For Antony Gormely, the human body is an elemental space that has great potential. We come from the human body and live within it, in a space that is objectless and limitless. For this reason, given the huge space of Florence’s Forte Belvedere for an important installation this summer, he continues to use the form he’s been experimenting with since his beginnings as an artist: the human body. The show, called Humans, consists of 103 life-size forms: 60 casts of the artist’s own body, and 43 of his “blockworks”.
Gormley is one of those few contemporary artists who is truly a great speaker and writer, an informed theorist who doesn’t spout nonsense, which is probably why he’s been awarded so many prizes, like the Turner Prize in 1994, and he’s also a freshly minted knight (2014). Which is why it’s a pleasure to have a fleshed out artist’s statement on this occasion to help us understand what we’re looking at.
About the Forte Belvedere, he says:
“The Forte di Belvedere, its function as defensive fortress and its expression of temporal power are the basis of this exhibition. Overlooking Florence, a city that typifies an urban ideal, this site offers a place in which to consider how architecture serves to shelter, protect and dominate people and space. The Forte is an extraordinary example of a terraforming: a natural hill transformed by Ferdinando de’ Medici into an artefact. It has a long association with contemporary art and has often been used as a monumental context for monumental sculptures. Rather than attempt to insert works that try to match the scale of the site, I have chosen to exhibit works that are lifesize and that will allow the mass and form of this remarkable construction to speak.”
I spoke with curator Sergio Risaliti about how the artist has used this space and he points out that it’s the first time since the building’s reopening in 2013 that we can also visit the back of the building (as well as the inside), where works are placed everywhere, always in rapport with the landscape.
“The front doesn’t correspond to the back. In the front we admire and confront ourselves with the Renaissance city and also its modern part, the vast suburbs, but the magnetic point remains the magnificent cupola by Brunelleschi. On the back we have this anthropomorphized landscape, an ideal landscape that everyone is jealous of — Florence and Chianti’s hills. A landscape that represents a harmony between man and the land.
If you look at how the human figures that Gormley has created, even and especially those egg-like ones that are closed up upon themselves, they are in a dialogue with the architecture of the city — like the Cupola which is the image of the ‘sacred egg’ or the primordial element. There’s a comparison between organic and purely geometric.”
Despite this perfect correspondence, the exhibition is not entirely site-specific: that is, these are works that already existed before and have been displayed elsewhere, but here they are arranged differently and take on new meaning. In fact, Risaliti says it’s an almost retrospective exhibition so it’s an opportunity to get to know Gormley’s work. The earlier works are in an archaic style, more recognizable as human figures, and they were taken directly from the artist’s body as a model; the more recent ones, the blocky geometric ones, Risaliti describes as “verging on the cybernetic and connected to the scientific discoveries of this age. They are figures that seem almost to be from the future… they are futuribili.”
The focus-point of the exhibition is located on the bastion of the fortress that overlooks the city, where there are two installations facing east and west. They are made up of a series of 12 iron casts of the artist’s body (bodyforms) in different positions, each cast five times, and arranged in two completely different ways, showing that the base ingredient can produce entirely different results. The artist can explain it better than I can, and it’s a most fascinating contrast that he has built up here:
“At the core of the exhibition there are two arrangements of the work Critical Mass II (1995). This work comprises twelve body forms, each cast five times to produce a total number of sixty works that can exist in any orientation. Critical Mass identifies a number of basic body postures from the contemplative to the supplicant, from the mourning to the deferential, from the position of a man who awaits an order to the dreamer. On the east side of lower terrace of the Forte the twelve body forms of Critical Mass are installed in a linear progression, from foetal to stargazing, recalling the ‘ascent of man’. On the opposite side is a jumbled pile of the same bodies. Here, as abandoned manufactured iron objects, each ten times the specific gravity of a living human body, they reflect the shadow side of any idea of human progress, confronting the viewer with an image redolent of the conflict of the past century.”
Risaliti tells me one bastion is that of sunrise, and the other of sunset, but one leads always to the next, in a natural process of regeneration. Either way, it creates what Gormley calls a “dialectic between aspirational and abject.” You get this sense both with these larger installations and with the figures placed in the rooms of the fortress, which are lit only with the naturally dramatic sunlight streaming in. One geometric block figure is relegated to a corner, curled up in a fetal position, and I can immediately imagine what it is feeling and thinking, even if the body has been reduced to what looks and feels like cinder blocks.
Human is a true gift to the city. Gormley’s deep reflections on the relationship of the human project to time and space are given a further dimension when considered in relationship to the city that birthed Humanism, in which people like Pico della Mirandola or Lorenzo de’ Medici thought about the very things the artist wants us to think about here: who we are and how we negotiate the space around us.
Forte Belvedere, Florence
April 25 to September 27, 2015
Open daily 10am to 8pm, except Mondays. Entrance is free.