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.

‘My Own Private Bauhaus’, David Batchelor at Ingleby Gallery, Edinburgh

I first encountered David Batchelor’s work about a year ago, and I was so happy when I heard he had a show in Edinburgh, at Ingleby Gallery (free, ending 28 September). It’s not a place I’m familiar with, and being a commercial gallery, I wondered whether the space would feel welcoming. Though I had to ring a bell to be let in, there was no need to fear – I was welcomed by a friendly member of staff who introduced me to the gallery and some of the ideas behind the exhibition.

The building itself dates from 1834 and is settled in the heart of Edinburgh’s austere but beautiful New Town. It was originally built as a religious meeting house for the Glasites, a break-away group of worshippers from the Church of Scotland, who heartily disapproved of embellishment, decoration (or, it seems, joyfulness of any kind) in their places of worship. So it is with a delicious sense of irony that such a space has been transformed into a gallery, a dynamic that I’m sure Batchelor would have revelled in when planning the exhibition.

The ceiling of the main exhibition space

One of my favourite things about Batchelor’s work is that it is characterised by a sense of playfulness. It doesn’t seem to take itself to seriously: art is boiled down to its essentials – colours and shapes – reminding us that all of us begin interacting with the world through these two key sensory building blocks. Through his explorations, Batchelor invites us become children again, to see with fresh eyes and wonderment that art can exist within the banal and the everyday. He’s there to show us where and how to look.

Installation view, the piece on the floor in the centre is Dogdays, 2008-2011

The exhibition is full of all sorts of mundane objects made fascinating, mounted on their concrete plinths and transformed into abstract sculptures. There are tape measures, huge spheres made of electrical wires and cable ties, sheets of intricate mesh, plastic circles that look like bottle tops, all celebrating the vibrancy of artificial colour. There’s not much suggesting the natural world in here, though shards of glass stuck in concrete look remarkably like window boxes. Rather, it’s the things we have invented that take precedence, repurposed and reframed by Batchelor, the magpie-esque collector of all things shiny, bright and saturated.

Geo-Concreto 06, 2018 (left) and Geo-Concreto 02, 2018 (right)

Yet for all of their man-made qualities, the show is not about looking at the pristine perfection of these objects, but rather their imperfections. The paintings on the walls are made using spray paint, giving them a mechanical shine that seems totally devoid of the artist’s hand, yet the circles themselves are misshapen and pleasingly wobbly, with the occasional splodge of paint that may not have been intended, but remains present on the canvas nonetheless.

Part of the Concreto 1.0h series

Much more tactile than the paintings, however, are their partner sculptures, made by precariously stacking the lids of paint pots on to of one another, the paint crusty, wrinkled and stippled, crying out to be prodded and poked. Some sculptures are framed by fluorescent fabric backdrops, and the much maligned plastic bottle is transformed the ultimate 21st century chandelier.

It’s art that’s fun, accessible, and shows us the possibility of finding beauty in the most basic of everyday things, a skill we need more than ever at the moment.

Candela, 2016

Oor Wullie’s Big Bucket Trail, #OWBBT

About a week ago I came across a strange sight. There was a huge lorry parked up on a quiet side street in Edinburgh with its sides open, no one was around, but inside the lorry there were about 20 bright sculptures.

Lots of Oor Wullies in a row

I was pretty baffled, especially because there is a certain creepiness in seeing all these laughing characters en masse, but since then have discovered that the sculptures are part of Oor Wullie’s Big Bucket Trail. The trail is happening across Scotland in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee, Aberdeen and Inverness, to raise money for children’s hospitals in each of those cities.

I am not Scottish, so don’t know much about Oor Wullie and his escapades (he is something of a national treasure, especially for the baby boomer generation) but from the statues he seems like a cheeky lad who loves to laugh. Seeing them scattered across the city, they are definitely eye-catching and intriguing, most are painted in bright colours and shiny, glossy paint. Artists were commissioned to paint their designs on each statue, so every single one is unique.

Oor Wullies in transit

If you’re not convinced, I recommend getting a bit closer, and taking some time to read the plinths, where the artist has a space to explain the inspirations behind their designs. For example, this design by Wee Lainey which is just outside Haymarket is covered in painted bricks to echo the designs of Scotland’s tenement buildings, and the statue has famous Scottish inventions and sayings on him too, along with one of my favourites, ‘haud yer wheesht’.

Wee Lainey’s design, near Haymarket

Even though stylistically they are probably not to everyone’s taste, to me they are kitsch and camp in all the best ways. Public art is always going to divide opinions, but that’s what makes it interesting. At its heart, the scheme is there to raise money for a good cause, and along the way it is supporting artists by commissioning them to make new works. Hopefully the trail will get more people, especially kids and families, talking about art. To me, that can only be a good thing.

If you agree, you can donate to the campaign online.