Antony Gormley interview: Putting Britain on a pedestal

WHAT will happen this summer when six of Antony Gormley's iron figures take up residence along Edinburgh's Water of Leith, leading down to the sea?

I wonder, because the British public has a unique relationship with Gormley's work. It gets under our skin; we interact with it and virtually adopt it. People dressed his nude standing figures on Crosby Beach, and his monumental Angel of the North has been seen wearing Alan Shearer's jersey. Might the Edinburgh figures wind up sporting Jimmy caps or Saltire sarongs?

The figures, cast from Gormley's own body and currently under construction, were commissioned by the National Gallery of Modern Art roughly two years ago, but Gormley's love affair with Scotland goes back much further. He often visited friends when they lived in West Loch Tarbert, and returned to the capital at regular intervals while his son attended university here.

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The new project, Six Times, was very much inspired by its site, he says. "I have always enjoyed the fact that we've got this river running through a very highly dense urban environment. When you're down there, below Belford Road, you could be in the middle of the country, but in fact you're in the middle of town and yet there's a bit of nature running through it, in a chasm. The idea is to connect different parts of the city with this geological and botanical conduit and to relate it to the idea of culture and nature. The line starts at the National Museum of Modern Art, and ends up at the sea. The same cast is buried up to its neck in the ground at the museum and also facing out to sea and the open ocean, so it's also about freedom and containment, about settled life and the longing for wider horizons.

"The second casting looks down at the water, at the earth, and will be placed in the pool below the museum. Another one looks up to Stockbridge but also up to the sky. The fourth looks left towards a housing estate. The fifth looks right along the river and that last one looks straight, as the first one did."

Does it matter that people will see them individually, or does he envisage walking tours? "Whether you have actually seen them, whether you know that they're there, or whether you see them in sequence, memory has a lot to do with this, so this is about the way that present experience relates to knowledge.

"Essentially they are life moments that have been frozen in iron, which I think of as an earth material that has been concentrated through industrial processes – it's an industrially made fossil that captures a moment of lived time and embeds it in geological time. That object is then placed within, and exposed to, the elements. It's a singular work that deals with time. It will rust, so it will have its own organic relationship with that exposure, and it asks where do human beings fit in the greater scheme of things? Yes, we have a city, but here we have a body that is related to the elemental conditions of life."

But not only is Scotland getting its first-ever Gormley installation, Scottish residents are being invited to become a Gormley. There are 207 places set aside for Scots to participate in his One & Other project, scheduled to occupy the world's most famous empty pedestal – the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square – for 2,400 hours, from July through October. (For details on how to register your interest, see box on facing page). Gormley is keen that this shouldn't be a London-centric project. Regional headcounts were calculated according to demographics, and his aim is to create a portrait of modern Britain.

In a resonant voice emanating from deep within his tall, lean frame, Gormley says: "I would like to think that everybody living in or visiting Britain would think seriously about applying. It's very important that non-English speaking residents of Britain hear about it, and very different communities, whether it's in the Outer Hebrides or a Somalian recent immigrant family sitting round their kitchen table saying, 'OK, let's think about who's going to apply and what they might do.' I want it to be a cross-section of the extraordinary complexity of the UK now. It's never been more diverse and more energised."

Ultimately, though, it's in the hands of the computers, and it's not weighted for ethnicity. Even Gormley had to register, with no guarantee of success. Will efforts be made to ensure even numbers of men and women? "I never thought it was necessary, but maybe that's fair. I need to discuss that with (the creative producers], but the likelihood is that we will try to make it even.

"In a way, I don't think it matters whether you actually get chosen. What appeals to me is the idea of going up there and seeing what it's like. What happens when you become the object?"

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He has said that on the plinth, "the body becomes a metaphor, a symbol". I'm no fool, but "art speak" is often impenetrable. A symbol of what, exactly?

"You go from the continuum of daily life, which has its own imperatives, to inside the frame – on top of the plinth – which removes you from (them]. You become a representation. Whatever people do, the modification of behaviour necessary to cope with being that high and that isolated, will be read. There's an element of not just celebration but also testing what's happening here."

Testing what? "I don't know. Maybe I'm over-egging it," he says, and starts doodling over a printout of his schedule, creating an aerial diagram of the plinth surrounded by nets. He sketches CCTV cameras and lights in the corners, illustrating that whoever's on the plinth will have their "isolation" subjected to intense scrutiny.

"On one level you are on display, on another level you're also captured. It's an interesting tension between the celebratory and a certain sense of surveillance. It's an examination of the human condition in a very public arena."

Well, I say, Stuart Bennett, Edinburgh College of Art's associate head of sculpture, told this newspaper that not only is Gormley's idea less than radical, but it "chimes too much with celebrity culture and these terrible singing and dancing shows".

He giggles. "I think that's a very conventional response. We do live in a world that is filled with both CCTV cameras and all the mechanisms of the celebrity culture. The idea is to turn those idioms to more creative use. This isn't in any way like the X Factor or I'm a Celebrity… Get me Out of Here!, because there's no competition. We're not judging people by what they're telling us they're going to do up there.

"I don't think the purpose is to provide simply another arena for that kind of (exhibitionist] activity. It's an open question. What are we going to find out about ourselves through this process of making life inhabit the space of art, one hour at a time? I think my colleague should hold fire until (we] see how this space is actually inhabited and activated, and then make his judgement. I'm hoping we're all going to be surprised by the range."

What, I wonder, makes this art – and Gormley the artist – if others occupy the plinth? From the fleeting look of exasperation clouding his face I sense he's sick of such Philistine questions. Nevertheless, he patiently talks me through it.

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"The re-examination of how the body and art come together has been going on since the 1960s. A re-examination of the hierarchies and underlying attitudes towards sex and power kicked it off, and it's interesting that it was often female artists who were undermining gender attitudes. The structure of this work is conceptual and open-ended. It is an experiment and it deserves the status of art for those very reasons."

But if, as he once said, good art has to stand the test of time, what of the project's ephemeral nature? "I don't think it is ephemeral," he counters, pointing out that there will be a permanent public record.

John Cassy, channel manager for Sky Arts, a sponsor and media partner, explains there will be a continuous live stream online and a weekly "highlights" programme. "We'll look at the number of hits to see which bits are getting the most attention, and will also work out what gives viewers the best representation of the range and variety of what's happening."

An archive at the National Portrait Gallery will provide an encapsulated document of the event. Gormley says: "This is a work that uses time as its primary material. I would say art lives most potently in memory, not in space. We are better placed now than ever before to allow time to be a substance for sculpture, because our time-capturing technology is so advanced."

Ultimately, he's not fussed. If we don't consider this art, so be it. "I don't think that makes it less valid an enterprise. If they want to think of this as an extension of mass observation recalibrated to deal with the individual rather than the collective, that's fine."

Each participant will be "qualified and contexualised by everything that's happened before, even if they're unaware of it," he adds. "It's something I have been interested in for a long time, the tension between the 'me' and the 'we'. To what extent can you only talk from the position of the subject?

"You could say that the way in which we are sold our notion of selfhood results in a certain self-alienation. So there's a perverse way in which this project, for me, is an attempt to allow the most extreme forms of exposure and idealisation. Looking and being looked at. That is what I've been interested in all along."

Looking me straight in the eye he says, "I think we've probably talked long enough. It's a very simple idea."

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Maybe, maybe not. Standing on the plinth as part of an art experiment is certainly an exciting idea. I registered for it straight away.

Will you?


One & Other will run 24 hours a day for 100 days from 9 July through to 14 October.

There will be 2,400 participants, who will be chosen from applicants by a computer program that will select participants at random while representing the population density of different parts of the UK. There are 207 spaces reserved for people from Scotland. Participants must be aged 16 and over on 6 July 2009 and must live or be staying in the UK. The plinth will be accessible to those with disabilities.

Each participant will spend 60 minutes alone on the plinth. Volunteers may take equipment or props, provided they can carry it themselves. Registration is open. Anyone wishing to take part should sign up for more information at (which also has more details), or send a large, stamped self-addressed envelope (with stamps attached to the value of 1.08) to One & Other, c/o Artichoke, Toynbee Studios, 28 Commercial Street, London E1 6AB.