IHME 2009: Antony Gormley and the Social Aspects of Contemporary Art

29.4.2009 Carl-Dag Lige

IHME Project 2009: Antony Gormley, Clay and the Collective body.
Transformation of the clay cube 25–31 March 2009. Photo: Kai Widell

When The Pro Arte Foundation invited sculptor Antony Gormley to Finland to work on a wide-scale public art project, he had various ideas in mind. For his surprise the Finnish producer chose the most complicated and expensive of them; a proposal, which, if successful, would be the most compelling and appreciated of the initial ideas.

Antony Gormley: Clay and the Collective Body

Antony Gormley is one of the best-known British sculptors at the moment. He has been active from the end of 1970’s, but reached international fame in the beginning of 1990’s. Gormley studied in several colleges and universities in England. He has also studied Buddhism in Sri Lanka and India.His works, which are often in public spaces deal with the issues of human body, identity and social roles. Gormley’s works are known for their big scale and extensive use of material.He usually co-operates with a number of assistants who help to prepar the works. Gormley continues to work actively in Britain as well as abroad.
The preparations for the “Clay and the Collective Body “ project started more than a year before its realization. In addition to the project management, the preparatory phase included the publication of the IHME Edition, where Gormley invited Finnish people to participate in the large-scale event in the spring of 2009.

The actual event of “Clay and the Collective Body” took place between 21.03 – 07.04.2009 at the Kaisaniemi -square in Helsinki. A large temporary plastic hall was erected on a specially built concrete surface and equipped with a heating system. Gormley’s aim was to create a warm, moist and cozy environment that would make the participants and the visitors feel as if they were on the beach. Unfortunately the Finnish spring weather was too cold and the interior temperature of the hall did not rise above 18 degrees Celsius. The floor remained chilly and one could not lie down on it as Gormley had hoped.

In the beginning a huge cube of natural clay was placed in the middle of the concrete floor. The size of the cube was planned to be 4m x 4m x 4m and its weight approximately 160 tons, but due to the technical problems the height of the cube could not be raised over 2.60m. The technical details did not, however, harm the realization of the project. During the 10 days of work more than 1300 registered persons attended to shape the clay. The participation did not cost anything. Those willing to join in just had to fill in the registration form. The participants were treated as guests of the project: those who had finished their work with clay could take a shower. Afterwards soup and coffee with buns were served.

Photo: Kai Widell

Each participant could take a piece of clay from the huge cube and realize his/her own fantasies in it. The only rules were that one had to respect the works made by other participants and that no tools were allowed. It was allowed to add new details to the existing objects but not to ruin them. Initially Gormley hoped that there would be more communication between different works, but this was fulfilled only partly and mainly during the last days of the workshop when there was only little space for new sculptures. When the molding had finished the hall opened for visitors. During four days more than 4000 people came to see the results of the vast collective art project.

My personal experiences

My curiosity made me take part in Gormley’s project, not only as an art critic, but as an ordinary citizen, too. In order to gain the most authentic experience I decided not to read about the clay project or about Gormley’s previous work. Bearing the memories of my clumsiness in the art classes at school in my mind I arrived at Kaisaniemi with a little hesitation and fear of what to expect. After changing clothes I stepped into the hall. What first struck me was the simplicity of this almost primeval space: it was closed, yet full of light, very humid, and there was a pile of clay in the middle of the hall. The floor was half-covered with sculptures and objects, which had been made during the previous days. Only a few people were present because the Finns prefer to stay at home on Saturday mornings.

Stubbornly holding on to the prejudice of my clumsiness with clay, I decided not to make a statue or a piece of sculpture, but remained on my familiar ground as a critic. I wrote a couple of comments to the existing works and added one close to the entrance. I have to admit that it was confusing to act as a “real” participant and as a critic at the same time. While the former could intuitively plunge into the flow of creation, the latter had to maintain a distance to the subject matter and act consciously.

Having finished my “work”, I accidentally bumped in with a tall British guy who started to ask me questions. Had I finished already? What had I made of clay? Soon I realized that the middle-aged friendly man was the artist himself. He started to walk with me around the hall and made comments about the objects, which had been finished. He was enthusiastic about the objects: to him they appeared as a fantastic flow of collective fantasy-world or unconsciousness.

I was happy when I left the place. Assessing what was most important in the project I realized that it was the encountering with other people without obligations and pressure to be competitive. It was an experience of equality. I might have experienced a fragile vision of a better society, where our everyday life is supported with trust in one another.

Another thing that impressed me was the tactile quality of the clay. There is no need to think when working with clay. I noticed that many participants enjoyed throwing a piece of clay against the floor. It felt great, liberating. And maybe they won’t beat their wives after having been here, joked Gormley himself. This brought me to the idea of Gormley’s project as a social therapy. In fact, the project could have been considered as a public therapy session if Gormley’s name would not have been attached to it. In a later discussion Gormley willingly addressed the question of his authorship. Politely he said that in comparison to the rest of the participants his authorship was secondary. Despite this humble gesture it was clear that the whole clay-project was executed under Gormley’s guidance and by his rules.

What came out of it?

Photo: Kai Widell

Gormley has a long history of working with large groups in different communities, but he admitted that he had never done a project with such a huge number of participants as in Helsinki. “Clay and the Collective Body” was for him as for all the participants and visitors a challenge to learn about the possibilities of participatory art. The result – a hall filled with hundreds different sculptures and other clay-objects – was a massive manifestation of ideas, dreams, feelings, statements, problems, visions, comments and beliefs. The themes of the objects were diverse: from grotesque and intricate organic sculptures to banal penises, from delicate gestures and poses of female figures to rough mythical creatures. The sculptures combined the everyday experience with the flowing fantasy of our wildest dreams, where regularity was competed with chaos; structural was balanced by individual.

Characteristically certain ideas spread in the hall from one piece to another. New participants entering the hall must have got strong impulses from the existing objects. As a result, there were a number of themes that were repeated in the set of heterogenic objects. As the number of the participants was only 1300 instead of the expected 2000, the central block of clay was not fully transformed, but remained in the centre of the hall as a volcano-like organic pile of mud, partly covered with figural motives, which seemed to melt into the mass of the clay-volcano.

IHME Days 2009: reportage

In addition to Antony Gormley’s project, the IHME 2009 also included a three-day program of lectures and exhibitions called the IHME-days (03.04. – 05.04.2009). (In English WONDER Days) The main focus of the IHME Days was at the seminar where several international and Finnish performers spoke on contemporary art as a professional and social practice. The most interesting part of the seminar was Paulo Herkenhoff’s presentation on Brazilian socially orientated art and his discussion with Antony Gormley about the latter’s clay project in Helsinki. James Lingwood, Francoise Vergese and Olle Granath topics were also interesting.

Gormley’s “Clay and the Collective Body” and the IHME Days were intended to complement each other. Both dealt with the social dimension of art: the former in form of execution and active participation, the latter in form of discussion and theoretical treatment. However, the clay project and the seminar remained somewhat distinct in their messages. While “Clay and the Collective Body” regarded the ordinary ‘man of the street’ as an artist, the seminar emphasized the importance of professionalism in the art-world.

Both the clay project and the seminar had a friendly and welcoming atmosphere, yet the conservative tone of the seminar was a small disappointment to me. The majority of the speakers were middle-aged or older and the statements remained modest. Many of the speakers represented large art institutions that might explain the repeatedly occurring theme of responsibility. This was moreover related with art expertise, a notion that implicitly results in conservatism. As a visitor in a seminar of social aspects of contemporary art I expected to hear at least some presentations about political activism and radical intervention in contemporary art. Due to the overall modest tone, the critical potential of the seminar was, in my opinion, not fully realized.

Art against social entropy

As the head of the Pro Arte Foundation and the main organizer of the IHME Days, Tuula Arkio expressed her hope that the IHME event will become a tradition. Arkio stated that the main goal of the Pro Arte Foundation is to enhance the knowledge of contemporary art among the wider public. Contemporary art is a fundamental part of the democratic society, and the potential of art as a social mediator and integrator ought to be supported by providing the artists and the public the best opportunities for co-operation – an aim that was excellently attained in Anthony Gormley’s clay-project.

In his keynote speech, the art critic, historian and the former curator of MOMA and the Sao Paolo Biennial Paulo Herkenhoff concentrated on contemporary art’s potential to change the society. Herkenhoff asked “Who Makes Art? For Whom the Art is made?” He introduced a selection of Brazilian post -WWII artists, who have worked with minorities in the Brazilian society and raised questions of human rights, poverty, inequality, social exclusion etc. Herkenhoff, also analyzed the presented works from the perspective of authorship, contextuality, ethics and political potential. Herkenhoff also asked about the limits of an artist’s intervention – to what degree can and should a particular artist intervene into the problems of society? He concluded with the statement that art is a practice against social entropy. Although an artist’s task is a task of Sisyphos, his/her duty is to go on by constantly handling the social problems and defending the ideals and visions of a better world.

In addition to the extensive seminar, IHME Days introduced a set of Finnish video art presented by the AV-Arkki and an IHME Project 2010 by a Scottish artist Susan Philipsz that was promoted with Hila Peleg’s video “A Crime Against art”. Korjaamo’s Bookstore presented a good collection of books on contemporary art. The most entertaining part of the IHME Days must have been the IHME Club with DJ’s and club music.


Antony Gormley’s website
www.ihmeproductions.fiIHME Productions’ website
www.youtube.com/ihmeproductionsVideos from the IHME Days seminar
“Interview in Taide arkisto/taide_3-08/artikkelit_3-08/antony_gormley

Temporary pneumatic building. Photo: Kai Widell