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16 Mar 2022 / by Pauline J. Yao

Standing on Shared Ground: The Ethos Behind ‘Asian Field’

Horizontally oriented photograph showing a brightly lit room with white walls. Through a long rectangular doorway, an installation consisting of tens of thousands of small clay figurines  is visible. Smaller white walls and a grey column jut out at intervals throughout the installation space. The sea of figurines varies slightly in colour, in shades of light and dark reddish brown. A woman stands at the threshold, inspecting the installation.

Installation view of Antony Gormley’s Asian Field at M+ in 2021

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.

Horizontally oriented photograph showing hundreds of small clay figurines standing tightly together. Each figurine has a body, a head, and two eyes looking upwards towards the viewer. They are various shades of reddish-brown Each figure differs slightly in size, shape, and markings. The figure in the centre of the frame has a large flat head and is lighter in colour than the surrounding figures.

Detail of Asian Field

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’.[1] 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.’[2]

Horizontally oriented photograph showing six identical standing sculptures standing on a beach. They are scattered at various distances from the viewer: one stands in a tide pool, another on the tideline, and the others in the sea. A bird drinks from the tide pool. A buoy is visible in the distance.

View of Another Place (1997) at Crosby Beach, UK

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.

Horizontally oriented photograph showing hundreds of small clay figurines standing tightly together. Each figurine has a body, a head, and two eyes looking upwards towards the viewer. They are various shades of reddish-brown Each figure differs slightly in size, shape, and markings. The figure in the centre of the frame is darker and taller than the rest.

Detail of Asian Field

Horizontally oriented photograph showing three rows of monochrome photograph pairs hanging on a white wall. Each photograph pair consists of a close-up portrait of a person's face on the left and an image of a small clay figurine on the right. The people featured in the photograph are different ages and genders; the figurines are different shapes and sizes.

Zhang Hai’er’s Makers and Made pairs portraits of the individual makers with an image of one of their creations

Horizontally oriented photograph showing two white walls of an exhibition space. On the far wall is a list of twelve columns of names; a man stands before it reading the names. A small writing table and many white pieces of paper are adhered to the left wall. A woman writes something on the desk, and another woman behind her touches a paper on the wall.

A list showing names of the makers who contributed to Asian Field is displayed next to the installation at M+

Horizontally oriented photograph showing many white pieces of paper affixed to a wall. Each one has a message or drawing on it of a small ovoid figure. In the centre-right of the frame, three pieces of paper have been folded into the shape of a small figurine with two eyes.

Visitors leave behind messages and reflections after viewing the artwork

Horizontally oriented photograph showing tens of thousands of small clay figurines in a brightly lit room with white walls. The sea of figurines varies slightly in colour, in shades of light and dark reddish brown.

Installation view of Asian Field

Horizontally oriented photograph showing hundreds of small clay figurines standing tightly together. Each figurine has a body, a head, and two eyes looking upwards towards the viewer. They are various shades of reddish-brown Each figure differs slightly in size, shape, and markings. The figure in the centre of the frame is darker and taller than the rest.

Detail of Asian Field

Horizontally oriented photograph showing three rows of monochrome photograph pairs hanging on a white wall. Each photograph pair consists of a close-up portrait of a person's face on the left and an image of a small clay figurine on the right. The people featured in the photograph are different ages and genders; the figurines are different shapes and sizes.

Zhang Hai’er’s Makers and Made pairs portraits of the individual makers with an image of one of their creations

Horizontally oriented photograph showing two white walls of an exhibition space. On the far wall is a list of twelve columns of names; a man stands before it reading the names. A small writing table and many white pieces of paper are adhered to the left wall. A woman writes something on the desk, and another woman behind her touches a paper on the wall.

A list showing names of the makers who contributed to Asian Field is displayed next to the installation at M+

Horizontally oriented photograph showing many white pieces of paper affixed to a wall. Each one has a message or drawing on it of a small ovoid figure. In the centre-right of the frame, three pieces of paper have been folded into the shape of a small figurine with two eyes.

Visitors leave behind messages and reflections after viewing the artwork

Horizontally oriented photograph showing tens of thousands of small clay figurines in a brightly lit room with white walls. The sea of figurines varies slightly in colour, in shades of light and dark reddish brown.

Installation view of Asian Field

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.

Vertically oriented photograph showing a metallic standing sculpture of a man from behind. The sculpture is perched on a building ledge and facing  a dense cluster of high-rises.

One of the bodyforms in Gormley’s Event Horizon (2016) stands atop a building in Hong Kong

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.’[3] 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.

Horizontally oriented photograph showing tens of thousands of small clay figurines in a brightly lit room with white walls. A grey column juts out at in the back right of the installation space. The sea of figurines varies slightly in colour, in shades of light and dark reddish brown. Each figurine has two eyes, looking upwards just to the right of the viewer.

Installation view of Asian Field

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.[4]

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.

Homecoming

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.

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

Antony Gormley and Pauline J. Yao discuss the making and installation of 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.

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+.

  1. 1.

    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.

  2. 2.

    Antony Gormley, Antony Gormley On Sculpture, ed. Mark Holborn (London: Thames and Hudson, 2015), 143.

  3. 3.

    Ibid., 51.

  4. 4.

    Antony Gormley in discussion with the author, January 2022.

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