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Angela Tilby: Gormley’s simplicity of vision

25 January 2019

Adam Becket/Church Times

Sound II in the crypt of Winchester Cathedral

Sound II in the crypt of Winchester Cathedral

I HAVE been fascinated by Sir Antony Gormley’s sculptures since I first visited Angel of the North, the massive rust-coloured figure, completed in 1998, which now broods over the once industrial landscape near Gateshead.

A few weeks ago, I saw Gormley’s Sound II in the crypt of Winchester Cathedral. It is a life-size figure of a man with head bent forward, holding out a water bowl. The piece really makes sense only when the crypt is flooded and the figure stands in water. Pressure from inside the sculpture produces a stream that flows from his body into the bowl. But, on my visit, the dry winter had left the figure stranded on a bare floor, waiting for rain to fill the chalk aquifers and flood up from below.

Gormley is presenting a film, How Art Began, on BBC2 on Saturday. It is based on travels he made on his honeymoon to caves in the Pyrenees and the Dordogne. In the film, he explains that he believes that art was never a product of what we might call civilisation. Instead, it emerged naturally at the beginning of the human era, a “spilling over of energy”, which he relates to Henri Bergson’s concept of élan vital.

Gormley was brought up as a Roman Catholic. As a young man, he visited India and Afghanistan, where he became fascinated by Buddhist and Jain sculptures of the human form, and the sense of human transience and continuity to which they bear witness. Gormley’s strength has always been his simplicity of vision. He sees his work as a direct fallout from the attempt to understand the human condition. His sculptures are direct, accessible, and, above all, public, which is one reason that he is not so keen on art galleries. For him, contemporary art is all too often elitist, or over-concerned with the originality of the artist.

When I revisited Angel of the North two years ago, I found that it had become a shrine. Flowers, dolls, and photos of deceased loved ones were scattered beneath it, bearing witness to a continuing human need to connect with past and future, space and time. Angel, secular though it is, is somehow experienced as protecting both the living and the dead. I found myself reflecting on the probability that both religion and art go back to humanity’s beginnings. It is tragic that religion, as well as much of our art, has become a minority interest for enthusiasts.

One senses that the human spirit is fed neither by art nor religion at present. Meanwhile, like the figure in the Winchester crypt, we wait for the rain to come and the aquifers to fill again, in the hope that Jesus’s prophecy will be fulfilled: “Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.”

The Revd Angela Tilby is a Canon Emeritus of Christ Church, Oxford.

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