‘TRUTH IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN BEAUTY’ (Antony Gormley – The Utopia Parkway Files, part 2)
Vaseline and clingfilm. Renaissance and quantum mechanics. The Hubble space telescope and the Acropolis. Ask British sculptor Antony Gormley about ‘beauty’ and those are some of the things he will bring up. Quite surprisingly, beauty isn’t important to him at all. But in an other way… it nevertheless still is. ‘Maybe the most beautiful things are fugitive.’ I interviewed Gormley while he was in Brussels for his Xavier Hufkens-exhibition. You’ll find his thoughts on beauty after the jump.
‘Beauty is not something that I strive for. Beauty is a by-product. I wouldn’t say that anything I make aspires to the condition of beauty. We’re less certain now than we ever were, about what that word means. Which is maybe why it is important.’
‘I think a transition is taking place, from the aesthetics of beauty that were current after the 19th century. Back then it was about looking at nature and the classical world. They were the two primary sources of proportion and natural beauty. In our time this has been replaced by an understanding of ’emergent form’. And this comes from everything: from chaos theory through the understanding of quantum mechanics. Somehow beauty has much more to do with fluid states, and understanding the dynamics of those fluid states, than with notions of fixed and final form.’
‘If you look at Giorgio Vasari, Leon Battista Alberti, or renaissance treaties on beauty… they are looking for definable forms. We are looking for beauty in the fleeting. Steam rising from a cooling tower, the images from the Hubble space telescope, such as the Eagle Nebula. Just the other day I saw a picture of a dying star; a kind of bubble of gas in deep space. Maybe the most beautiful things are fugitive. Non permanent. The opposite, in a way, of the Pantheon, the pyramids or the Acropolis.’
‘My kind of form finding has become about form losing. And accepting principles of organic, evolving, emergent systems that allow me to make something like Firmament (picture left). It has in it’s title this reference to the ancient notion of space: the heavens that for the Greeks were familiarized by being given constellation names that had known mythological references. It has this link to the need to find comfort within a cosmic environment. But at the same time Firmament could be an illustration of the Podolski/Rosen-experiment, in which an uncertainty element was introduced into particle physics: if you know a particle’s position, you won’t know its speed, but if you know its speed, you won’t know where it is. The work also acknowledges the collapse of that Cartesian certainty of the relationship between observer and observed, in so far that you are invited to crossover the threshold and become the subject in the field.’
‘Beauty is not something that I strive for in my work, but sometimes I do get surprised that something I’ve made, that is so cold in a way, can nevertheless be touching. Because the certainties that I try to work with, are hard facts. Real numbers, real geometry. They are the things that are the skeleton of what I have to share or propose. But sometimes they can give rise to something that is actually quite affecting.’
‘There’s one of my new works (SET, in cast iron, picture right) that I didn’t like at all, in the studio, cause I thought the proportions were wrong. But when I put it in the room, here at Xavier Hufkens in Brussels, suddenly something else happened. Its relation with two cloud pieces (Cumulus and Drift) allowed it to become something else. Suddenly it seems to be a kind of very calm but rather touching evocation of human vulnerability. A kind of acknowledgement of death, but also of the limited realm of human experience.’
‘I don’t know what that’s got to do with beauty. I’m just saying that something that comes from an attempt to redescribe the space of the body in terms of this nesting polyhedra ends up becoming something about the very opposite of what it’s made off. Because it’s made of a ton of very hard mineral. And what it is actually talking about is the fact that we all know that we’re going to die.’
‘Truth is more important to me, in my work, than beauty. I want to make something that is absolutely itself and has never been seen before. I want to make facts, not fiction. I want things not to be arbitrary, but to be absolute. And this has nothing to do with all of the things that art used to be about. It is not about virtuosity. It’s about deciding what evidence you are going to seek, and what evidence you are going to show. All of the work starts from a registration of me, here, now.’
‘You want me to name one thing that I would call beautiful? Something that other people won’t find beautiful at all? Well…Wrapping yourself up in vaseline and clingfilm and getting yourself covered in plaster, isn’t exactly either pretty or comfortable, or a place that anyone would want to visit, but it became and still is the major point of origination for my work. People still don’t understand it. Why would you want to do that? It’s a very perverse kind of process. But I haven’t found anything better, yet. And if you can’t find anything better, you have to carry on with what you’ve got.’
(Antony Gormley, interviewed by Hans-Maarten Post for Utopia Parkway at Xavier Hufkens, Brussels, 17-09-09)
pictures: ‘Freeze’ (2008), Firmament III’ (2009), SET (2009); courtesy Xavier Hufkens
Postscript on 27 June 2016: you’ll find more about Antony Gormley and his views on art and sculpture in his book “On Sculpture”, published by Thames & Hudson (in 2015). Info here.