The very big fellow


Antony Gormley is the latest international star to lend his hand to transforming Dublin's riverscape, writes Aidan Dunne, Art Critic

One could be forgiven for thinking there was a certain air of inevitability to the news that sculptor Antony Gormley is to create a major public artwork for Dublin's Docklands. After all, high-profile architects Daniel Libeskind and Manuel Aires Mateus, and landscape architect Martha Schwartz are already on board, while, some way upriver, there's Santiago Calatrava's James Joyce Bridge. What more logical than to stick with the international A-list when it comes to those who weave the contemporary urban fabric? On the other hand, you could argue, if you just round up the usual suspects you'll end up with an identikit city.

But it has to be said that, with his plan for a 48m-high figure emerging dramatically from the River Liffey, Gormley has come up with a striking, original and challenging design.

Furthermore, he was awarded the commission by a wide-ranging selection panel from a short-list of six invited artists, Irish and international, all of high standing. Dorothy Cross, Andrew Kearney, Thomas Schütte, Grace Weir and Luis Jiménez also submitted detailed proposals (though, sadly, Jiménez subsequently died).

Patricia Quinn chaired the steering committee, which was devised to represent the arts and local communities, the city and the Dublin Docklands Development Authority (DDDA). Among its members are Dublin City Council arts officer Jack Gilligan, Royal Hibernian Academy director Patrick T Murphy, ex-Imma director Declan MacGonagle, Betty Ashe of St Andrew's Resource Centre on Pearse Street, and public art specialist Annette Moloney.

NOR HAS THE DDDA consistently gone for international celebrity names for high-profile projects. Cyril O'Neill's design for the Sean O'Casey Bridge won out over all-comers, for example. Meanwhile, Schwartz's design for Grand Canal Square is up and running, and so far it's proving to be a user-friendly facility. Work has just commenced on Libeskind's Grand Canal Theatre, so that the overall shape of the project is becoming apparent. Schwartz's plaza unrolls a red carpet - composed of vivid resin glass paving - between the theatre and Grand Canal Basin, studded with lopsided red poles and flanked by planting in raised beds.

In Dublin during the week to unveil the first images of his sculpture, Gormley was evidently delighted that he had won the commission, even though he's not exactly short of work. Tall, rangy and perennially youthful - he was born in 1950 - he discusses his work with a mixture of boyish enthusiasm and supreme self-confidence. He is probably most famous for Angel of the North, the monumental figure near Gateshead, which was completed in 1998 and, weathering initial scepticism, has become one of the best-known and most fondly regarded art landmarks in Europe.

The piece that meant most to him as an artist, however, was his earlier Field for the British Isles. Exhibited as part of his Imma exhibition here in 1993, it consists of about 35,000 rudimentary, individual clay figurines, hand-pressed by members of the public. A startling evocation of a collective social body, it was instrumental in winning him the Turner Prize in 1994. "It came out of a personal crisis," he says now. "I went back to first principles and started over. I felt the romantic view of the artist, as someone standing apart from and remaking the world, was no longer tenable. It was a betrayal of what art could do. Art is nothing without being experienced and shared. And I wanted to start again on that basis."

Most of his work is based in one way or another on casts taken from his own body. "Some people think you must be a narcissist to do that, to have these casts of yourself everywhere," he acknowledges. Some 31 of them were distributed throughout London recently as part of his Hayward Gallery show, Blind Light. But it's not about him per se. He is one of several artists who made the decisive shift away from making images of bodies in space to working with traces and residues of the body itself as a site of experience. His own body, he reasoned, is how he experiences the world, and he set out to materialise this place of being, to get beyond an art of appearances.

His proposed Docklands sculpture manages the difficult feat of being both monumental in scale - a figure rising 48m from the River Liffey - and really subtle in terms of its physical presence. The secret is in the engineering, hence the role of Ove Arup's memorably named "advanced geometry unit" in the project. Lest we class them as number-crunching backroom boffins, it's as well to remember that the unit features such luminaries in their own right as Cecil Balmond and Tristan Simmons, the kind of people who are shaping the world your children will live in.

Gormley is also keen to credit the Irish physicists Prof Denis Weaire and Prof Robert Phelan, who early in the 1990s had the initiative to revive a problem that had preoccupied Lord Kelvin a hundred years earlier. How, that is, to fill a space with cells of equal volume and minimal surface area. His solution, a "soap bubble foam" of 14-sided polyhedra, stood for a century, until the advent of the Weaire-Phelan structure, which employs two different kinds of polyhedron. It may sound abstract, but the practical engineering implications are enormous, to the extent that the Weaire-Phelan structure underpins the design of the Aquatic Centre for the Beijing Olympics.

IT ALSO UNDERPINS Gormley's Docklands figure, which rises from a narrow base in the water and might therefore, one suspects, blow over. But it will be constructed in an open latticework pattern, a "bubble matrix" that is "holistically engineered" to withstand stresses and strains. The openness and transparency of the structure is central to Gormley's intentions. He resisted the idea of a stainless steel finish (too generic a material, he feels) preferring to coat the steel in tar, so that the figure will be "like a charcoal drawing against the sky, changing as your position changes in relation to it. Up close you will see through it, in the distance it will cohere into a bodily image."

It is, he says, "a tentative structure, mercurial, slightly indeterminate". Rather than being a massive, monumental presence in the landscape, "it will be an extension of the place, so that the human body is seen in relation to the social body, as a matrix of connectivity in collective space". In terms of techniques and materials, he also says he is "trying to make something that is unequivocally of its time". And it has to be said that the work's structural elegance, if it lives up to the image, could well make the Angel of the North look distinctly dated.

Gormley, Arup and the DDDA all feel that the sculpture should be fabricated in Ireland, though they say it's difficult to find a contractor capable of taking on such a project. If planning permission is granted and a contractor is found, construction could begin next year. It will take an estimated eight months and cost something in the region of €1.6 million.

Gormley is confident that it will all work out. What, for him personally, is the most important aspect of the project? "In the heroic story of Modernism, artists thought they were emancipating the tools of art from the strictures of representation, making something that could be everyone's. Instead, they ended up being implicated in the institutionalisation of modernity. I think the greatest thing we can try to do now is to take the freedom that art gained in the 20th century and offer it back to the viewer, to make work that really can be everyone's."