Lightness and bulk, hope and despair, a challenge and a cocoon: Antony Gormley’s Body Space Time exhibition at theatre-turned-contemporary art space Galleria Continua is worth a day trip to the immaculately maintained San Gimignano.
It was a rainy spring Sunday when I ventured south to the town of towers for a reason other than Vernaccia white wine and gelato at Gelateria Dondoli. Galleria Continua was the siren call, specifically the solo exhibition by the London-born sculptor Sir Antony Mark David Gormley OBE RA. Say Gormley and Brits immediately recall his iconic works: the Angel of the North, an oxidized sculpture that steals the show in Gateshead; Another Place, the 100 permanently exhibited cast iron figures facing the sea on Crosby Beach, close to Liverpool; and Event Horizon, solitary figures first positioned on prominent buildings along London’s South Bank. If you’re British and spend time in Tuscany, your mind might turn to the artist’s Essere show at the Uffizi in 2019 and the subsequent donation of his kneeling Present self-portrait, as well as his highly engaging 2015 installation at Florence’s Forte di Belvedere. (Or even to Gormley’s seven pixelated sculptures in Poggibonsi.)
This is not the first time that Galleria Continua has hosted Antony Gormley’s art in San Gimignano. His debut in the hybrid space came with Vessel in 2012 and Co-Ordinate in 2017. Now the artist has returned with a show that furthers his lifelong investigation into the body as place and the configuration of space. Visitors are called upon to move through the bright white crannies of the old edifice to experience the artworks. On entering from via del Castello, your vision requires a few seconds of adjustment as Space (2021) extends before your blinking eyes, a geometric expanse of soldered wire cubes, which took a couple of weeks to assemble on-site in San Gimignano by the artist’s team. It’s a mesmerizing piece that’s both full but empty beneath the vaulted ceiling. Solidity stands in the same room with the reassuringly robust, two-tonne Body (2021). My Britishness is piqued by the juxtaposition of a squat, cast iron sculpture whose diagonal section appears to support two steps, while somehow screaming “no”. It’s titled Stop III (2019) and if it had eyes, it would be staring at Grenfell II (2017), a 19 by 14-centimetre charcoal, black pigment and oil work simply framed on the adjacent wall. This is surely political or social commentary as the drawing refers to the high-rise fire in West London in which 72 people died and the government was believed to be at fault for poor maintenance. Just round the corner, Slump II (2019) sits disillusioned in a narrow nook, a reflection of the times.
The raw and the cooked; the formed and the found. Iron can be found in nodules, seams, ferrous-rich ore or in meteorites that have landed on the surface of this planet aftera long journey through interstellar space. Iron is the core material of this planet. It is a material that expresses in its magnetism and gravity, qualities common to all bodies in space but in a way that is only possible with this level of mass. I wanted to celebrate all of the qualities of both construction and material identity that this extraordinarily versatile material offers. Some of these works have simply been dug from the sand and wire brushed, some have been allowed to rust, and others have been milled and ground to a high finish. Some are cast whole, others are cast in pieces. Some pieces are precariously placed one on top of the other in unstable relations to make a single work.
Another hefty presence greets art lovers on descending the glamorous marble staircase (pausing for a mandatory selfie in the full-length mirror). Compose (Block) (2021) resembles a guard to the lower level in its high tensile steel bulk on the original terrazzo flooring. Peel back a black drape and four imposing weathered steel blocks are spaced equally apart in a diagonal along the room: Heave, Grasp, Press and Grasp II, all recent productions dating to 2020.
The main draw, however, occupies the auditorium of the former theatre. Instead of the stalls, Gormley’s vast Frame II (2021) is a site-specific aluminium structure consisting of five-millimeter square tube. Such is the access that onlookers became participants, exploring the interior of the artwork that stretches above and around us like a lightweight cloud. It’s borderline Brechtian, a take on theatre of the absurd as the stage stands in front of the main event of the sculpture, while the galleries look on, mesmerized. Make sure you pop backstage to observe Retreat V (2021), withdrawn from the world in a distant corner, like a Do Not Disturb sign. So, I walk away, outdoors, where Hold (Pieta) (2019) stands resiliently on the terracotta-tiled patio, while by the side of the theatre Border (2021) sums up strength on an age-old stone wall beside typical Tuscan valley views.
A separate entrance into the ancient tower building belonging to Galleria Continua leads into a special enclave of Gormley’s art. Showstopper Suspend (2020) defies gravity, a tangle of side-less cubes in varying sizes and that trademark oxidized copper shade, all hanging by a single thread, rather like human beings in this increasingly fragile world in a reminder of the artist’s fixation with body, space and time.
The idea of demonstrating these various ways of assembling and making sculpture is to engage our bodies in proprioception and an objective evocation of how our bodies relate both to the planet and the geometry of our made habitat.”
Galleria Continua provides a constant presence of thought-provoking contemporary art in a town that is anything other than modern. This cathartic show elicited everything I needed to feel in that moment and in the hours that followed.
Antony Gormley: Body Space Time
Galleria Continua, via del Castello 11, San Gimignano
Until September 7; Monday-Sunday, 10am-1pm, 2-7pm