Pauline J. Yao (Lead Curator, Visual Art) shares her guide to appreciating the history and philosophy behind Antony Gormley’s installation, Asian Field
Asian Field is a singular work with a collective ethos. It begins with essential elements of the earth—sand, minerals, and water—and evolves through human contact as participants touch, shape, and squeeze handfuls of clay into unique bodyforms. The resulting work of approximately 200,000 figurines offers a profound statement on the body, human agency, artistic collaboration, and the co-production of meaning between viewer and viewed.
Asian Field is the sixth in Antony Gormley’s Field series, a project initiated in 1989. Each Field adopts a similar approach of engaging a community of individuals in a specific location to mould figures by hand from locally sourced clay. Fields have been created in Europe, the United Kingdom, Australia, and South America, but Asian Field is by far the largest and most ambitious, owing to the size of the population and landmass from which it was formed.
The project officially began in 1995 when Gormley made his first visit to China, but it took several years to find the right location and conditions for production. That came in 2003 when, guided by the support of the British Council, the artist identified an enclave in the outskirts of Guangzhou known as Xiangshan Village. Over the course of five days, hundreds of villagers across three generations—grandparents, parents, and children—along with a coterie of art students from Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, pressed mounds of local, iron-rich soil into individual clay figures. The artist gave the makers of Asian Field three simple instructions: each sculpture should be hand-sized, able to stand on its own, and have two eyes facing forward and looking up towards the horizon. Beyond these simple instructions, makers were allowed to improvise on their own.
The artist's body as vessel
At the time it was conceived, Field was a radical departure from Gormley’s usual artistic practice of taking the body—his body, specifically—as principle subject matter. Unlike other artists who may carve or sculpt bodies by chipping away at wood or stone, Gormley is interested in casting from the inside out, using his own body to hold open a space. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Gormley created moulds of his body in different positions, covered these in lead or cast them in iron, and situated them within architectural spaces or at outdoor locations.
Many have pointed out that, for Gormley, the body is not a subject but rather an instrument he uses ‘to investigate how his own conscious experience (sensation, emotion, thought) occurs in the physical world’. Much of Gormley’s thinking around sculpture and the body can be traced to three years he spent in India in his twenties, when he studied the teachings of Theravada Buddhism. In particular, he was drawn to vipassana meditational practice, which is associated with training one’s focus on the interconnectedness between mind and body. ‘It was Buddhism, rather than the Western canon, which gave me the idea of the abstract body,’ says Gormley. ‘It gave me the idea that you can make sculpture about being rather than doing, that you can make sculpture that is a reflexive instrument rather than existing as a freeze-frame in a narrative.’
Evidence of this approach can be found in early works such as Land, Sea and Air II (1982), in which lead cases of the artist’s body in crouching, kneeling, and standing positions are placed on a beach and made to connect to the three titular elements. Gormley extended his interests in the body as a site of inquiry into the architectural space with Testing a World View (1993). The installation featured five identical bodyforms, which, when placed in different orientations, evoke different emotional states: one, for example, is nestled into the corner, another head-butts a wall. For Another Place (1997), a hundred identical standing bodyforms are peppered along the tideline in northwest England, staring mutely at the sea as they are slowly rendered visible or invisible by the changing tides. The processes for creating and exhibiting these early works reveal the body as a vessel for memories, feelings, and consciousness, as well as a natural extension of the physical world. These dual explorations—of the interior self and the state of being-in-the-world—form the crux of his artistic investigations.
From the one to the many
In devising Field, Gormley stepped away from the focus on his own body and looked instead at the idea of a collective body. In this new way of working, which foregrounded multiplicity, repetition, and new expressions of scale, he also embraced a fully collaborative approach by handing the making process over to others. The set of sculptures that were produced via Field were hand-formed and diminutively sized, thus enacting a new process whereby the self was dispersed among many.
While together these figures stand as a unified whole, the energy of Asian Field comes from each figurine’s uniqueness and ties to a single maker. During the production period in 2003, Gormley commissioned Guangzhou-based photographer Zhang Hai’er to create a series of portraits pairing each maker with his or her sculpture. Tightly framed around the eyes of the maker, Zhang’s images draw our attention to their gaze, prompting us to imagine how their character and attitude might have transferred into the soft clay. The 300 images, known as Maker and Made, form an important component of the Asian Field display by reminding us that each sculpture represents a life, the memory of a life, or the possibility of a future life.
The viewer and the viewed
Huddled together en masse, the dense arrangement of small sculptures that comprise Asian Field invoke a sense of quiet and calm. In some of Gormley’s other works, this sense of stillness manifests itself in a single figure positioned in the landscape, gazing out into the distance. Audiences in Hong Kong may be familiar with Event Horizon, a work conceived in 2007 and mounted in Hong Kong in 2016. Individual bodyforms were placed on building rooftops, in pedestrian plazas, and at busy intersections, encouraging a process of looking and being seen amidst the fast-paced energy of the city. Works like these rely upon Gormley’s body as a sculptural index, a lone and mute observer to our existing world as well as the one to come.
With Asian Field, however, the lone figure is us. As the small clay bodyforms squeeze together in tight formation, denying us entry into their space, we are left standing alone at the threshold, frozen in awe. We are the ones gazing out into the vast horizon of small figures blanketing the surface of the floor like blades of grass in a meandering meadow, where pockets of light and dark clay resemble shadows of clouds floating by.
According to Gormley, the viewing process has played an integral role throughout his practice: ‘I believe that until you put the body of the viewer in a position of jeopardy, the opening of responses in the viewer will not happen.’ Asian Field’s single vantage point offers a powerful statement on the art-viewing experience. It elicits a two-way process whereby we look at the vast array of sculptures, and they look back at us.
This reversal positions the audience as the focal point and grants the art the agency of looking. Poised at the threshold of Asian Field, we as viewers feel the weight of their expectant gaze and the tension of their potential advancement. At the same time, we are drawn into realisation of standing upon shared ground. Gormley describes the work’s intention:
The work asks the three basic existential questions: what are we, where do we come from, where are we going? At a time of the sixth great extinction, it reverses the normal dynamic between an artwork and its public, making the viewer the focus of the art’s gaze and, hopefully, making us aware of our responsibility to the future, to the unborn, as well as to our forebears. Asian Field gives voice to the voiceless and materialises a feeling of our present predicament in a time of migration, protest, overpopulation, and climate emergency.
In short, we are confronted with what it is to be human and what we, as humans, are to make of our current existence. But this solitary experience of viewing Asian Field is not meant to denote passivity. Quite the contrary: it is designed to stir an awareness of ourselves and our collective humanity and to induce us to take responsible action for our future on this planet.
This presentation of Asian Field at M+ marks the first time the work has been shown inside a purpose-built museum space. For most of its life, Asian Field has been shown in ad hoc spaces. The first exhibition took place in an underground carpark in Guangzhou in 2003. That first year, the work toured to three other sites in China: a museum in Beijing, a warehouse in Shanghai, and a supermarket in Chongqing. In the years immediately following, there were presentations at sites in Tokyo, Sydney, and Singapore.
In its current iteration, housed within a proper gallery space, Asian Field resurfaces fundamental questions about art—how it is made, who can make it, and how it can be seen. Perhaps even more significant is the way this presentation of Asian Field marks a homecoming—a return to Chinese soil. In the face of widening political divides in Hong Kong and around the world, paired with uncertainties brought on by a global pandemic, a work that asks us to contemplate our collective humanity and shared responsibility for the future feels especially relevant—if not essential.
Interested in seeing Asian Field in-person? Check out the exhibition page to see what's on display. All photos of Asian Field: © Antony Gormley; Photo: Dan Leung; M+, Hong Kong. Museum purchase and gift of anonymous Hong Kong donor, 2015. Photos of Another Place and Event Horizon: Courtesy of Antony Gormley Studio; © All rights reserved.
Pauline J. Yao is Lead Curator, Visual Art at M+.
Richard Noble, ‘An Anthropoetics of Space: Antony Gormley’s Field’, in Tu di: Asian Field/Antony Gormley, ed. Richard Riley (London: British Council, 2003), 193.
Antony Gormley, Antony Gormley On Sculpture, ed. Mark Holborn (London: Thames and Hudson, 2015), 143.
Antony Gormley in discussion with the author, January 2022.