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Installation view of ANTONY GORMLEY’s Blind Light, 2007, fluorescent light, water, ultrasonic humidifiers, toughened low-iron glass and aluminum, 320 × 978.5 × 856.5 cm, at “Blind Light,” Hayward Gallery, London, 2007. Photo by Stephen White. Copyright and courtesy the artist.

Htein Lin on Antony Gormley

Also available in:  Chinese

I was crossing London’s Waterloo Bridge on a bus to visit friends who worked for the BBC Burmese Service, which operates out of Bush House, when I caught a glimpse of a man standing on the pavement, looking as though he had just emerged from the River Thames. His body appeared to be coated with brown mud. On my return journey, I realized that the figure was a statue, and spotted another one perched on the roof of the nearby Hayward Gallery where Antony Gormley’s solo exhibition “Blind Light” was on view. 

It was 2007. I had moved from Yangon to London the year before, at the age of 40, and finally had the opportunity to learn more about the international contemporary art scene. Curious, I visited the gallery, and to this day I remember the installation that gave the show its name: Blind Light (2007), a room full of fog through which viewers groped their way, as we do, metaphorically, in our daily lives.  

Another one of Gormley’s works that has stuck with me is Bed (1980–81). I first encountered the sculpture, which is part of the Tate collection, at Tate Liverpool in 2008. Hundreds of slices of bread are stacked in low columns to evoke a double mattress. The artist spent several weeks eating away at the chunks of bread, eventually leaving a void in the shape of two bodies. I was impressed by the concept of a sculptor consuming a material to create negative space.

I further connected with Gormley’s work in 2009 when he was awarded the empty Fourth Plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square. For the occasion, he created the 100-day event One & Other (2009), which involved different participants occupying the plinth for an hour in whatever way they liked. These volunteers were recruited via an online lottery system. I applied, of course, but was unsuccessful. I later learned that Gormley himself had also submitted his name and was not selected. Those whose names were drawn were lifted by a crane onto the plinth for their time in the spotlight. Several of my friends were lucky and were given the opportunity to take part. One of them used his hour to read poems from an armchair. Another friend, who was a campaigner for human rights in Myanmar, took a portrait of Aung San Suu Kyi that I had painted in 2006 on recycled card with headlines from government newspapers, and held it in the air for their allotted 60 minutes, allowing me to vicariously ascend the plinth. Their gestures were filmed by four cameras and live-streamed to the world. As someone who has pioneered performance art since 1996 in Myanmar, I have been part of numerous events that were discussed only by word of mouth. Sometimes these happenings were captured on video but the recordings were often lost. The way One & Other was broadcast and documented thus struck me as an example of technology’s constructive use in contemporary art and society, connecting a single individual’s act to an almost infinite public space.

There is another Gormley work that I like for its community engagement. Field (1989–2003) includes thousands of miniature clay statues, created by different contributors. I strive for a similar practical minimalism when I work with communities. In Culm Nation (2016), I asked the people of my village to create masks, based on their own faces, using culms shed from the local bamboos, which we played with as children. In A Show of Hands (2013– ), I engage Myanmar’s hundreds of political prisoners and commemorate their sacrifice by plastering their arms and discussing their experiences.

But what particularly interests me in Gormley’s work is his use of his own body, because I too have employed my body as a means to create art in the absence of brushes or other tools, such as when I was a political prisoner. With this simple medium, Gormley captures individual existence, as well as life’s struggles, and the quest for freedom from suffering. These ideas resonate with the fundamental tenets of Buddhist philosophy, which I also seek to embed in my work. 

When he was younger, Gormley spent three years meditating with the guru U Goenka in India. U Goenka has likewise guided my meditation practice since 2008. For this reason, I see Gormley not only as an admirable Western contemporary artist, whose work comes close to connecting with Buddhist philosophy, but also as my older Dhamma Brother.

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