I'm crouched within Antony Gormley's latest sculptural installation, 'Model', the centrepiece of his new exhibition at White Cube Bermondsey, tentatively feeling my way around what is, in effect, a 106- foot-long series of 24 interconnecting, welded-steel boxes, based on the artist's own prone form.
Surprisingly, the experience is nowhere near as claustrophobic as it looked like it was going to be from the outside. Yes, there are dark passageways and low ceilings to navigate but there are also unexpected openings, illuminating the shadows with soft shards of light, which make this a contemplative place to be as well as an anxiety-inducing one. This isn't about passive viewing but is meant to provoke both feelings of calm and unease. The sharp corners materialising out of the gloom that I might easily have thwacked my head on certainly succeeded in heightening the awareness of my own body within space.
With all the clean lines and sharp angles, the other reference is to being inside a modernist building, albeit a clanging, metallic one. What Gormley is asking us to also ponder on is what it actually means to think about the body as architecture – a way of containing and protecting the intimate, complex and vulnerable parts of us.
Back outside, under the bright gallery lights, the sheer size of 'Model' makes it impossible to perceive the figure in its entirety. But an accompanying gallery of maquettes of this and other works provide some insight into how all the chambers fit together, as do the host of other cast-iron figures on display, similarly constructed from angular blocks, but on a more human scale.
Gormley, of course, is no stranger to putting himself into his sculpture. Over the past 40 years he has installed body casts of his own form on beaches, on the top of buildings and stuck halfway up gallery walls. But this is the first piece where the viewer is able to also put themselves inside one of these works, and the experience of Gormley's art is all the better for it.
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'Please sign this form below to indicate you have read and understood the above' could have been a fine title for a timely conceptual art piece. It is, in this instance, what viewers will have to read just before, most probably, willingly offering their best autograph prior to the visit of this astonishing Model. A duly dated, signed and acknowledged 10-Guidelines one-pager is indeed the legal precondition to the visit. One might wonder if such document could not be envisaged in fact as an integral part of the interactive experience in negotiating with a work which, after all, aims at 'engaging our embodied sense of space, light and volume' - including an increasing lack of in modern prescriptive societies, alluded to in the darkest and most disquieting parts of the Model. To paraphrase Guideline Number 3, you are not advised to visit this show if you suffer from bureaucratic micro-managerial claustrophobia. Guideline Number 10 'You are advised not to consume alcohol before entering Model' is particularly poignant. Thought-provoking, in many ways. And not entirely reassuring.