Steel yourself for metal guru Antony Gormley’s Royal Academy blockbuster

Steel yourself for metal guru Antony Gormley’s Royal Academy blockbuster

The British sculptor takes you through a room brambled with steel spindles, inside pitch-black tunnels, before platooning you in a room filled with seawater

Antony Gormley’s blink-and-you’ll miss it Iron Baby (1999) greets the hoards of culture vultures already circling London’s Royal Academy of Arts, ahead of his anticipated self-titled exhibition. Its foetal form, cowering on the Annenberg Courtyard floor, snatches your breath as you enter the RA. ‘I just want to go and cover him up with a blanket,’ says someone. ‘It’s going to be a trip hazard,’ jokes another. And so the tone is set for Gormley’s 17-room exhibition, that will literally and figuratively have you on the wrong foot.

Try to find a quiet time to experience it if you can. It’s how the artist – a student of Buddhist meditation – would no doubt want you to experience it. But, despite the crowds, a calming aura settles on each installation. It’s in part down to the Enlightenment-era galleries themselves, which are equal parts imposing and meditative. Gormley was intimately involved in all aspects of the three-year long curation process (as is common with solo exhibitions at the artist-run institution) and he puts the existing architecture to great use.

Indeed, work has been undertaken to reinforce the historic galleries’ floors and walls in anticipation of Gormley’s large-scale sculptures and installations. The Main Galleries have become an armature for sculptural experiment. The veining on the ornate marble-arched doors echoes the rust marks on Gormley’s statues in Lost Horizon I, that sprout from the walls, floor and ceiling, forming a metal forest of faceless men. Elsewhere, in the RA’s grandest gallery, miles upon miles of meshwork in Matrix III (2019) builds ever denser, like a cloud formation before a storm, underneath a vast glass skylight.

Matrix III, 2019, by Antony Gormley. Photography: Jessica Klingelfuss

Few new works are present in the exhibition, but all feel fresh in their site-specificity, even for those who are familiar with them. Each is mesmeric in its intense physicality, playing with spatial awareness and perception – a testament to Gormley’s curatorial sensitivity. He has compared the challenges of any particular site to the resistance of marble for the sculptor who carves. No piece exhibits this more than the penultimate one, a giant steel tomb that you can physically enter, seeking pockets of light that reveal themselves as you crawl. Groping your way through the womb-like dark, you come out the other side, and – passing a room flooded with seawater – eventually, into the blinking light of the courtyard. Here, you’re reunited with the Iron Baby you saw on the way in, and brim with a new kind of kinship with it.

It’s easy to be bedazzled, and somewhat distracted, by the large format sculpture on display, but the drawings and small paintings are not to be skimmed over. Handpicked by the artist, they present some of his quieter moments, directly from his 45-year archive. They dart between philosophical musings on quantum mechanics that resemble an architect’s blueprints. Like pages ripped from a diary, they offer intimate insight into Gormley’s thinking – on urbanism, on the body, on our relationship with nature.

With such edifying themes being covered, Gormley was keen to keep a close eye on the commercial arm of the exhibition. And although you exit through the gift shop, a reading room has been planted in-between, with the intention of offering visitors pause for thought after what is a dizzying display. Gormley has edited the shop’s product collection, including a stationary collaboration with Muji (Gormley uses its notebooks daily), a cycling jacket with London brand Rapha (the artist is a keen cyclist), and a limited-edition fragrance by famed nose Azzi Glasser. §

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