British sculptor Antony Gormley showing at Shanghai’s Long Museum, but admits it should be Chinese artists getting the chance
Gormley sees huge potential in contemporary Chinese art shifting global values and hopes his ‘Still Moving’ exhibition is a catalyst for more Chinese artists being given the same kind of attention he receives
Life-size models of naked men litter the cavernous front gallery of Shanghai’s Long Museum. Their appearance is wretched. Some are curled up in the fetal position. Some are bent down with their heads against the wall. Others hang from the ceiling, bound at the ankles, or slump over each other in a heap, reminiscent of a funeral pyre.
These cast-iron figures were made in the image of their creator, British artist Antony Gormley, who had the Holocaust in mind when he originally crafted them to show in Vienna in 1995.
But this collection of 60 sculptures, called Critical Mass, also alludes to man’s continuous evolution in that some of the crouching, kneeling and standing figures are lined up in the classic “ascent of man” procession. The flexibility of the figures’ placement allows the meaning of the work to shift as it moves from city to city.
When he placed them within an old military fort in Florence two years ago, Gormley called the collection an “anti-monument evoking all the victims of the 20th century”. In 1998, they were placed in the courtyard of the Royal Academy in London to invade what Gormley called “the sense of august decorum” brought about by the academy’s celebration of the hierarchy of Western art.
The 67-year-old’s goal in Shanghai is just as ambitious, though possibly self-defeating: to encourage a Chinese cultural model that dispenses with both the superior attitude of traditional museums and Western artistic practices.
His exhibition at Long Museum, called “Still Moving”, is adapted from his “Still Being” show from Brazil in 2012. Apart from Critical Mass, it includes Passage (2016), a 15-metre human-shaped steel tunnel; Breathing Room IV [Rio] (2012), a series of interlinking open rectangular structures made out of light tubes; and drawings of human forms he has made since 1981. There are no exhibition captions and, unusually, no security barriers.
Despite the sombre poses of the Critical Mass figures, the exhibition has a playground air to it as visitors eagerly poke and sit on the life-size forms, and egg each other on to explore the pitch black tunnel of Passage.
“This is an experiment of what a museum can be, how it can engage people [and] not teach them about things with established values,” Gormley says.
He adds that because contemporary art venues in China are so young, the potential to show art differently, to highlight how art is no longer there to represent and support existing hierarchies of power, is all the greater. The way art is shown or created in China matters because it is part of a welcome shift of global values that he – along with the Chinese government – is anticipating.
Born in 1950, Gormley is of a generation of British artists among whom many feel guilt towards their nation’s colonial past. Like many bullish lovers of China, he speaks with gleeful conviction about the relative demise of the West today. “Chinese artists are the ones who will unlock the future here. We are already the old world. China’s rise is a philosophical evolution and has the potential to play a big role in the value system of the world and it will be positive and bring balance,” he says.
But while he sees enormous potential in Chinese contemporary art, he believes that at the moment it is too heavily influenced by the West.
“They have taken up the baton of the potential of art and used a lot of the procedures of Western conceptualism and minimalism to investigate previous kinds of iconography. What I love about Chinese thought is its holistic nature: how metal, wood, water, fire and earth mirror human feelings. There are wonderful Chinese artists who are bringing that to bear, but I feel there’s a lot more to come. Most artists are still mirroring, or are hypnotised by, Western art.”
Coming from an Englishman, this sort of comment may smack of an Orientalist desire to see Chinese art in the way a Westerner imagines it. But Gormley is simply echoing what many Chinese collectors have expressed privately: that there hasn’t been the explosion of creativity that the country’s enormous social changes should have evoked.
He is also dismayed by the amount of Western art – such as his own – that is shown in China, which comes at the cost of greater exposure for emerging Chinese artists. “This is a lovely opportunity [for me], but I am hoping this is a catalyst for more work from Chinese artists being given this kind of attention,” he says.
However, the success of the Long Museum, owned by collectors Liu Yiqian and his wife Wang Wei, is in knowing precisely what locals want to see. Earlier this year, long queues appeared for the James Turrell: Immersive Light exhibit. Later this month, the Leiden Collection of paintings by Dutch masters is expected to again attract a large crowd.
After China’s decades of being shut off from the rest of the world, there is a deep hunger for quality content from the West. That is why people are still queuing two-and-a-half hours to see the British Museum’s “A History of the World in 100 objects” exhibition two months after it opened at the Shanghai Museum.
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Gormley is aware of the irony of his own popularity in China. “Obviously my interest is the possibility of my work being open to a new audience, but that’s rather greedy and selfish,” he says. “I should get out of here and it should be filled by people who speak the language of the nation or the location.”
Antony Gormley: Still Moving, Long Museum West Bund, 3398 Longteng Ave, Xuhui Qu, Shanghai, Tue-Sun 10am-6pm. Until Nov 26.