Iron and Flesh: Visions of the Human Body

I had never considered Antony Gormley and Juergen Teller as having anything in common, yet coincidentally I saw new exhibitions by both today, and realised that they  have the same obsession: the human body.  Not an unusual interest for an artist, but a surprise to discover such a fundamental connection between two so different in practice, in treatment, and in their approach to the human form.

Gormley’s sculpture perfectly reflects the architecture of the White Cube, and vice versa.  Indeed ‘Model’ was conceived specifically for the austere warehouse space of the Bermondsey gallery.  It is a slow burner, initially underwhelming; on entering one is confronted with a pile of iron blocks, and it is not until one looks beyond (or reads the info sheet) that the structures blur slightly and coalesce into perfunctory human forms.  Suddenly the composite block of grey metal takes on the image of a crouching figure, arms wrapped around knees, chin on hands – and with the utter blankness of the dark grey plane that represents the face, the embodiment of a desperately bleak angst.

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Some larger figures echo the famous reclining nudes of Henry Moore in their monumentality and their schematic abstraction of the human body.  But where Moore’s sculpture – usually stone or wood – was intended to be displayed in a landscape setting where it would echo the undulating forms of nature, Gormley’s figures conversely mirror the rigid angles and industrial materials of the urban warehouse space that provides their (un)natural habitat.  ‘Model’ is the eponymous star of the show; but as the blurb admits, ‘the work is both sculpture and building, human in form but at no point visible as a total figure.’ In other words it is so big that you cannot see what it is.  Signing a form to enter at my own risk ruined any sense of discovery or excitement.  Though tenebrous and disorientating, it was still just the inside of a steel structure; unlike the eerie feeling of transformation I experienced as the earlier sculptures turned from blocks of iron to human forms, it was impossible to comprehend this sequence of echoing caverns as in any way human.  (It may look quite person-shaped in the photograph, but the visitor does not have such wide-angled vision as the camera).

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Gormley’s working models were especially interesting.  The structural compositions appeared at first glance purely architectural, abstract assemblages beautifully composed but feats of engineering rather than empathy.  However, gradually one sees the human forms emerge – in one series of models Gormley shows the transition in nine stages from a small angular white figure to an large white block, like a 3D version of the experimentation of Suprematist artists, who reduced natural form to such an extent that they ended up with a black square on a white canvas.

No such restraint from Juergen Teller.  He revels in the actuality and fleshiness of the human body.  The viewer is immediately confronted by an enormous triptych of Vivienne Westwood, draped across an elaborate sofa, her bare skin almost luminous.  Like the famously ‘shocking’ YSL Opium ad in which Sophie Dahl appeared in similar guise, but here Westwood is not airbrushed or anodyne but a strikingly beautiful sixty-something woman.  Next to this trio was a large photograph of a sweet fluffy kitten.  Irony?  Postmodern curatorial satire??

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Teller is unusual among fashion photographers in quite regularly appearing in his own photographs.  Naked.  In fact I found it slightly worrying how keen he is to show off his own far from perfect figure for no apparent reason – certainly not aesthetic.  It can hardly be shock value – painters have created full-frontal self-portraits for over a century (I think of Schiele, Freud…)  I can only imagine that he takes advantage of the veneration of the fashionistas to indulge in his naturist fantasies.  And who can blame him – few people find themselves in a situation where they can curl up in their birthday suit with Charlotte Rampling in the name of art.  However, I will spare you the illustration. (Here is Kate Moss instead – fully clothed).

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