A new-born baby is lying naked on the ground in the crisp September air. Some stride nonchalantly past her, while others stop and instinctively stroke her smooth body, as though trying to shield her from the elements. Iron Baby is a sculpture of Antony Gormley’s daughter, Paloma, captured at six days old. She is the mesmerising introduction to Gormley’s solo exhibition, now showing at the Royal Academy.
Best known for The Angel of the North, the iconic giant steel sculpture in Gateshead, Gormley is one of Britain’s most loved – and recognisable – artists. Offering a number of attention-grabbing, big statement pieces, this exhibition is vibrant and pulsating. Much of the most exciting work is immersive, including Matrix III, comprising six tonnes of steel mesh hanging hypnotically like a menacing storm cloud above one’s head. This is followed by a gallery choked by four and a half miles of aluminium tubing which swirls around the room, pushing energetically against the walls and ceiling. The visitor is encouraged to clamber through this metal web, and touch the cool, hard surfaces, which resemble a 3D scribble. It is disturbing yet exciting, chaotic yet ordered. Perhaps the most dramatic piece in the exhibition is the gargantuan body that one can wrestle through, in pitch darkness, made from 100 tonnes of sheet steel. It feels unnerving, even intimidating but the sheer scale of the installation is astonishing. Gormley pulls off incredible feats of engineering.
In another room, Gormley’s familiar life-casts project from the floor, walls and ceilings, seemingly defying the laws of gravity. Their inscrutable, impenetrable faces still have the power to haunt. More spellbinding is Subject II, the single figure made from inter-crossed steel bars. Its bowed head suggests a human vulnerability equal to that of the infant exposed on the cobbles outside. This figure embodies the theme of the show: man is no more than a speck in Nature.
The most extraordinary exhibit is the room whose floor is submerged in salt-water and earth. Entitled Host, the cold sea air rising from the water is forbidding, yet its perfect, reflective surface is strangely inviting. Indeed, one hapless visitor waded straight into the water, mistaking it for a perfectly polished floor. Described by Gormley as “the world yet to be acted on”, it pertinently reminds the visitor of the catastrophe of climate change. Though first exhibited in Beijing, this is the first time it has been seen in this country. It encourages a moment of quiet contemplation, after the commotion of some of the earlier exhibits.
This a curious exhibition that merges abstract and figurative work, huge showstoppers with intimate pieces, including Gormley’s exquisite personal notebooks. The lack of colour makes it feel bleak at times and the huge variety of work gives the exhibition a slightly breathless feel, but it is well worth a visit. Even if only to give that baby some much needed warmth as the nights draw in.
The BNP Paribas AccessArt25 programme is also offering 3000 young people, aged 17 to 25, free access over the course of three specially-curated evening: Monday 14 October, Monday 18 November and Monday 25 November, 6.30-9.30pm.
Featured Image: Clearing V, 2009. Approximately 11 km of 12.7 mm aluminium tube. Installation view, Kunsthaus Bregenz, Austria © the Artist. Photo: Markus Tretter