Antony Gormley, in the flesh

“What is the human being? What is the human project?” asked Antony Gormley last Friday afternoon, leaving the audience that had gathered before him in silence. As the main speaker at the Chicago Humanities Festival this year and a Turner Prize-winning sculptor, he seemed to intimidate his listeners. They failed to answer him. After a moment, he admitted that he himself couldn’t provide the answers in words, saying instead, “sculpture is a very useful way of posing big questions.”

In 2007, Gormley placed casts of his own body atop buildings throughout London; he did the same in New York City in 2010. To Gormley’s delight, many in the audience had seen them in person. Making body sculptures, he said, was “a way of registering [his] being on the face of an inhuman planet.”

The talk in the Cochrane-Woods Arts Center at the University of Chicago felt intimate, almost as though the audience was encased in one of his famous body casts. Attendees were shown a video and then a slideshow of photographs that showed the breadth of his works. But this was not what drew their interest–the photos only served as visual aids to Gormley’s words. His devotion to his craft was clear from his impassioned delivery, and his quiet mannerisms and eloquence made his talk feel like something precious, even private.

The sculptor’s subtle charm did not detract from the haunting nature of his body of work. One example is his 1996 work, “Allotment,” an exhibition of giant concrete sculptures with orifices symbolic of the openings of the body. Observers were forced to walk among and between these human-like slabs, blindly following the dark paths of these monstrous, blind creatures that seemed to represent the solitude and sadness of human existence. Reflecting on the message of the piece, Gormley pondered the problem that we are all free to live but are forever trapped in our own bodies.

Though he is most famous as a sculptor, he has not worked exclusively in this medium. While describing his journey from painting to sculpture, Gormley suddenly paused, with an expression of intense concentration. Another heavy silence descended upon the room. His audience waited to hear what he had to say–eyes trained away from the projected photograph so as not to miss a word. “Sculpture was for me about changing the world,” he admitted quietly, “not making a picture of it.” (Lauren Kelly-Jones)