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.

Ivon Hitchens, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester

I’ve been meaning for a while now to write about a lovely, focused exhibition I saw at the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester last week. I’d never been to the gallery before, and unfortunately I didn’t have enough time to explore its permanent collection, which is based around modern and contemporary British art – I’m looking forward to exploring that the next time I go.

So many important creative people of the twentieth century, including members of the Bloomsbury Group, the poet Edward Thomas and visual artists like Eric Ravilious, seem to have been drawn to spend time in Sussex at some point in their lives, so it makes sense that this Sussex gallery represents some of the most important artistic developments of the last century. While Ivon Hitchens (who I hadn’t heard of before seeing the show) isn’t someone who rewrote the rulebook of modern art, his work shows a talent for noticing and capturing the remarkable detail within the big picture, the abstract patterns he experimented with in his early career continuing playing a major part in the landscapes he is primarily known for today.

The Celadon Bowl (1936)

Some of my favourite of his works were early ones like The Celadon Bowl (1936), in the way that it delicately treads the line between abstraction and figuration, the scrubby brushstrokes of the teal and khaki squares in the backdrop adding texture to the plain white canvas. In a sketchbook annotation, he wrote “don’t try to find a picture. Find a place you like and discover the picture in that”, which is true of every setting he painted, interior and exterior.

Woman playing the piano, c.(1942)

He left London during the war, and lived in a caravan called Greenleaves with his wife and their baby, set in a forest clearing. Living in the heart of the countryside clearly gave Hitchens more than enough subject matter for his art, and he set about painting the landscape, not focusing on grand vistas, but on his favourite spots that he visited repeatedly, capturing the view in different seasons and at times of day.

I love the Sussex countryside and have enjoyed walking on the South Downs, in the woods and by the rivers that Hitchens lived alongside, and so I may be biased, but I found his landscapes very evocative and able to capture the magic of the place. Perhaps there’s something in the water that makes it special.

Winter Walk, no.3 (1948)

Winter Walk no.3 (1948), really captured me. The earthy brown and scratchy red tones, mixed with the evergreen of the avenue of pine trees towards the right of the picture perfectly sum up the colours of winter which are beautiful too, in their muted way.

The theme of the exhibition, how artists use their works as an exploration of their surroundings and of place more generally, was underpinned by the audio element of Simon Roberts’ Inscapes exhibition, which were dotted throughout Hitchens show. Roberts is an artist-photographer whose work focuses on identity and people’s connections with the landscape around them, and as part of the exhibition was invited to revisit the settings that so fascinated Hitchens. His soundscapes of the countryside (cattle lowing, brooks babbling, branches creaking in the wind) brought Hitchens’ landscapes to life in new ways, and the pairing of the two artists’ work brought out the best in both of them.

NOW, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

This morning I went to the Modern gallery to see their new exhibition, NOW, which is a presentation of work by contemporary artists, with the main focus on the work of Paisley-born artist Anya Gallaccio.

I’d heard about the exhibition through Instagram, as the Gallery had been posting some eye-catching close up photos of the key work in the show, Red on Green. The work is made up of 10,000 red roses which are arranged like a big red carpet in the centre of the room.

Though I imagine some viewers might find the carpet of roses a little gimmicky (it’s perfect art for Instagram, after all), I really enjoyed it. It’s fascinating seeing how the work unfolds as you approach it, looking at the individual roses shows they are all slightly different shades, shapes and sizes, at once both unique and uniform.

Red on Green will stay there for the duration of the exhibition (until September), but the flowers won’t be replenished, so as they decay the work will change. I wanted to see it at the start of its life, when it’s still looking and smelling great, and I’ll be back again a few more times to see how it changes. The more morbid side of me is really looking forward to seeing 10,000 dead roses. I don’t imagine they’ll be quite as Instagram-perfect as they are now.

In a really clever curatorial decision, immediately following the room with the roses is another beautiful and delicate Gallaccio sculpture of a tree. It looked so convincingly real but a quick check of the label revealed it was actually made of steel, bronze and silver. This kind of blurring the lines between real/fake, and the interplay between the different materials, encouraging you question what you see, was for me the biggest achievement of the exhibition.

If you do visit the Modern before the end of September, make sure you don’t just head straight for the roses. The first part of the exhibition features works by other contemporary artists which form an interesting dialogue with Gallaccio’s work. My favourite piece was Zimeb Sedira’s Sugar Routes, a propellor and an anchor cast in sugar making them look like sinister pieces of weaponry, alluding to the dark realities of the sugar trade. I also loved the installation Flat Moods by Peles Empire, which completely papered the corridor and created the illusion of being surrounded by the detritus of the artist’s studio.

In other news, Antony Gormley’s 6 times has returned to the Water of Leith. Here’s one of them taking the morning air.