Gormley and Eliasson: perception and perspective

At first glance, it might not seem that there is much that connects the art of Anthony Gormley and Olafur Eliasson. Two weeks ago I would have summarised Gormley’s work as largely figurative, heavy, often made using metal and other industrial materials, and sombre in tone, while I tended to think of Eliasson’s as abstract, colourful and using a range of substances, natural and artificial, to playful effect.

Eliasson’s Moss Wall (1994)

Before visiting their recent exhibitions in London two weeks ago, the only thing that connected them in my mind was the fact that both shows were exceedingly busy and popular. This was based on the huge volume of posts I’d seen on Instagram, combined with an article in the Guardian in which gallery-goers expressed their chagrin that other people were getting in their way of enjoying art (more on that later).

Both exhibitions surprised me, starting with the Gormley. Although I’ve always enjoyed his work when I’ve come across it, I’ve often thought of it as fairly repetitive (frequently based on his own body) and ubiquitous. His sculptures are scattered across the country, in high-profile installations from Gateshead to Merseyside. In Edinburgh there are six Gormleys standing in a short stretch of the Water of Leith. But the Royal Academy show demonstrated how his artwork is much broader and more varied than the ‘universal’ self portraits we are frequently exposed to in his public art. His best works challenge how we perceive space, and how we perceive ourselves and each other through art.

For instance, his Lost Horizon (2008), presents us with a familiar sight, multiple forms of Gormley’s body in cast iron, but in a different way. Bodies jut out at all angles and surround us, defying gravity and playing with our senses. The work isn’t ponderous, it’s fun. Seeing the exhibition on the last day meant that the room was packed with people, making it difficult to tell the sculptures from the live bodies that surrounded them.

Art and life intermingle in Lost Horizon I (2008)

Some of you might look at that photo and recoil at the number of people in the room. Yes, both exhibitions were busy. But part of experiencing art is noticing how others experience it: seeing other people react to and interact with art is one of the things I find most interesting about it. This aspect was what really made me see the connections between the two artists’ work. Humans play a major part in activating these artworks and making them resonate.

Visiting the Eliasson exhibition mid-week and during the day, I experienced it alongside a large school group of teenagers. Their interactions with Your Uncertain Shadow (colour) (2010), brought the work to life for me: they danced, flicked their hair, and had fun with it. One criticism that has been levelled at the show is that it’s a little gimmicky, but it is indisputable that this very quality makes it a good entry point for young people. And in turn, they remind us that we don’t have to be so serious all the time when it comes to art.

My fellow guests brought Your Uncertain Shadow (colour) to life

As well as having moments of levity and playfulness though, both exhibitions experimented with their visitors’ senses of fear and disorientation. Walking, sitting and lying beneath the Gormley’s colossal Matrix III (2019), 21 intersecting weighty steel mesh cages that contrasted satisfyingly with the Academy’s gilt cornices, felt genuinely daring. Cautiously making my way through the 39-metre fog tunnel of Eliasson’s Din blinde Passager (Your blind passenger) (2010), I wondered whether this immersive journey through colour and light would ever end (is this what they speak about when they say you see a white light when you die?!) Both were enormous, immersive, visceral and tinged with danger.

Walking underneath Matrix III – not for the faint-hearted

Alongside the colossal, statement-making art of these two big budget shows, there is also an exploration of vulnerability which makes them more than a bombastic celebration of these highly successful artists’ achievements.

Eliasson’s work is centred around the environment, focusing on absence as well as presence, and soberly examines the loss of elements of our natural world in an era of climate crisis. Installations remind the viewer of the magic of the everyday: rain trickling down a window in Regenfenster (1999), the different effects that occur when light and water meet are made manifest in Beauty (1993) and Big Bang Fountain (2014). The ghostly imprints left by glacial ice melting into thin washes of colour in the Glacial currents series (2018) were almost haunting.

Glacial currents (yellow, sienna), 2018

While Eliasson’s work focusses on the vulnerability of the planet, Gormley takes us back to ourselves once again. Starting the journey in the courtyard with Iron Baby (1999), at the end of the show we encounter ourselves once more, in Pile I (2017) and Pile II (2018). Stacks of simple, earth-coloured clay, huddled on the floor and without a plinth to protect them from the metal grates beneath, these small works are the hardest hitting of all in their unassuming fragility. We contemplate ourselves, our earthliness and our mortality.

Full circle: we encounter ourselves again as huddled lumps of clay

In very different ways, both artists are helping us to make sense of ourselves, our present, and heightening our awareness of our surroundings. That kind of lesson is worth braving a crowded exhibition for – and who knows – you might even feel inspired by those you have been thrown together with on your journey of discovery.

Belfast’s murals

Last weekend was my first visit to Belfast, and I spent some time looking at the city’s famous murals. I wasn’t there for nearly long enough – there are hundreds of murals scattered throughout the city and I only managed to walk around the Falls Road and Shankill Road areas for a short while. But what little I saw I know will stay with me for a long time.

A section of the International Wall, which addresses global struggles

I wouldn’t presume to even try and talk in detail about the context here, but the murals are deeply embedded in years of complicated and violent political history. Public art is always a reflection of power struggles: who is represented and who is left out is a political issue. This is even more true in the case of the murals, which have sprung up over decades, and are for the most part created by people who live in these communities, rather than by artists brought in from outside and commissioned to make work.

The subjects of the murals vary hugely, but many of them commemorate the victims of The Troubles. In a conflict fought at such close quarters, even the smallest of exposed façades becomes a canvas for stating the allegiances of the area.

Signs and symbols: the crown dotting the ‘i’ of Shankill denotes the area’s allegiances

I was shocked to learn that thousands of lives were lost in the violence, and perhaps just as surprising was that neither me, nor any of the people I was with (Scottish and English) had learned anything about the conflict in school, even though it is very much in living memory and an important part of both British and Irish history.

The Bobby Sands mural is the most photographed in Belfast.

It’s a moving and hard-hitting experience, but walking the streets and engaging with the murals as a tourist is one of the ways we can learn about the city’s difficult past in an accessible way. It’s also an important reminder that images, signs and symbols are always laced with countless different meanings, and it is worth taking some time to try and decipher them.

Images of solidarity using the colours of the Irish and Palestinian flags, situated on the International Wall

‘National Gallery, London’, by Jean-François Rauzier (2018)

I keep on thinking about a remarkable work I saw as part of Cut and Paste: 400 Years of Collage at the Modern last week, which I didn’t include in my review. The work was made in 2018 by Jean-Francois Rauzier (b.1952) and is called National Gallery, London.

At this stage I will admit that I may have been predisposed to think favourably of the piece. I worked at National Gallery for around four years, and the bonds I form with places dear to me don’t tend to fade away casually. This work recreates some of the place’s grandeur, its abundance, then mashes it up and reimagines it in the most striking way.

Familiar architecture, reimagined

The composition is made up of thousands of different photos of the National Gallery, with around 3000 works from the collection digitally stitched together (hence being part of the ‘Cut and Paste’ narrative). The National Gallery’s architecture has been futuristically transposed, its famous long vistas and arches lined up across the base of the work, while the broad white borders that cut horizontally across the centre give the impression of a multi-storey building, packed to the rafters with paintings in a dizzying salon hang.

National Gallery, London is one of Rauzier’s “Hyperphotos”, which he began creating in 2002 and which combine the feeling of a panorama with microscopic detail. While it may not be evident from my own photographs of the work, snapped during an exhibition visit, each painting is reproduced with pinpoint accuracy, astounding detail and clarity. Getting up close to the work, the viewer can pick out any number of famous, recognisable and well-loved paintings. For me, finding some of my old favourites was like searching for the faces of long lost friends in a crowd.

I found George Stubbs’ Whistlejacket (1762), a painting I loved as a child, taking pride of place in the centre.

One of the special things about the National Gallery is that in the action of walking through its rooms, the visitor goes on a pretty comprehensive journey through the history of Western European painting from c.1250-c.1930. Within that broad narrative, each painting tells an individual story, and captures something of its own historical moment. With the help of wall texts, written by curators and educators, we as viewers use clues to decipher that story, such as the subject matter, the style in which it is painted, the life of the artist, or through the artwork’s history as an object itself (who it was painted for, who has owned it throughout the centuries).

Even though I am lucky enough to be familiar with some of the works photographed by Rauzier, I felt as though I needed hours, if not days, to look properly at this artwork and the paintings contained within it, just as when you visit an art gallery you know it won’t be possible to absorb everything before what a friend of mine calls “museum back” kicks in and you need to sit down in the cafe.

A wall of paintings by Titian (1490-1576). What’s not to love?

There is so much life packed into every single artwork, and the more you learn about the history of art, the more remarkable it is that here, Rauzier has piled a major chunk of that sumptuous and fascinating history into one single work, exercising his own curatorial and architectural choices along the way. He tells the story in way that would almost be legible in one glance, were it not for the sheer weight of all that’s packed into it.

As individuals, we create and take our own meanings from artworks, and our experience of art is informed by our own stories, which is certainly one of the reasons why I found this work by Rauzier so fascinating, and why I know I’ll keep finding things to say about it even after I’ve hit the ‘publish’ button for this blog post. Whether or not you are interested in art history, it is impossible to deny that Rauzier’s futuristic retelling of it is a visual feast, albeit an overwhelming one that is impossible to finish in one sitting.