Where angels fear to tread

 

The sculptor Antony Gormley is one of relatively few artists who can claim to have created an enduring iconic image, in the form of his Angel of the North, a huge, fabricated-iron sculpture of an Angel that stands in the northeast of England. It's a benign, slightly elegiac guardian of a one-time industrial heartland and one of the most popular and successful public sculptures of the past few decades. Yet when the subject comes up he sighs and seems to slump down in his chair. "The Angel. The Angel is an albatross around my neck." He's not quite serious, but he's not quite joking either.

After a moment's thought, he continues. "It remains to be seen if it's a work of art at all, or whether it's just some kind of public phenomenon. Either way, it has very little to do with my more intimate concerns. I suppose it does mean something when people internalise it, if they know they saw it somewhere but are not sure where . . ."

His more intimate concerns are bound up with his personal, ongoing work. In this, he says, "I'm keen to know where arts fit into our lives in a broad sense. Is it a minor irritant, something the newspapers can pin human-interest stories on? Are artists simply mad people who sell strange things for stupid money, or is there still a job art can do?"

What might that job be? "It might be to give a visual focus to people's hopes and fears. I still hope that's true, that art isn't just a marginal activity. It's very exciting that in England there's been this huge seachange, whether it has to do with the Turner Prize, the Tate Modern, the Walsall Gallery or whatever, but everyone's heard of (Damien) Hirst's shark and has an opinion on (Rachael) Whiteread's house."

He hasn't mentioned the part he has played in this, by creating the Angel. In fact, recently Turner prize-jury chairman Sir Nicholas Serota cited the Angel's pivotal role in raising the public consciousness of contemporary art at the beginning of his Richard Dimbleby Lecture Who's Afraid of Modern Art? When pressed, Gormley does acknowledge his own role, despite his mixed feelings about the Angel.

"What's interesting is that for the first time on this windy little island we're celebrating contemporary culture - something that's happening now - rather than heritage." But he disagreed with Serota's reading of the Angel. "He saw it as a symbol of regeneration and I don't want it to be seen as that. It's a big, sad object on one level, and its pathos is its strength."

Almost all his work has its basis in plaster-casts of his own body. His physical fabric is dispersed all over the studio. With three assistants, he's trying to devise a way of making a honeycomb-skinned version of himself, working from the inside of half a body-cast. A complete, fresh mould stands like a ghost. Another, sawn into numerous horizontal sections, is spread out on the ground like a fossil reconstruction.

Cupboard shelves are lined with moulds of miscellaneous body parts, and other, pod-like versions of him lean against the wall, like something from Invasion of the Body Snatchers. There are several extraordinary curled-up foetal figures consisting entirely of skins of shimmering, iridescent ball bearings, and many of a new series that seems to currently excite him, the Quantum Clouds.

These are variously nebulous constructions of short sections of steel in which the body is implied, sometimes hardly at all, sometimes in the form of dense linear clusters.

"It's an attempt to make the viewer part of the making process." That is, "like Leonardo looking at clouds and seeing things emerge", the viewer looks at these ambiguous, dancing forms and constructs the figures implied within them - or perhaps doesn't. In a way, they are like visualisations of string theory, which suggests that everything is at root composed of short, vibrating strings.

Gormley had in mind Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, the impossibility of measuring a particle's position and momentum because of the wave-particle duality of physical reality. He likes the idea that the intervention of the observer changes the outcome of the experiment. If we focus on the figure, the quantum cloud disappears, and vice versa. "It unhitches the cause and effect dialectic."

Previously, he feels, "everything in my work revolved around an obsession with the body-space dichotomy. The body declares itself in distinction to everything else. In the Quantum Clouds, space and things are part of each other." Still, these works also have their origins in body casts. His own body is invariably the starting point.

"That remains the essential point of truth. The foundation of the work is life, I'm trying to bear witness to what it feels like to be alive - maybe to be human as well, but alive anyway - in this moment of lived experienced time, captured like a footprint in wet cement."

A work from 1979 is unfolded on the floor of the studio he uses for drawing. White paint outlines his body, the head disappears off the edge of what looks like canvas. "It's actually a hospital blanket," he explains. "In a way, I think this is still what my work is about, identifying the place of the body, looking at the body not as an object but as a place.

"The body is at rest and the head is liberated, the idea being that we escape from the site of the body in dream and imagination. It's an absence that is actual."

For him, his most satisfactory large-scale project has been a hugely ambitious temporary installation at the mouth of the River Elbe. "It was a wonderful site, a busy shipping lane, a beach that people use all the time. It confirmed for me that art can infiltrate these spaces, it can be at home in the context of real life." What he did was to site 100 iron figures in and out of the water along a several-kilometre stretch of seafront. The effect, as recorded in documentary photographs, was stunning. A series of mysterious sentinels disappearing into the water.

Looking at images of these figures - "you could walk out towards the horizon and look back and see them as witnesses to you. I liked that" - he returns to the Angel. "They wanted a trophy and it was designed as that. People see it as a trophy. But there is a paradox or ambiguity about it. It's more a grounded, cruciform presence than a transcendent being, with intimations of elegy and suffering.

"The second part of it, besides being a trophy, is that it is an epitaph for the fact that we don't make things any more. We can make things but we choose not to." He pauses and smiles, acknowledging the busy sounds of industry rising from the studio workshop below. The wider cultural choice may have been made, but clearly he hasn't yet given up making things.

Antony Gormley will speak on Thursday in Sligo at a conference on public art called Placing Art - an International Colloqium on Public Art in Rural, Coastal and Small Urban Environments, on December 6th-7th at the Model Arts and Niland Gallery, Sligo. Phone 071 41405 for information.

The opening address will be by Professor Luke Gibbons of Notre Dame University, US