Last year I was walking along a beach towards a Martello tower, when I saw a figure perched on its rim. Was it standing guard or threatening to jump? Moving closer, I realised it would never have to decide. The sculpture on the tower is one of five placed by Antony Gormley around the country in 2015. Commissioned by the Landmark Trust, Gormley’s project – LAND – continues his lifelong investigation of what we mean by ‘figure’.
Gormley says he is not interested in representation. Since the early 1980s his sculpture has taken the body for its subject, first as an absence – sheets of lead enclosing the body’s space, or the shape of his own form eaten out of stacked slices of bread – and then as a solid presence, in iron or clay. In recent years Gormley’s bodies have become increasingly porous, as insights from Buddhism and quantum physics suggest to him the interconnectedness of matter and the permeability of the skin. He continues to use his own body to produce his figures, but this is not self-portraiture: Gormley uses his own frame to restrict, rather than amplify, any individuated personality in his work. His original lead cases had, he explained, ‘the same relationship to my body as a violin case to a violin… not a representation of my body, but a case around the space that I occupied’. The result is a form we recognise as a body, but not any particular body. If austere, this absence of features or individuation is also generous: the viewer’s attention fills the void left by the sculpture’s anonymity, projecting onto it for the duration of their focus their own identity and concerns.
Represented persons, then, ask for particular identification; anonymous figures invite contemplation. Gormley, who had a Catholic upbringing, accepts that his work is ‘in dialogue with sacred sculpture’. For example, Jacob Epstein’s alabaster Elemental (1932), a figure inspired by early African burial sculpture, carried for a young Gormley an ‘extraordinary punch’ by virtue of its abstracted features. He was equally affected by the haniwa terracottas of Kofun-era Japan, stony-faced warriors standing foursquare, who were buried with the dead – still sculptures marking the body’s final stillness. (Haniwa figures also inspired the Japanese modernist sculptor Isamu Noguchi, with whom Gormley spent time in New York.) For Gormley, whose work is ‘a-religious’, the only ritual is an openly defined contemplation, but like the sculptors of haniwa he recognises that the figure, still and blank, can conjure up an aura of the sacred. ‘Any body when it accepts stasis consciously becomes hieratic’.
In LAND, however, Gormley endeavours to move beyond an aesthetic of total stillness. Most obviously, the work is temporary, as the sculptures will leave their stations in May 2016. Gormley also draws our attention to the situation of all five figures by bodies of water, the most intuitive emblem of flux, shift, ebb and flow. The Landmark Trust exists because human buildings – for Gormley, social extensions of the body – change over time: in order to preserve the past, the Trust renovates and renews dilapidated buildings so that once more they can be meaningfully inhabited. Yet the eloquence of LAND is also political: the figure in Warwickshire takes its stand at a former canal worker’s cottage, looking over a body of water created for an industry that no longer exists. Like Gormley’s most famous figure, the Angel of the North near Gateshead, it meditates on the collective history of places threatened by post-industrial amnesia.
‘And so it is the figure’, begins Jeremy Prynne’s poem ‘East South East’, ‘gleaming on the path’. Prynne describes an encounter on the road. ‘Coming from Hitchin’, a town thirty miles south of Cambridge (where Prynne lives), the speaker spots a figure ‘on the A602’ drenched in ‘incessant’ rain. It’s ‘night’, and in ‘light pleating the rain’ – perhaps the beam of a car’s headlights – the figure appears more as an outline or silhouette than an individuated person. There is ‘no/conversation’, but the lack of engagement allows the speaker, and us, to ‘shine in our neglect’. Prynne’s poem employs ‘figure’ primarily to describe a rain-abstracted person, but the alternative meaning of a ‘figure’ – a linguistic or poetic trope – resonates within and beyond the poem. If people are ‘figures’ in the sense of bodies or persons, are they any more real than the ‘figures’ that populate the world of poetry?
Academic literary criticism has confidently discarded the humanist notion of ‘character’ which used to underpin its practice: the agreement that people in novels are as ‘real’ as their readers, and the ethical evaluation of their actions according to ‘real-life’ codes. In the twentieth century, structuralist critics pioneered an alternative analysis of the novel and the fairytale, attempting to model their basic narrative shapes. The story structures that emerged were as rigid and law-governed as the supposed shapes of syntax. In this criticism, ‘characters’ were permitted no ethical existence outside the plot, but became impersonal ‘actants’ – movers, doers, figures – within it. Universalizing structuralist criticism has had its day, but it levelled important scepticism at the assumption that a novel’s characters were ‘real’ people. Thanks to structuralism, we now understand ‘character’ as a ‘set of equivalences’ across a text, markings such as a character’s name which (mostly) stay similar enough for readers to imagine a single person. ‘Character’ itself derives from the Greek kharattein, ‘to cut furrows in, engrave’ [OED]. The sculptural analogy is striking, and suggests that before these equivalences are engraved, the people of stories – and perhaps the real persons reading them – are as uninscribed as the faces of Gormley’s figures.
There’s a problem, however, which is that despite the logical difficulty readers intuitively identify the figures of narrative as real persons endowed with particular ethical natures. We cry when they die, fancy them, hate their guts. Writers too think of their characters as existing beyond their plots: Shakespeare created The Merry Wives of Windsor by taking Falstaff out of medieval England and into contemporary London; the writers of Friends could imagine a world for Joey outside the one that constructed his entire being.
‘To be a character is to have a textual existence and, momentarily, to appear to exist beyond it’, writes John Frow. Perhaps we find it easy to think of textual figures as real persons because the self, though not textual, is more non-personal than we sometimes imagine. Like the sculptures of LAND, whose stacked cubes of iron our brains instantly convert into the human form, we think of ourselves as wholly unique, but are composed as a species of varied units. To be faceless, markless, ‘figural’ like the quasi-human forms of Francis Bacon’s paintings, is to provoke horror: connoting the automaton, the cyborg, many featureless figures inhabit the ‘realm of the daemonic’. What’s more, the flickering, momentary rhythm at which a character in a novel transforms from textual figure to quasi-real person itself is ghostly: marks in a page flicker into almost-life, but can return to textual existence just as quickly. Perhaps we ourselves are closer to this malleability, this facelessness, than we think. Gormley’s sculptures and Prynne’s poem are alive to the ghostly absence-presence of the figure, but somehow avoid the uncanny or horrifying. The ghosts of those works are holy, much more akin to angels standing guard than daemonic automata.
Who is the quintessential figure of today? Perhaps it’s the athlete. Chad Harbach’s novel The Art of Fielding opens with Schwartz, a zealous college baseball captain, contemplating a shortstop from North Dakota as he practises his catches and throws between games. The ‘bland’ uniformity with which the teenager moves endows his fielding with a grace that reminds Schwartz, watching fascinated, of a line of Robert Lowell: ‘expressionless, expresses God’. Like Schwartz, I find myself fascinated by sport played well. At the point when, in tennis or football, a forehand winner is struck or the perfect through-ball delivered, the athlete in the replay is stripped of personality to a function – the action ‘forehand’ or ‘through-ball’. They become a figure. In the close-up, concentration warps the athlete’s face into strange, savage expressions that suggest emotion but often mean only that they are concentrating. And it’s for their actions – the figures they make with a ball and their bodies in the air – that we project onto them our admiration, our hopes and dreams.
Some of Gormley’s later sculptures of bodies constituted by bubble matrices, such as Still Running, observe the powerful combination in the athlete of the energy of movement and the stillness of focus. Thinking of athletes as figures is especially important given the contrasting role that many athletes, in cultures where sport is big business, play as celebrities. The celebrity is the polar opposite of the contemplative figure, a public person around whom an inquisitive cult is built that thrives on the (false) promise of knowing. On occasion, athletes are figures and celebrities in the same minute: a striker scores a beautiful goal, and then celebrates with a trademarked hand gesture, or the whistle blows for a foul and moving figures become squabbling millionaires in bright shirts inscribed with slogans.
Looking, in art and sport, for the identification of real persons, we should remember to find also the refreshing, meditative space of figures.
Antony Gormley, Martin Caiger-Smith, in Modern Artists series (London: Tate Publishing, 2010).
‘LAND, Antony Gormley, May 2015-May 2016’, Dr Anna Keay and Antony Gormley, (Exhibition Booklet, The Landmark Trust 2015), accessed online at http://www.landmarktrust.org.uk/Documents/LAND-booklet.pdf.
‘East-South-East’, J.H. Prynne , in Poems (Tarset: Bloodaxe Books, 2005).
The Figure of Echo: a mode of allusion in Milton and after, John Hollander (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981).
Character and Person, John Frow, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).