Gormley’s Exhibitionists to Join Art Tradition: Martin Gayford
Commentary by Martin Gayford | Apr-23-2009
. April 24 (Bloomberg) -- Antony Gormley is offering us the chance to become a living work of art. The position is unpaid, though in other ways quite generous.
Andy Warhol envisaged a future in which everyone would be famous for 15 minutes. Successful applicants for Gormley’s sculpture “One & Other” -- you have to be over 16 and live in the U.K. -- will each be given the opportunity to stand for an hour on the Fourth Plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square, and do whatever they want (within legal limits). A computer algorithm will choose the lucky 2,400 people who will briefly become statues, along with Nelson on his column.
Gormley, 58, has expressed the hope that some will take off their clothes, and others expound their political views, perform or demonstrate about something. Presumably anything, from the artistic point of view, would do.
It all sounds like a good British frolic: slightly embarrassing, eccentric and just right for the silly season through which “One & Other” will run, from July 6 to Oct. 14. Participants also will have the comfort -- dear to Britons -- of knowing that what they are doing is thoroughly traditional.
The use of living human beings as artistic material goes back a long way. The reason why we don’t see much of it in museums is that, as a medium -- for obvious reasons -- it doesn’t last.
Thousands of Nudes
In contemporary art, however, works featuring people are virtually a genre. Spencer Tunick has acquired a reputation for populous nude installations, mustering 18,000 naked people in Mexico City in 2007. Another contemporary artist, Vanessa Beecroft, has specialized in more controlled pieces, often featuring carefully arranged ranks of naked young woman.
Beecroft and Tunick are latter-day adherents to an established genre. It’s 40 years since Gilbert & George designated themselves “living sculptures,” and almost 50 since Italian artist Piero Manzoni signed selected individuals in 1961.
Manzoni metamorphosed various contemporaries into art in this way, including nude models and the author and writer Umberto Eco. He authenticated his animate works with color-coded stamps. Red meant that they were art forever; green that they were only sometimes art, for example when asleep, and so on. History doesn’t record what grade Eco was transformed into.
Even Manzoni was only the modernist end of a line that goes back at least to the Renaissance, when artists such as Leonardo da Vinci designed pageants and parades, including the costumes actors wore in them and the poses they struck. This kind of art, as the historian Vasari notes, was not entirely risk free.
At the festivities in Florence to mark the election of a Medici Pope, Leo X, in 1513 there were numerous floats. The last one, by the artists Pontormo and Bandinelli, featured a child “all naked and gilded,” symbolizing the birth of a new age. Sadly, the boy, the son of a baker, died soon afterwards as a result of the experience (perhaps like the girl in “Goldfinger,” from the ill effects of being painted in gold).
Let’s hope nothing unfortunate happens during the run of Gormley’s “One & Other.” But keeping control of exhibitionists and one-off protesters, plus all the spectators who come to look at them for 24 hours a day, isn’t going to be easy. It may be a harmless bit of artistic fun; the security, however, is going to have to be tight.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)