Nearly everybody in the Western world, particularly the United Kingdom, must be familiar with Gormley’s humanoid sculptures by now. His work has been fairly overexposed, the figures on the beach, the strangers, the Angel of the North. This might lead critics to mistakenly believe that there is nothing new to be seen in a Gormley exhibition, nothing new in his oeuvre. These critics should head to the White Cube if they want to be proved wrong.
The main rooms of the gallery have been taken over by Gormley’s benevolent subjects. They appear as friendly guardians, keepers of some secret, inherent knowledge. His figures, though pared down to the least number of shapes possible, are strangely more human than, say, a hyperrealist Chuck Close or Ron Mueck portrait. There is a different kind of intimacy here, an affinity with the interior silent parts of our self. Gormley’s figures are content to be isolated, they are self absorbed and inward looking. Yet we negotiate the space differently now they are around, this space clearly belongs to them, and we sense that they don’t wish to be disturbed.
South Gallery 1 contains rows of tables full of the artist’s experiments, test runs and sketches. This is evidence of his meticulous testing, plotting and recalculating, the remains of an ingenious mind at play. It’s a curious room full of stuff to feast the eyes on; a cross between Jenga and Transformers meets a school design lab. What Gormley does best is showcase the infinite representative potential of a few geometric shapes. The large central table delightfully illustrates this with its wooden orange and grey characters, starling in their simplicity.
The main attraction, though, is the show’s namesake Model (2012). Sat inside the main exhibition room of White Cube is a hulking metal carcass, a playground for the grown-up child in all of us. Once you’ve signed your life away on a waiver form (low ceilings + sheet metal + dark spaces = a potential health and safety quagmire) you can enter inside this huge body, passing through the feet into the shadowy interior spaces. You’ll pass through chasms of lights, where the just visible loftier parts of the body are begging to be climbed on and explored, and dark tunnels where you can barely see in front of your hand.
This space makes you greedy; you want it all to yourself, a giant den of a man, all of the reverberations, reflections, unyielding surfaces and dark holes to hide in. The interior creates a comforting presence, not male or female, just human and protective. If you venture as far as you can go you’ll find yourself at the end of the road, in the inner sanctum, the most secretive space of the body, the furtive womb (or perhaps gender-neutral stomach). It is DARK in here, so dark you can’t tell whether you are alone in there or not. Still, there is no room for fear in this darkness, this is no Miroslaw Balka work. Gormley crucially understands people, and their reactions to and negotiations with spaces and places.
I left with the regret of a child leaving a magical, newly discovered play space at the end of a holiday, and a persistent (still-lingering) headache from thwacking my head on one of the low hanging tunnel walls. Go, but don’t become so mesmerised that you forget to look where you’re going!
On display until 10th February 2013.