In the mid-1990s, British sculptor Antony Gormley made his first trip to China. His intent was to jumpstart the project Asian Field, a massive installation that would require a group of local participants to create hundreds of thousands of figurines from locally sourced clay.
Although he didn’t find the right site for the project on that first visit, Gormley left impressed by the country’s rapidly rising cities and lively mass of humanity. He would go on to return to China many times: in 2003, to at last create and exhibit Asian Field, and at intervals throughout the early 2000s, to exhibit works that explore the lived experience of bodies and the environments they inhabit.
On a return visit to China to exhibit at Art Changsha in 2017, Gormley sat down with curator and critic Hans Ulrich Obrist to remember his past installations in the country and re-examine the significance of his preoccupation with bodies in space.
Hans Ulrich Obrist: You know, you’ve been to China many times and I always remember the amazing installation of Asian Field in Guangzhou in 2003, but I thought that it would be interesting to start today to really focus on your history in China. Please talk a little about your previous experiences and your first trip to China.
Antony Gormley: Well, that was in 1995, at the invitation of the British Council. I had explained to them, actually, about three years earlier, that I was keen to make a version of Field for every continent and would like to make one for Asia. They eventually, kindly, sent me over to China in 1995. I remember I stayed at the Sheraton Hotel on Ring Road 3 in Beijing. I had ordered a bicycle, and my first memory of China was cycling in the morning mist in towards Tiananmen Square in this multi-lane highway in the company of hundreds and hundreds of other bicycles.
Two strong memories of that journey to the Forbidden City remain. One was watching an old lady carrying a set of maybe eight or ten eggs, beautifully bound together by grass, crossing on foot this eight-lane highway where there were no traffic lights. It was just very beautiful, the way that the bicycles, lorries, and cars allowed her to negotiate her passage: the shoal of the bicycles separated in order to let her pass. The way that this old lady, with her delicate burden of eggs held out in front of her like a walking stick, was allowed across this massive road suggested grace and collective concern.
The other memory of that first encounter was the sound of chisels hammering high in the air at the beginning of the high-rise explosion. There were cast concrete cores and floors of buildings, twenty, thirty, forty storeys high everywhere. The air was full of this metallic sound of metal against concrete, chipping away. Those were my first impressions of city life in China.
I had come from Tokyo, and I remember arriving at the Beijing airport, which was, in those days, a Japanese-style building perhaps of the 1920s, with metal framed windows. Suddenly, I felt I am in Asia. Something about the smell, the way that people were happy to touch each other. I had come from Japan, where people are so respectful of each other’s personal space. Arriving in Beijing airport, there was this jostling crowd of very lively people, shouting; the whole level of sensory experience went up. I went straight to Jinan in Shandong Province to look at possible ceramic factories as sites for the making of Field.
That trip didn’t produce our eventual partners. That happened through meeting Zhang Wei, who has since become important in the evolution of art in China. She became the project leader, installing the work in subsequent shows. Her absolutely indomitable spirit, going around brick factories all over China from Guangdong to the north, looking at clay quality and looking for the right conditions, was central to the work’s success. We had to be able to accommodate up to 500 people sitting together to make the pieces. We needed somewhere that could dig and prepare over 100 tonnes of clay but also be the location of people with whom we could collaborate. Anyway, with Zhang Wei’s help we found this village, Xiangshan village in Huadu District, Guangdong Province on the Pearl River. That process started in the late 1990s, and we found our way by 2001 or so.
Obrist: Yes, because that’s also the period when I actually ventured out to China. In 1996, we went with curator Hou Hanru to Guangzhou for the exhibition Cities on the Move at that time. We were also involved with architect Rem Koolhaas, and we were all shocked by the sudden mutation of cities. We actually went to Guangzhou with Hou Hanru, and he could barely find the house of his parents; he hadn’t been there for a year, and the city had just changed so much. It was in this context of incredible mutation of cities that you realised the extravaganza of Field with Zhang Wei, which changed the rules of the game because, of course, you had to build tens of thousands of figures, made by local communities.
Gormley: Yes, you call it an extravaganza, but it was quite logical that the Asian Field had to be as large, in proportion to the continent. The basic concept of the Field project is to take the earth beneath people’s feet, allow them to touch it, shape it, and, in the process, to find a form unique to each maker. So, this action of repeatedly taking a handful of clay, squeezing it, or patting it—everybody had their own way—to make a bodyform was a sort of meditation. The repeated action becoming a kind of mantra. At first, your collaborators are anxious to please. They say, ‘Is this what you want?’ and I reply, ‘No, it’s not about what I want; it’s about what you find. You’ve got to find your form and just trust your body, trust the process.’
Anyway, it’s a beautiful thing, three generations of people working together, teaching and inspiring one another. We always work with three generations, so if a family is involved, the grandparents, parents, and grandchildren will all be dispersed amongst the emerging field. You might have a granny sitting next to a grandchild—but it won’t be their own grandchild—and they support one another. It’s a collective act of generation, a democratic process that happens when you bring people together like that.
They all come from different backgrounds and occupations. Some had been intellectuals who, during the Cultural Revolution, were sent to the country and then stayed. Some were peasants, some shopkeepers, some artists: we had fifty art students from the Guangzhou Academy. So, it was a conversation carried through clay between different generations and people with very different life experiences. I think of it as a kind of reservoir: there were many, many, many feelings released by and released into this work.
We wanted to capture not only the feelings of the makers, but also the feelings of people who would later view the piece. That’s why we had these big response boards. When we showed it in Guangzhou, it was a big wall; on Tiananmen Square in the National Museum of Modern Chinese History [now the National Museum of China], we had an even bigger one. The different reactions of the public were touching and revelatory and very much part of the show. To some, it was an alien invasion; to others, it was exactly what they remembered about national conscription and having to do military exercises at school. There was a lot of feeling about the one-child policy; there was a lot communicated about the feelings of alienation through indoctrination. I mean, the reaction to the making and the looking was wide and powerful.
In the end, we made three separate publications on the development of the Asian Field. One was just called Field, which covered the making part of the project; the next was called Makers and Made, a series of photos of the makers, where each maker was invited to choose one of their figures, and we paired them. The third was the reactions to the Field, a white book which reproduced the public’s responses. This was my first experience of art as a bridge to allow repressed thoughts about the past to become visible, shareable, evident. It is, yes, a continuing concern—true of this show.
Obrist: But to return to our journey, after this incredible installation of Field, what were the next steps in China?
Gormley: After making the Field, it toured China: from Guangzhou to Beijing, and then to Shanghai and Chongqing. During that tour, obviously, I saw other parts of China and, separate from the exhibition, visited Sichuan, Gansu, and Yunnan. For each Field exhibition, I collaborated in every site with young artists who helped with the installation, but also ran the workshops and discussions around the piece. That was all in the early 2000s.
Then, I suppose, my next experience of China was making a show with Galleria Continua and Mario Cristiani, who’s sitting next to me now. This was my first one-man gallery exhibition, and it was at 798 with Galleria Continua in the spring of 2009, seven years later. We showed Another Singularity, an environment made of silk-covered bungee that you could walk through. Whenever you passed one of the strings, it vibrated, and that vibration went through the whole space. I also showed Aperture, Feeling Material, and a ‘blockwork’. It was incredible to see how that old armaments factory, 798, had become with the Ullens Center: such a focus for art, artists, and galleries.
Obrist: You had worked with earth with Field, but then you had an exhibition in 2016, which I happened to see, which was a very radical show called Host. It is interesting because Duchamp talked about the host, the guest, the ghost, and in this second solo exhibition at Galleria Continua in Beijing, you flooded it. Actually, I remember the flooded central space, with about ten inches of water.
Gormley: No, it was twenty-three centimetres, so 100 tonnes of seawater brought from the Tianjin Sea and 100 tonnes of mud brought from central China. It was an alchemical meeting of the inland continent with its periphery in the site of art, making this very large watercolour: the transposition of a landscape. On the one hand, it was totally natural and, on the other, completely artificial. The idea was to recall the memory of Field. Both works were internalisations of the elemental world. Field is earth that has been touched, passed through fire, and made into 210,000 small bodyforms to make a landscape of conscience and memory. Host is untouched clay that has been passed through water to form its own landscape and reflect the architecture around it.
Obrist: I think it was Georges Didi-Huberman who once said, ‘Ce que nous voyons, ce qui nous regarde.’: ‘What you see, looks at you’. And then he describes the Hans Holbein piece in Basel [The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb], and you look at this painting and the painting looks at you. Also, you imagine, actually, yourselves to be in the sarcophagus, so it’s the active and the passive view that Huberman describes. It’s something you have caught in the Field already, and then you have it again, very strongly, in Host, where basically the viewer becomes the viewed. Can you talk to me a little about that?
Gormley: Yes, this is a very important strain in the work. A reversal of roles, so that the viewer is in some senses witnessed by the object or there is an implied reflexivity. With Host, this is because of the mirroring of the water and an idea of the unformed. The references are obviously to the Rückenfigur of Caspar David Friedrich, but also to Rothko and the monochrome. This is a self-formed landscape, because underneath the reflective surface of the water is a self-aggregated mineral settlement. It looks like an un-walked-on planet, like the surface of Mars, or the surface of the moon prior to the Apollo mission.
Field was touched earth that talked for those that don’t have a voice: the dispossessed, the unborn as well as the dead, those literally without mouths to speak. These ‘grounds’ make us think about our own being as thinking, feeling, willing, intelligent animals. Host invites us to think of what our presence signifies in elemental terms, to think again about our reliance and influence on this planet. If there is a content to the work, it comes from the projection, the active contemplative position of the viewer in the coproduction of meaning.
Obrist: Now, I was browsing through an old conversation between us, and you told me in 2008 that immersion was the most important single thing at that moment. To go from a concern with object to the concern with fields, feeling, how it feels. This is like art aspiring to the condition of music. We have a completely seamless relationship between proprioception and context. Can you talk a little bit about your notion of immersion and the relationship between the notion you use a lot—proprioception and context?
Gormley: Well, I think I want to discuss two contexts. One is site, and the other is the internal imaginary of the viewer. I completely reject any notion of self-referentiality in art. Therefore, the site or the place of the arising of art has to be acknowledged on two mutually dependent factors. One is, yes, the conscious and feeling ability of the viewer, and the other is the framing or the site that the art happens in.
I start with a diagnostic attitude to the opportunity of an exhibition, which has nothing to do with putting objects in rooms. It is more like dousing, trying to divine—asking, ‘What is this place?’ A place is not simply its topography or walls; it’s also its history, its social context, and its materiality. With Host, the capability of having these three levels of observation—ground and two floor levels—allowed the building to be an instrument of the observation of its own contents and gave the form of the work. The economy of factory architecture has a beauty that we all respond to: nothing extra there in the urgency of making a shelter for work to happen. That’s the wonderful alliance between an artist’s work and the residual spaces of a post-industrial society.
Obrist: What these series all have in common is that they have to do with the human figure. I wanted really to clarify, particularly because it’s a new exhibition, that although about measure, [the works at Art Changsha 2017, Critical Mass II and Expansion Field are] not about man as the measure of all things; [they’re] about indwelling within an organism. You said that it was, actually, less the modulor of Corbusier and more about that Michelangelo marble sculpture, which you saw at the Hermitage, of the crouching boy. I wanted you to explain it, because it’s politically very powerful to make clear that it’s not about the humanist idea of man being the measure of all things.
Gormley: I’m glad that we are touching on this. I think, yes, for me, the most important thing is that there is no idealisation and no ideology. All these works stem from the register of a particular body, in a particular position, at a particular time. Either mass pitted against space or space captured and isolated, but always in reference to a body that both is contained by it and contains it. All the bodyforms are examples of the only bit of the material world that I happen to dwell inside. The works are indexical proof of the existence of a human body, an exemplary particular, neither idealised nor emblematised. The performative element of its making, if we call it that, is a return to the idea of the body as a place of indwelling, rather than the object of idealisation, either in aesthetic or political terms. Neither the hero, nor the sexualised ideal female body.
In the same way as Host and Field invite us to rethink our relationship with incarnation, these residual proofs of a moment of lived time invite us to reoccupy them imaginatively and look, as if for the first time, at what the body is. This is a question, and it’s not about any kind of mean. I’m very interested in the notion of measure, but not as an absolute. So, no Napoleonic code, but also no imperial code. I’m saying that the body is our found object, and it perhaps isn’t primarily an object at all; it’s a place that can become an event if we allow it to be. I guess that’s what I want from my participant viewers. I want an active, alert, moving body; a thinking, feeling, moving being through a space that has been acknowledged as part of the show, to sense themselves empathically occupying these bodily displacements, or boxes, in the case of the Expansion Field. Just like Gerhard Richter, I reject ideological determinism.
Obrist: I mean, that is a wonderful conclusion to this interview.
Gormley: Hans Ulrich, thank you, I’m so happy to talk to you.
This article was originally published in Antony Gormley: Critical Mass and Expansion Field (Hunan Fine Arts Publishing House: 2017) to coincide with Art Changsha 2017. It has been abridged and republished with permission of Hans Ulrich Obrist.
All photos of Asian Field: © Antony Gormley; M+, Hong Kong. Museum purchase and gift of anonymous Hong Kong donor, 2015. All work-in-progress photos (unless otherwise indicated): Work in progress on Asian Field with around 300 people from Xiangshan, Guangzhou, China in January 2003. Commissioned by the British Council, 2003. All installation photos (unless otherwise indicated): Around 200,000 hand-sized clay elements made in collaboration with some 300 people of all ages from Xiangshan village, northeast of the city of Guangzhou in south China.
Hans Ulrich Obrist is co-director of Serpentine Galleries, London. He was formerly the curator of the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. Since his first exhibition in 1991, he has curated more than 300 shows. Obrist has lectured at academic and art institutions and is contributing editor to several magazines and journals. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects and the recipient of the CCS Bard Award for Curatorial Excellence and the International Folkwang Prize.
Antony Gormley is widely acclaimed for his sculptures, installations, and public artworks that investigate the relationship of the human body to space. His work has been exhibited internationally. Gormley has been awarded numerous honorary fellowships and prizes, including the Turner Prize in 1994. He was made an Officer of the British Empire (OBE) in 1997 and a knight in the New Year's Honours list in 2014. Gormley has been a Royal Academician since 2003.