By the entrance to Edinburgh’s Modern Art Gallery, you will find the first of a series of six Anthony Gormley cast iron sculptures; those well-known life-size male figures that stand straight as soldiers, arms by their side. The peculiar thing about this particular one, however, is that it is buried to its chest, just above the navel and elbows, and that it is firmly set into the concrete. I have come to realise that, depending upon my mood on the day I walk by him, I can either see him as abjectly constrained by his escapable fate of being sucked into the earth, or I can see him as rising up out of the ground and growing towards the sky, propelled back into freedom. The former interpretation is indisputably dark, gloomy to the point of sinister. The latter, an optimistic spin that envisions his head, shoulder and half a torso as being reborn, renewed, a resurgence. If the sun is shining and I am feeling light about the world, this is the version I cling to. I can imagine him pulling himself out of the mire, brushing the dirt from his freed legs, and marching towards his five doppelgangers who are placed, eerily, into the Water of Leith nearby where they either wade or paddle depending upon season and rainfall as the river swells and recedes.
I don’t know what Gormley is up to, what his thought process or artistic intent is. Georges Braque said, ‘art is meant to disturb.’ Picasso said, ‘art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.’ Nice lines – short, pithy, memorable, quotable – but to me they are almost as evasive in meaning as half a cast iron body sticking out of the pavement, the significance of which continues to flummox me. Is it a reminder of the inevitability of the rise and fall of a life? Does it say something about the precarious foundations upon which we build our lives? Or is it a comment on the environment – that sea levels are rising, and the earth is coming to eat us up after we’ve gorged on it for centuries? That is one catastrophic interpretation, a more comforting one could be that times change, life ebbs and flows, fortunes turn around, what goes up must come down, the over-ambitious will tip and sink, the meek shall inherit the earth. You see, I sat on the Gallery wall in the sunshine waiting for my friend, and my usual dismissal of the Gormley bust as ‘a bit of a rusty man-shaped bollard’ had become a meditation in anything and everything the artwork suggested to me. The blissfulness of sinking into sleep; the safe feeling that comes with hiding; the curative nature of retreat; the relief in being able to slip away unnoticed; the sun dropping into the horizon; the sponge cake that falls a little when it’s taken out of the oven; the souffle that must be eaten straight away before all the air deflates it; the exhilaration of a trampoline; the flowing ripples of the hobby horses as they dance up and down; the comeback of the long-forgotten; the living and the dead.
Maybe that’s all Gormley is trying to do: to get us to stop for a moment and think. Maybe he is trying to force stories from a wider perspective by presenting one image with no further information, no directions, no decrees. It is, I’ve decided, an open invitation to have us think for ourselves as to what it means. To have us think for ourselves. Now there’s something.