Interview: artist Antony Gormley on Hong Kong's 'raw urbanism'

The British artist talks about his body of work, his body and why he loves the natural side of Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 April, 2014, 10:48pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 August, 2015, 5:40pm

48 HOURS: The first thing to say about you is that you have a very firm handshake.ANTONY GORMLEY: [Laughs] So this is a psychic encounter.

Your White Cube exhibition, "States and Conditions, Hong Kong", which runs through May 3, is meant to be your response to the urban conditions here. What is it about this city that has inspired you?The thing that impresses me about Hong Kong is that it's this island in the South China Sea with an extraordinary nature. You could say it's completely by chance that it turns out to be a trading station — in 300 years, we have this high-density, international city. You can walk from Central for 40 minutes and either you're up a mountain in the clouds, or you're down at a hotel looking down at boiling sea against red granite rocks. I don't know very many cities that have this quality of high-density, high-rise, very tight urbanism that mediates between mountain and sea in such a raw way.

Have you visited Hong Kong often? I think this is the sixth time I've been here. My impressions of Hong Kong are naive and…

Instinctive?Instinctive, yeah, maybe. I mean, my impressions are not to do with a profound understanding of its infrastructure.

How did you channel that into your work? I think you have to put this into the context of where my work has been going for the past 10 years. The obsession of the work has been about how we begin to investigate the body as a place using the language of the shelter that the human animal has decided to build as its habitat. … I guess the work is trying to ask very basic questions about the relationship of consciousness to space [as] mediated through architecture.

With your large-scale, outdoor works, you manage to evoke a sense of awe in your audience. Do you take satisfaction in that?I don't like the idea of awe. I don't like the idea of viewers as dumb consumers of spectacle, where they're kind of rendered thoughtless, speechless and motionless. I think art should be a catalyst for a greater sense of your aliveness to what's happening. I'm offering a few instruments by which I want people to examine themselves and the conditions of their environment — which is why I call this exhibition "States and Conditions". And that's not about awe; it's about active interrogation.

You've installed around the world quite a few life-sized body cast sculptures in your own image. Do you feel connected to them in a way?No, not really. I mean, do you feel that you own your body? Who does it belong to?

Well, I do think I own my body during my lifetime. Yeah, but you're a temporary tenant. You don't actually own it. You don't have the freehold, do you? I mean, your body is on its own trajectory. Let's put it another way: if I were interested in my sculptures as representations of me, I think I would do them differently. I'm interested in articulating — yes — the subjective experience of the body as a place, and I use my own body because that is the example. I use it as a case of the human condition of embodiment. I don't feel that I own my body. I think I'm a temporary inhabitant of a system that I barely understand.

Since you cast your sculptures in your own image, however, there'll be people who regard it as an act of narcissism. I think a certain degree of narcissism is necessary for any artist. You have to somehow think that reflecting on your own experience is valuable to others. But if I was a committed narcissist, I think I could do it better. My philosophical position is very simple: firstly, why make another body when you have one already? If you're interested in exploring what it feels like to inhabit a body, why not use your own as your test site, as your sample, as your medium?

In your case, has there been any idea for an artwork that is so insanely ambitious that you've still yet to pull off? I think my most insane ambition was to use the combined forces of Nato, Russia and China to make a work in the Taklamakan Desert. [Pauses] I don't know — I'll have to get much more articulate and political before I [can] manage to do that.