“Hong Kong is a very good place to think about the human habitat. Why has our species chosen to concentrate itself in these high density environments, and what does that tell us about our relationship to our fellow humans?” ponders British Sculptor Sir Antony Gormley, who credits the SAR as the inspiration for his exhibition ‘States and Conditions’ at Hong Kong’s White Cube Gallery.
“The production of these spaces is due to the industrialisation of habitat. Most of them conform to the way that materials are processed and how they can be transported. They’re actually more to do with the convenience of production as opposed to human need. In pre- industrial, pre-modern societies, there were hardly any straight lines. The industrialisation of our habitat has happened very rapidly over the last 150 years. I guess I’m asking what the effect of that is, what does it make us feel, and how alienated do we become as a result of these processes?”
‘States and Conditions’ is the antithesis of a conventional exhibition. Rather than filling the gallery’s walls with visually pleasing objets d’art with the intent to sell, Gormley transforms the gallery space into an experiential testing ground, with the hopes that viewers can then go out onto the street and look at their environment in a different way.
A total of eleven sculptures, including six new works created specially for the exhibition, are placed tactically throughout White Cube gallery, including in its stairways and narrow passages. Ease (2012), a collapsed blockwork resembling a resting body, blocks the main entrance of the gallery while more linear works, like abstract steel sculptures Secure (2012) and Transfer (2011), were installed in the middle of White Cube Gallery’s upper corridor and library.
Serving the purpose of an obstruction, Secure and Transfer interfere with the traditional order of the gallery space, and creating a sort of minimalist fun house that encourages awareness in viewers of their position in space and time.
“I hope that by taking the physical space of the gallery as the primary material and catalyzing it through these inert objects, which, as I was suggesting, have their own logic of construction, somehow alters the way a viewer passes through these built spaces, and making that experience the subject and the purpose of the exhibition. So the thing that happens to people as they move through these spaces is the point of the show, not the objects.”
Gormley, who is widely recognised for his iconic piece ‘Angel of The North’, a 20 metre (66 foot) tall steel sculpture of an angel, with wings measuring 54 metres (177 feet) across in Gateshead, England, is no stranger to producing behemoth sculptures. His piece de resistance of ‘States and Conditions’ is Murmur, a multiple ‘space frame’ constructed of stained stainless steel tubes, which takes up the entire lower floor of White Cube. The artist encourages viewers to enter the Murmur, and ponder the idea of objects of power and the power of objects. Preferably when the gallery is empty to allow for deep self reflection.
“In my view openings are the best way to ignore art. The whole principle is to use the show as a space and if there are bodies all over the place it won't work as well. It is the viewer's movement through the coordinates of the space of the gallery that is the real subject. It is what is happening within the viewer, not the objects in the gallery,” Gormley explains. “We have the space, we have the object and then we have the viewer. The viewer has the freedom of movement, thought and feeling so the idea was to make these conceptual spaces into some kind of psychological and sociological testing grounds.”
All of Gormley’s work acts, in some way, as instruments for the perception and awareness of space, time, and come from a captured moment of highly intense conscious being.
In his essay ‘Sculpture of Mindfulness’, Gormley, a practising and devout Buddhist, writes that “primarily the practice of meditation, but also the artefacts associated with the thought field of Buddhism - has influenced me. It was Buddhism, rather than the western canon, which gave me the idea of the abstract body. It gave me the idea that you can make sculpture about being rather than doing.”
With no active protagonist and no obvious narrative to portray his story or intentions, the quiet genius of Gormley’s work allows viewers the opportunity for internal exploration while acting as, in his own words, “a very positive catalyst for somehow being in the world more effectively.”
“You like the word ‘catalyst’ don’t you?” I ask Gormley, taking note of its frequent use throughout his artist talk.
“I like the word because a catalyst doesn’t do anything. It doesn’t change itself; it affects change,” Gormley responds. It’s an inert chemical that causes the conditions around it to change and I think that’s exactly what art can be. You can choose to ignore it, in fact you can refuse to use it, but it’s there waiting for those that can.”