They are strange, jagged shapes that resemble root structures or perhaps trees stripped down by the inhospitable blast of a desert sun – and they are dotted around a barren white gallery space in Central. Haunting, abstract and angular in a beautiful, almost robotic way, they look like something out of a set from a dystopian film that bridges the dusty post-apocalypse scenes of Mad Max with the digital imagery of disarray and immaterial realities redolent of the Matrix franchise.
But what they evoke isn’t overwhelmingly cinematic and postmodern. There’s a sense of motion to the structures, some of which awake feelings of bombastic free-fall that seem to reference the Italian movement of futurists that arose with the rise of new technologies around the turn of the 20th century. That was a time of intense hope alongside intense anxiety that saw artists playing with Nietzschean ideals around the superhuman, which unfortunately chimed well with dogmas of despotic utopianism propagated by Mussolini’s fascists and Hitler’s Nazis.
These totalitarian rulers went on to co-opt that aesthetic to peddle ideals that brought about a dismal chapter in history. This chapter put an end to the Enlightenment school of reasoning that saw technological progress come hand in hand with sound ethics. This trust in human advancement was espoused by German philosopher Hegel, meditated on by Goethe and later derailed by critics Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno of the Frankfurt School, who drew connections between the rise of mass culture and production with humanity’s increasing adroitness at setting in motion forces that would bring about its own annihilation.
These intensely evocative sculptures have been made from cast iron, out of a mould of the body of British artist Antony Gormley. This is not the first time Gormley’s effigies have implanted themselves on Hong Kong soil. In 2015, the artist brought to the city a series of thirty-one eerie sculptures dotted around the public arena in unexpected places, perched on skyscrapers or standing among the sea of people hastening towards the MTR.
That project, Event Horizon, which swept through London, New York and São Paulo before landing in Hong Kong, invited viewers to address the question of what it means to be human while embedded in the increasingly all-consuming urban spaces that surround us and define our experiences of being alive and living together. That’s a question that might well be just as pressing, if not more so, in hyperdense, hyper-vertical Hong Kong as it in Gormley’s sprawling London, where life takes a slightly different, less suffocating rhythm.
Born in London in 1950, and having attended a Catholic boarding school run by Benedictine monks up in Yorkshire, Gormley completed a degree in Archaeology, Art History and Anthropology at Trinity College in Cambridge. He later studied at art schools Central Saint Martins, and then the Slade School of art where he completed a postgraduate course in sculpture. He has continued to keep London as his base, despite enjoying projects that take his work and practise around the world. He has a particular interest in Asia, having as a young man spent two years in India studying vipassana meditation that would open a new world of philosophies to the ever-curious artist. That globetrotting, border-crossing spirit has seen his influence spread with his rise in prominence in the art world.
His structures have been embedded in the landscapes of southern Italy, New Zealand, Alaska, and a sleepy northern Norwegian town called Mo i Rana, to name a few examples. With works collected by Hong Kong’s upcoming M+ museum of visual culture, and with a sculpture featured in the city’s current pop-up sculpture park on the harbourfront, alongside his legacy with Event Horizon, his investment in Hong Kong is significant.
“Hong Kong is a hive, there’s so much energy to the city,” he said as he introduced his work in a talk in White Cube gallery. “I’m interested in the question, what does it mean about us living in our designed environments? And Hong Kong is one of the most extreme examples we have of a highly articulated grid.”
That curiosity in the city, and what it means and feels like to live here on a multi-sensory level, manifests itself in how he spends his time when he comes here. On the day of the opening of the exhibit, which coincided with the carnival of champagne-glass clinking that is art week, Gormley enjoyed lunch in a quiet, no-fuss dai pai dong, showing up late for his own opening because he was too busy savouring the real flavours of his host city.
“Antony feels very connected to Hong Kong,” says White Cube curator Andrea Schlieker, who has known and has worked alongside Gormley for almost a quarter of a century. “He loves the food, all the textures, the fish stomachs, the duck tongues. He likes to know the essence of a place through food, and likes to eat what people eat. He lives very much in the real world, and he likes talking to people, asking them questions at lengths. He has the unrelenting curiosity of a child.”
Schlieker has been working with Gormley since the artist produced one of his most significant works, which lies in Gateshead, a town near Newcastle in the north of England. Called the Angel of the North, the steel 20 metre structure has a 54 metre wingspan, surpassing that of the Boeing 747. Completed in 1998, the imposing structure pays homage to the coal miners who once worked there while serving as a monument to the point in time which has seen humanity transition from an industrial to an information age, while also serving as a bellwether for hope and faith in humanity as it undergoes these colossal changes.
That sense of hope in humanity and grounded belief in its capacity to rise above challenges, despite the more disturbing twists and turns in its history, runs through Gormley’s career, which draw on difficult subjects including the state of the planet to the shifting mechanism of world order that seems to be approaching entropy. “I’m interested in the potential of art and sculpture as a place in which we can find self-determination in a world that is becoming increasingly institutionalised and determined by economies, given the failures of politics and religion,” he says. “I’m interested in liberating people from the hierarchies of control, and reinforcing the sovereignty of everyone one of us.”
Antony Gormley Hong Kong 2018 runs at White Cube until May 19, 2018.