The visual impact of Antony Gormley’s major new show, 'Second Body', is immediate; from his precise and densely packed arrangement of 60 orthogonal forms to his impenetrable, dimensional grid of steel.
But the British artist suggests that, in occupying all four halls of Thaddaeus Ropac’s gallery in Pantin, he is presenting four discrete assertions of art as 'space activators' — and that the combined effect is far more immersive. 'The distinction between endless space and absolute place; I think this is within all of us,' he told Wallpaper* during a preview. 'It’s that containment of being in the body but being able to see beyond it into infinity.'
Upon entry, visitors are confronted by a massive, peaked sculpture that stands four metres tall, its silhouette conflating house and body. To the immediate left is Expansion Field with its five-dozen Corten steel figures, ranging in mass from 150 kg to a half-tonne; they made their debut in a slightly different arrangement last fall at the Zentrum Paul Klee in Bern, yet Gormley says he had the dimensions of Ropac’s gallery in mind when they were first conceived. 'I’m using a third of the space here,' he explained, noting that the relationship of scale is as 'tight as it can be.'
Beyond Expansion Field, a series of towering cast iron 'stelae' that, despite their stacked cube formation, give a human impression. If visitors appear like children in the presence of what Gormely calls 'unstable vertical columns,' that’s precisely the point. 'By implication, they make you feel smaller and more vulnerable,' he continued. 'And yet here are these things that are curiously like child-like, like lego or blocks.'
To the right of the central hall, the installation titled Matrix II. Over the past three weeks, all 16 intersecting volumes have been constructed in situ. During our visit, craftsmen were still welding the rebar (the same 5 mm-thick metal used in cast concrete buildings), its blackened finish the result of tannic acid. At its centre: an apparent void, just large enough for two people to stand (in theory).
Whereas the experience of Expansion Field is akin to weaving through a maze of gigantic sentinels (a rather brilliant setting for hide-and-go-seek), Matrix II can only be experienced from the periphery. 'There’s nothing to recognise, no reading to be done,' Gormley said of the latter. 'Here is this environment revealed now in its skeletal form. Your body can’t penetrate it but your mind with its eyes can. And it’s a very illusory place—what’s background becomes foreground and vice versa.'
The challenge, he adds, is where and how to direct one’s focus. 'I recognise it’s quite a tall order for the uninitiated perhaps to feel the hermeticism of this when it’s so obviously not something to be read,' said the Turner Prize winner. Nonetheless, Matrix II prompts consideration of the human figure even if it suggests the artist at his least figurative; a cavity to contain two bodies seems impossible to locate amid such a dense and complex framework. As an installation that nearly fills its gallery, it is at once architectural and elemental; maybe it’s a habitat, maybe it depicts some sort of cosmic fabric.
The time-lapse video, meanwhile, captures the realisation of Matrix II three times every five minutes. Gormley, perhaps modestly, believes the final accumulation of images won’t offer much in the way of magic: 'You will just see human spiders at work on a three-dimensional web.'