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Antony Gormley:
Asian Field

Antony Gormley:
Asian Field

12 Nov 2021
3 Jul 2022
Location: West Gallery

A monumental work by British artist Antony Gormley

In 2003, British artist Antony Gormley invited around 300 people of all ages from Xiangshan village (now Huadong Town in Guangzhou city) to make approximately 200,000 clay figurines over five days. There were three simple instructions: each figurine had to be hand-sized, capable of standing up, and have two eyes. Otherwise, each maker was free to improvise. As an installation, Asian Field is meant to be experienced from a single point of view. As you gaze across a sea of figures, they appear to look back.

This installation belongs to Field, a series that Gormley began in 1989. Other versions of Field have been produced in Australia, North and South America, the United Kingdom, and Europe. In each location, the artist uses locally sourced clay and enlists local communities to mould the figures by hand. By far the biggest and most ambitious work in the series, Asian Field reflects China’s vast territory and large population.

This presentation also features the work of photographer Zhang Hai’er, who captured and documented the making of Asian Field. Zhang paired each maker and one of their works in a series of photo portraits. The portrait subjects stared intently at the camera, allowing us to imagine how their character and attitude might be transferred into the figures they created.

Antony Gormley: Asian Field
Antony Gormley: Asian Field
7:36

Antony Gormley and participants from Xiangshan village look back on the collective experience of creating Asian Field.

Video Transcript

ANTONY GORMLEY: The work asks the three basic existential questions: ‘What are we?’, ‘Where do we come from?’, and ‘Where are we going?’

PAULINE YAO: Great artworks, what they can do is to make you . . . make audiences sort of re-examine or rethink their place in the world.

ANTONY GORMLEY: I wanted to do something very direct and very physical, and I started making small clay things. I think it was after making Field in Britain and the European Field in Malmö that I began to think, China is the future. This was going to be the biggest and the most spectacular of the works, because it had to represent China's size and population. My hope is that this collective field of earth that has been made conscious and been touched, in some way, makes you think about your relationship both to the past and the future.

I came here specifically in 1995 to try to find a way of doing it. I went to Jinan, went to Shandong Province to look at a variety of brick factories.

ANTONY GORMLEY: Three rules, you see: it’s hand-sized, it’s standing vertical, standing up, and the eyes are looking just above the horizon.

You have a lot of experience.

INTERPRETER: [Cantonese] They only have ideas, but you have the experience.

TAN JIAXIN: [Mandarin] At the time, I would have been in Year Six, about twelve years old. I was a primary school student then. Perhaps he wanted us to use our imagination and creativity to freely sculpt the clay.

TAN XUEJIAO: [Mandarin] He often mentioned keywords like 'connect' and 'heart’. When I pressed down into the clay, it felt like I was giving the figurine a heart. I think he was trying to connect the locals with their land in an intimate way. It was my first time participating in an art project with around 300 people, and I found it a very novel experience. It turns out that art can facilitate exchange between people in a special environment.

JIANG XIQUAN: [Cantonese] He needed clay that wouldn’t crumble and had a consistent colour. We extracted our clay from the mountains. Only clay rich in iron can turn red from firing.

JIANG JUWEN: [Cantonese] The key was in the pair of eyes. They need to look up towards the sky, as if they were deep in thought, exploring, contemplating the progress of humanity. Through the joint effort of our villagers and students, we created hundreds of thousands of clay figures. They were first exhibited in Guangzhou, and then around the world.

ANTONY GORMLEY: We are, even in Hong Kong, much more aware of, as it were, the mass, or the collective of humanity. And I find that very inspiring.

PAULINE YAO: I think it's also interesting to think about how the work is having a new life here in the museum. It's kind of made new again. It's given new sort of life, new sort of creative feeling from the people who are part of the participants as well as sort of reconnecting with the original makers.

We really wanted to find people to participate in the process from the very beginning to the end. We ended up having that through around twenty people.

CASPER LI: [Cantonese] Thinking back, they actually gave us a lot of freedom. We worked freely to put together the patterns and choose the figures. Some figures are lighter and some darker, and it was up to us to make comparisons. So, the process was delightful. because being be able to work freely with an artwork is a great satisfaction.

MICHELLE TAM: [Cantonese] Since this is clay, you can see how it was manipulated by the hand and how the texture was created. I would imagine how people made the figures. For example, some figures had a lot of pinch marks on the side, so I thought they looked like dumplings and wondered if their creator was used to making dumplings. I drew a lot of these associations.

MIKI HUI: [Cantonese] During the installation, I picked up the figures and found that some of the makers’ handprints matched my own. It made me realise how close our relationship could be. So I think . . . this is the feeling of connection.

JACKSON KWONG: [Cantonese] Stand at a specific position, and you will be able to see 200,000 figures. I think this reflects the world, or society. It’s not to say a large-scale artwork is just an abstract number. If you look closely, each figure has its own story. Some are signed. Some are bigger, and some are smaller. Some have special forms.

ANTONY GORMLEY: Very good. That's fantastic. I think you've got real grit. Anyway, carry on. Thank you so much. Really good work.

PAULINE YAO: It is a work that actually asks people to sort of slow down a little bit and to look and think about the connection one has to other people and other places and to the rest of the world.

ANTONY GORMLEY: Asian Field is a work that I hope gives voice to the voiceless and materialises a feeling of our present predicament in a time of migration, protest, overpopulation, and climate emergency. By reversing the normal dynamic between an artwork and its public, and making the viewer the focus of the art’s gaze, it hopefully asks us to be aware of our responsibility to the future, to the unborn, as well as to our forebears.

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Image at top: Installation view of Antony Gormley: Asian Field. Antony Gormley. Antony Gormley: Asian Field, 2003. M+, Hong Kong. Museum purchase and gift of anonymous donor, 2015. © Antony Gormley. Photo Courtesy: Lok Cheng & Dan Leung, M+, Hong Kong

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