Words by Anthea Gerrie
Images: Oak Taylor Smith / Courtesy Neon / Ephorate Of Antiquities Of Cyclades And The Artist
On a deserted, moonlit Greek island where hundreds have decamped from all over the world to eat, drink and be merry — in the kind of nighttime gathering its sacred soil has not seen in nearly 2000 years — the artist Antony Gormley is feeling emotional.
‘This is so special, moving and wonderful… I’m so grateful you have all come to remind us of the life that was once here,’ he tells the coterie of fellow artists, gallerists, curators, archaeologists and aficionados assembled on Delos for the opening of Sight, his controversial repopulation of one of Greece’s three most sacred archaeological sites with 29 of his signature ‘bodyforms’, five of which have been newly created for the project. Standing, lying prostrate, bent in contemplation, crouched in despair or occasionally clinging together, the figures exude a sense of life totally absent in the elaborately adorned but dead-eyed marble statues punctuating fields littered with the pillars, pediments, pilasters, low walls and building blocks. Such ruins are all that remains of an abandoned port which in its heyday traded more than 750,000 tons of merchandise — and 250,000 slaves.
Knot (2010), installed in the ruins of Delos’ ancient amphitheatre (see also picture 5)
Gormley and the nonprofit organisation NEON, whose mission is to regenerate the ancient sites of Greece with contemporary art to attract a wider audience, have reminded the world that Delos — at the heart of the Aegean Sea’s Cyclades island group — was not only the mythical birthplace of Apollo and his twin sister Artemis, but for centuries the largest transit port in the eastern Mediterranean. Their intervention has annoyed a few tourists who have cited it an unwelcome man-made intrusion. But reaction of any kind is what Gormley is after, hoping this work answers a question he has been posing himself for years — ‘What is art for?’ — and answering, at least on behalf of his Delos installation: ‘To create the potential for encounters at a time when religion and politics have somehow failed us.’
Another Time V (2007)
He remains preoccupied with the relevance of sculpture — ‘so still, so silent, in a digital age where everything moves’ — and specifically the ‘few tonnes of product’ which have been carted across Europe on trucks and boats to spend a summer in the Aegean, something many thought would never be allowed to happen. ‘Delos is in our psyche, and was until now untouchable,’ explains Elina Kountouri, managing director of NEON, who says this first artist takeover of the island in its 5000-year history is ‘a once-in-a-lifetime’ experience. ‘It will change everything about the way we approach our archaeological sites, but this will never happen again,’ she says.
She cites long, incredibly detailed negotiations with archaeologists and politicians which started in 2017 following an invitation from the Ephorate of Antiquities of Cyclades to create a project. Delos, visited by only 100,000 of the two million tourists who descend on neighbouring Mykonos every year, was an obvious target — ‘we tend to idolise our ancient past, but this was a place where people lived with all the problems we are all still dealing with now,’ says Kountouri. But numerous negotiations had to be completed before she dared even contact Gormley, the sole artist on her wishlist, through co-curator, Iwona Blazwick, director of London’s Whitechapel Gallery: ‘I knew she was a close friend [of his],’ says Kountouri.
Gormley spent 36 hours last summer at their invitation, soaking up the barren, windswept landscape for which he would eventually create five new site-specific pieces, to be shown alongside two dozen of his existing sculptures that have been previously exhibited elsewhere. None of the figures were allowed to touch the island’s ancient surfaces, even its soil. Invisible protective skins have been installed and a complete replica column and capital built to withstand the weight of the figure weighing at least 500kg which sits upon it outside the island’s museum.
Vice II (2015)
Then there were the technical challenges, which Gormley outlines in his London studio before our site visit, recalling not only one of the wettest winters on record during the installation period but ‘something very unforgiving about the light of the Aegean, about the presence of the sky and sea’. Not to mention the greater challenge of ‘making a show in dialogue with a foundational culture which made some of the most sublime renderings of the body in the entire history of art’. The trick, he explains, was not to be daunted by the ancients: ‘Call me hubristic, but they made work appropriate for their time and I think I make work appropriate for mine — I’m not trying to take them on.’
Chute II (2018), one of Gormley’s five new, site-specific works
Nevertheless, he admits getting to grips with the sheer weight of history on a ritual-infused island where Athenians, Naxians and Parians vied with Delians to create the greatest and most splendid shrine to Apollo — before trade transformed it into what Gormley calls ‘the Singapore of the ancient world’ — was a challenge in itself. ‘I thought I was going to be absolutely overwhelmed by the wealth of archaeological remains,’ he says, ‘but in fact it’s pretty wrecked, and since 67BC has been used as a quarry.’
Cast III (2009)
It was the geology and ambience of the tiny 343ha island which really gripped him: ‘You wonder why on earth this inhospitable place with high wind and no deep water port should have become what it became. But there is a quality of the light and the way it bounces off the sea, and a quality of the rock itself — essentially granite, with some marble. The great staircase up to the highest point, Mount Kynthos, its pinnacles sculpted by wind and salt spray — that to me was the single greatest piece of archaeology, and I’ve put a piece up there near the top.’
He admits grappling to find spots which would resonate with work intending to be ‘meaningful for now’, the most obvious being the high point ‘from which you know thousands of our predecessors would have stood and gazed down on this incredible view — the whole of the island and all the larger islands around it. I wanted to honour that sense of tiny Delos being the epicentre around which the world turned. You feel that; it’s got an amazing atmosphere. And the island is the materialisation of a myth, the place where Leto came to have her illegitimate babies. Apollo is the god of wisdom, light, speed, energy, time, beauty, intelligence, poetry, healing, and this is his birthplace. You couldn’t get a better context to make sculpture for.’
Side II (2017), a new, site-specific work
An incubation period of reading and thinking hard about what Kountouri calls ‘a once very energetic, full-of-people place’ and which Gormley describes as ‘an island which once you’ve been exposed to stays inside you — you never leave’, produced the new pieces. These have joined the 24 other figures, what he describes as: ‘20 years of work knocking about the studio, capable of being loaned and used as a canvas to make another work.’ The new pieces include the reflection-gazing Water, a figure intended originally to sit in the middle of the site’s Minoan fountain, but which had to eventually be placed outside its already virtually full cistern. Weathering took place even before the first visitors arrived in May: ‘The mix of torrential rain, saline spray and very strong sun has already caused the pieces to react in ways we couldn’t ever have predicted,’ Gormley says.
Water (2018), a new, site-specific work
While insisting ‘I wasn’t ever interested in illustrating the ways these spaces were used historically’, it’s clear the chequered past of the island has been preying on the mind of the man who graduated from Cambridge in anthropology, archaeology and history of art and studied Buddhism before settling for sculpting. ‘They were trading 10,000 slaves in a single day in a place of ritual worship — where did they put them?’ he wonders, of a place devoid of any trees or shade into whose biggest open space, likely the slave market, he has put a crouching figure, Vice II (2015), with its head in its hands, ‘illustrating the confusion I feel over how a place associated with rationality and justice, the perfectability of the human project, could also be associated with the commodification of human beings’.
Gormley with one of his new works for the island, Reflect (2017)
Human trafficking still being an issue even in modern democracies, Gormley clearly does have an intent for his dynamic figures to provoke discussion and change — unlike the ancient statues which merely idolise and idealise the gods, warriors, athletes and other heroes they depict — and look towards the future. As Gormley says to me straight from the heart before I leave his studio: ‘A project like this, which allows work made today to continue that job of allowing us to be more here, to have a relationship with place, with time and each other and extend the experience of being, is a huge privilege and a joy. It’s something we’ve lost and I’m passionate about that — about what sculpture can do.’