The grands projets of Antony Gormley (b1950) have arrived at the Royal Academy, preceded by a very small one in the courtyard. This takes the form of a newborn baby cast in solid black iron. It lies on the ground, curled up in innocent sleep, yet shiny and hard as a bomb. Forget tenderness: the immediate response is shock, with the uneasy afterthought that you might almost have tripped over this infant doorstop.
Iron Baby is a tough conceit, setting off thoughts of landmines and human vulnerability, but also latent strength. Like a real baby, it is nut-full of ideas. You might pause before this sculpture, from 1999, and to my knowledge never repeated. It is by far the best work in this show.
Expansive, expensive, monumental, prolific: Gormley’s art spreads across the globe. His famous body forms, based on his own athletically tall person, are stationed like dumb watchmen everywhere, emerging from sand, sea and pavement, contemplating the view, dominating the landscape. Reproduction has always been his modus operandi. But in this survey, stretching back 40 years or so, it turns instead to repetition. So much of what you see here amounts to reprise or the regurgitation of past ideas.
Take a big work such as Clearing VII, from 2019 (the formative Clearing I was shown at London’s White Cube in 2004). Eight kilometres of black aluminium tubing sweeps in coils and loops round an entire gallery, contained only by the floor, walls and ceiling. It looks exactly as you might expect – like a huge, dark 3D scribble. You are supposed to clamber around and through it, somehow without tripping – and in so doing you will “complete” the work, becoming not just a figure caught like a burr in a briar, but even the subject of the art – a notion coined by Marcel Duchamp over a century ago.
For Cave, also 2019, a colossal amount of metal has been beaten into linked shafts, vents and corridors through which we are to hunch and blunder, moving between glowering darkness and occasional light. This is a pretty familiar art trope: think of the dark mazes of Mike Nelson, James Turrell or Gregor Schneider. But here there is no sensual or intellectual revelation. You’re in and then you’re out, like a ghost train without any ghosts. Or you can simply walk round it.
There is a certain literalism to some of the early works. Full Bowl (1977-8) is a bowl full of bowls. Grasp (1982) is a lump of clay inscribed with a depiction of the hands that shaped it. And there is a certain obviousness to the later works too. A colossal form, somewhere between conker and wrecking ball, dangles almost to the ground. Another, nearby, looks more like a human organ. But their shape and affinity feels random; size is all, gigantism their sole distinguishing force.
There is a large gallery of rusting Gorms, jutting at right angles from the walls, hanging from the ceiling, or arranged in a ring, facing outwards. They make no contact, occasion no feelings, stymie all our anthropomorphic instincts. Instead, these interchangeable non-beings are intended to disorient (Lost Horizon is their collective title), to make us think about bodies in space. Like all the other humanoids in this show – Gorms made of rods, slabs or pixelated blocks, as if computer-generated – it is easier to admire the engineering than the actual forms.
The shortfall between the art and Gormley’s exalted ambitions for it is typically stark. In the exhibition guide, he says he wants to heighten “our sense of position in time and space” with the unappealingly titled Co-Ordinate VI. This consists of a metal bar running through three galleries, just above head height. It measures the rooms like a surveyor’s laser, except without the exciting red glow. One gallery contains nothing but this bar. Never has a room of the Royal Academy felt so empty.
One of Cattelan’s own pint-size self-portraits, hanging among Blenheim’s gold-framed ones, is practically winking
Gormley’s drawings express his preoccupations with greater visual strength: a man in a dark doorway, another rushing through a tunnel, or trapped inside his own body. They are worked in earth, crude oil or rabbit-skin glue, connecting humanity with nature. Just as recent clay sculptures speak of people and objects discovered in archaeological digs: elements piled on the gallery floor that resemble newly baked loaves as well as the bones of hunched figures, shielding themselves from the blast, like the citizens of Pompeii.
The obvious crowd-pleaser at the Royal Academy is Host (2016), a low tide of brine lying over red earth that darkens with dusk. A great liquid expanse, contained in a single gallery, reflecting the skylights above? It reminds me of nothing so much as Richard Wilson’s 20:50 (1987), a sea of oil through which you walk, miraculously untarnished, watching the room doubled and halved in its shining surface; a work that really makes you think about bodies in space.
Maurizio Cattelan’s golden lavatory was a flash in the pan, stolen from Blenheim Palace last weekend after only one day. So there is no way of knowing how much America, as the object was sardonically titled, sharpened the satire of the Italian artist’s solo show in Churchill’s birthplace. For although billed as an intervention, this is more or less Catellan’s greatest hits: from lifesize waxworks of Pope John Paul II struck down by a meteorite to a praying schoolboy Hitler, as well as the tragicomic taxidermies for which he is known, specifically the poor horse with its elongated legs that has dangled from many a museum ceiling.
Cattelan (b1960) calls his show Victory Is Not an Option. At first this appears as ridiculous as the fact that visitors must enter by walking across a great sequence of union jack flags, steadily dirtier by the day. And the little mannequin of Hitler on his knees, at the far end of the long library, appears just as misplaced, given that this is practically a shrine to Churchill’s glorious victory.
But Cattelan has always been a curious figure in contemporary art. His sculptures are one-liners, cartoons in three dimensions, almost abrasively direct. And who could describe America as subtle? But what counts is context, every time, precisely where the artist places these provocations. And as you walk around Blenheim, the position of each work is increasingly subtle.
The pope falls beneath a tapestry of Louis XIV, with his catastrophic belief in God-given rights. Oskar, the alarming an tihero of Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum, perches high above cabinets of fading military memorabilia to battles long lost, still drumming away. Memories of the dead horse return as you pass through stables devoted to the losses, as well as the conquests, of two world wars.
Some works are so delicately inserted they might have been there all along. The pigeons roosting among the marble monuments in the chapel are a complete double take: dead harbingers of a future already past. And one of Cattelan’s own pint-size self-portraits, hanging by his collar among gold-framed portraits, is practically winking: the humble workman among the grand overlords.
But most powerful is a colossal anti-monument to nationalism positioned in the great hall. The hollow arm from a statue of Joan of Arc, still raising her glorious banner, lies tilted at an angle, kept from toppling only by sandbags. What is she now: a French heroine burned alive by the British, an enemy, a martyr, a European icon to unite us – or a shattered relic of triumphalism fit for Ozymandias?
Star ratings (out of five)
Antony Gormley ★★
Maurizio Cattelan ★★★