Pathos of Uselessness
Gormley seems pleased that many of his sculptures will be around much longer than him. “Our time is provisional,” he says. “They are facts that are not going to go away, and that are…well, the ones in the tide line at Crosby are changing the whole time, because they’re rusting, and getting covered in barnacles and all that, but on the whole there are kind of enduring, in a way that we are not.” Since it’s his body that they’re modelled on, is it a form of immortality? He shakes his head. “I’m not interested in that at all. I’m simply trying to be practical. There’s no point in making another body when you have one already. The only way of doing that is to use the material that you’re closest to, the material that you live inside.” Tellingly, Gormley often talks about his sculptures as if they are real people. I know I find them strangely moving, but what about him? “I feel uncomfortable talking about this, because all I know is it’s important to me that they have an authenticity that comes from a lived moment, and then, beyond that, I am aware that they are empty and nameless. They’re being, not doing, and they are waiting. They have time, we have consciousness, and they are waiting for the viewer’s thoughts and feelings.” He thinks the figures’ vulnerability and “uselessness” gives them a certain pathos. “This is the absolute antithesis of heroic sculpture,” he says.
Members of the public seem to find Field for the British Isles, with 40,000 tiny terracotta models, affecting in a slightly different way, one they couldn’t necessarily articulate. How would you describe that effect? “I’m not quite sure what the feeling is…yearning? Accusation? But those tiny figures are definitely looking for something, those eyes, those little becoming things. And I think there is a sense in which the work, because of the way it’s been made, is a reservoir for the unspoken thoughts and feelings of all the makers.” Gormley is referring to the teams of volunteers who help make the figures. He describes the end of their first day making these “little surrogates beings”; when the lights were turned off, they felt like they were abandoning them. “It was sort of magical, really,” he says. “They hadn’t been there in the morning, and then they were there in evening. It felt odd to leave them there in the dark.”
As well as having an OBE, Gormley is both the Royal Academician and a trustee of the British Museum. Indeed he has to head off there now for a trustees’ dinner, he says. Will he change out of his T-shirt, or is expected to look the bohemian-artist part? He gives a rare laugh. “I think I might put a dark suit on, just so I blend in.” Does he consider himself part of the art establishment nowadays? “I’m not living in a Scottish croft.” Good answer. Does he ever feel misunderstood? He’s very articulate about his art, but he also clearly feels he has to explain it all the time, and perhaps justify it. “I feel terribly misunderstood, I feel terribly misunderstood.” (This is a speech quirk of his, by the way, the repeated phrases.)