodge.

So what was the other thing that bothered me? It is the same underlying problem in the Manchester International Festival, the launch for which I was in the city gallery and will write on in more depth in another blog.

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