One of Antony Gormley’s life-sized, cast-iron sculptures, molded from his own body, silently stands still at the junction between two of the busiest roads in Hong Kong: Queen’s Road Central and D’Aguilar Road. Its odd appearance—whether it is its above-average height (by Asian standards) or the stark contrast between its stance and the fast-paced buzz of commercial activities in the neighborhood—has undoubtedly generated much amusement among passersby. Many pause what they’re doiong to photograph, observe and interact with the figure. One person has reportedly gone as far as filing a public complaint about the artwork being an “obstruction.” While the British artist’s sculpture has successfully broken up our daily routine and encouraged audience engagement, Gormley’s intention goes much deeper into the quest of critical thinking.
In November 2015, Gormley’s installation Event Horizon (2007) debuted in Hong Kong. Consisting of 31 sculptures, they are displayed on both the street and building rooftops across a one-kilometer-wide zone within Hong Kong’s Central and Western districts. Gormley conceptualized the work back in 2007 and premiered it that year in London. According to a report by the United Nations Population Fund, 2007 was a period when, for the first time in history, over half of the world’s population was recorded to be living in urban areas. Gormley’s sculptures, seen against the luminous sky and the condensed environment of Hong Kong, probed viewers to question how man-made environments relate to our inherited earth. Gormley does not offer an answer—only a method that may help us to find one, which is to look around at familiar places in a new way. In encountering his sculptures, one is compelled to stop reacting to the “world of obligation” for a moment and shift one’s perspectives towards our imagination. Like the stillness in Gormley’s iron human figures, the flow of our daily life comes to a momentary standstill, and we are able to be more aware of the space that exists within and outside of us.
The Turner Prize-winning sculptor explains that there are two paths in his work. One is to “make instruments that allow the individual to experience consciousness in a new way,” as evidenced in Blind Light (2007), a glass room filled with clouds created by oscillating ultrasonic humidifiers, which produce an environment where participants begin to lose sense of self upon entering the space. The other path, according to Gormley, is to “make human-scale models of the space within a body.” Gormley’s sculptures of human form are distinctively different from the canonical narrative of Western sculpture. Unlike Auguste Rodin, whose works are often praised as “perfectly chiselled,” Gormley’s sculpted body in Event Horizon is not intended to be a figurative image, nor an icon to be used for its symbolic or narrative purposes. It is, for Gormley, a particular, subjective human form that indicates the register of a specific casting experience—a lived moment of a body, as well as an objective place which serves as a reflexive conduit that projects a universal state of being.
In choosing the abstract body as his medium to communicate the significant awareness of being, Gormley cautiously reveals certain qualities of Buddhism in his work. Resembling the practice of meditation, it is in connecting with the stillness and silence of the sculpted bodies that the preoccupied mind becomes free from action—namely, walking, thinking and having an effect on the world. Such state of mind is limitless, full of potential. Tibetans call it the “sky nature” mentality. Moreover, it is the essence of the Buddhist doctrine Sati (“mindfulness”) that the awareness of being is not limited to an individual consciousness that is isolated; rather, it embraces all living things, whether that is the life of a tree or a blade of grass, or the movement of air within our atmosphere or strangers passing by. Having made the choice to pursue a career as an artist over the spiritual life of a monk and meditator within the Theravada tradition, Gormley is now bringing an aspect of Buddhism to the streets of Hong Kong, asking for a kind of empathy that arises from an awareness toward the connectivity of all things.
Transcending the formal qualities of a gallery exhibition, Event Horizon—the largest and most prolific public art installation in Hong Kong—promptly integrates into the daily lives of people, slipping in and out of their vision. We are reminded that it is only in the last 500 years, in Western terms, that art has become singularly about high-valued decoration and the elite. Unlike other artworks that often hang elegantly against spotless, white walls, Gormley offers a form of art that is an open-ended process for the public to freely participate in. Here, the art is in what happens when we engage with the figures during a moment of “being.”
“Event Horizon” presented by The British Council will remain a part of the Hong Kong cityscape until May 18, 2016.