Antony Gormley – Being a Part of It
Antony Gormley’s project transformed the empty plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square into a stage on which thousands of people took up temporary residency over a three month period. Each resident had one hour to use more or less as they pleased. They sang, they danced, they whistled, they made art, they undressed, they texted friends, they delivered messages, took photographs and performed all manner of familiar and unfamiliar human activities within the confines of the minimal 14 by 3 foot stone space. Newspapers and media asked ‘Is it art?’, yet the very first feature of Gormley’s project was to bring out the tension between a place and what occupies it that constitutes the condition of artistic creation itself.
‘One and Other’ dramatised the minimal opposition between a place – the empty plinth – and an element – in this case, its hourly inhabitant. The plinth was the artificial frame in which something was placed, created or performed. It thus brought out the basic logic of works of art: that to be a work, an object must find itself in the right place. Any object or activity can become art if it is put in the right place, defined by the frame which the artist or artworld introduces. The classic example is Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’, a urinal, signed, dated, entered and rejected for the Society of Independent Artists show in New York in 1917. Whether it is a urinal or a pile of bricks or a bottle rack, it becomes art if it is made by the right person and exhibited in the right place. There is thus a difference between the object – the urinal, bricks, the bottle rack – and the frame which turns them into art.
The title of the project sets out this elementary distinction, the ‘One’ evoking the fixity of the frame, and the ‘Other’, the variable, unknown quantity which will occupy it. Following this logic, rather than seeing the emergence of, say, Duchamp’s readymades as signalling the end of art, it simply brings out its basic condition, the tension between a work and where the work finds itself. The elevation of trashy or excremental objects to the status of art is thus less a collapsing than a refinement of its logic. As Slavoj Zizek observes, media controversy over whether some junk or excrement found in an art gallery is ‘really art’ simply reaffirms the separation between the work and the place the work finds itself in. Preserving this minimal gap between the element and the place might make people ask ‘Is it art?’, yet the very fact of asking this question confirms that, indeed, it is. Art, following this logic, is simply anything about which one can ask ‘Is it art?’ Since there are no limits to the act of uttering this question, art is bound up with a certain performative dimension: the question itself delivers the answer.
Where so many of the plinthers described the frame they had inhabited as a theatrical space, Gormley himself refers to it as “more soapbox than stage”. This inflection touches on one of the most interesting features of the project, the way in which the plinth was used as a platform to convey messages. Whereas some of the occupants remained silent or engaged in a solitary, uncommunicative activity, most had something to say. They spoke to the crowd or camera of some charitable cause or issue which required increased awareness, or promoted a business, a book or more personal message. But what these multiple appeals had in common was the use of the plinth to communicate something, to make sure that a meaning was conveyed, understood, disseminated. Yet how does a stage differ from a soapbox here, and what, exactly, does it mean to send a message?
To think about the function of a stage invites us to reflect on why theatre exists, and the fact that it occupies a place in all human cultures suggests that this existence is not arbitrary or contingent but structural. Although the forms of theatre vary widely both historically and cross-culturally, perhaps one central feature involves the aim of conveying a truth. Direct speech is not suited to do this, for at least three reasons. First of all, we have to use the words of others that make up our language, thus depriving us of the unique dimension necessary to articulate a personal truth. We could think here of Hugh Grant’s desperation in ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’: he wants to tell Andie McDowell that he loves her, but the words have been uttered so many times they will only alienate him further. All he can do is to repeat ‘In the words of David Cassidy, ‘I love you’”. Words, in this sense, always belong to other people.
Secondly, in the process of learning to speak, we lose our message in the codes imposed on us. The baby who cries may find its tears interpreted as a demand for milk, when in fact, they had been for something entirely different. From then on, however, they may use those same tears to request, precisely, milk. Spoken words themselves displace our message interminably, as they always mean more than what we say and force a system of codes on us, distorting whatever it is we intend to convey, a principle exploited time and time again by comedy. When you ask for one thing, you get something else: the wrong person in your bed, a letter that was destined for someone else, or, at Fawlty Towers, always the restaurant dish that you didn’t ask for.
Thirdly, human language simply does not provide answers to the basic questions of sex, mortality and procreation. Words can describe, detail and define, but they can never provide definitive solutions, as any parent knows who has tried to explain the ‘facts of life’ to their children. Something is always left out, incomplete, enigmatic, unresolved. This means that how we are affected by these questions cannot be ‘said’ in any ready or transparent manner, and it is this very impasse that often generates artistic production: people search for new ways to ‘say’ what cannot be said.
The process of creating ‘One and Other’ provides an amusing example of this. Gormley and his team were made to take part in a curious but apparently necessary exercise, in which they met with health and safety officials who spent an afternoon imagining what could happen on the plinth. Rather than simply arrange for a medic to be on hand or for a direct line to emergency services to be set up, they pondered, came up with scenarios, then pondered again, rather like a Quaker meeting in which each person waits for inspiration to speak. Yet it would be difficult not to see the scenarios – someone masturbates on the plinth, someone dies, commits a murder – as simply the phantasies of the officials themselves, as if the empty space of the plinth became the site of the projection of unconscious desires. Desires here can only be articulated obliquely, in displaced form: in fact, they are now called risks.
This strange transformation is part of the theatrical process, which allows a message to be conveyed in allusive, oblique ways, through both words and actions, yet without directly attempting to present a message. Just as the health and safety officials couldn’t say ‘I wish..’, so theatre tends to avoid the effort to directly communicate a message. This, presumably, is the difference between a theatre and a soapbox: if truth is obliquely conveyed in theatre, the soapbox speaker hopes to convey it with a certain immediacy, which is perhaps why soapbox speakers so frequently end up exchanging insults with their audience: where speech fails, the insult is the closest we can get to the successful delivery of a message, a moment when words can genuinely hit their referent.
The fact that so many of the plinthers were there to send a message can suggest to us how difficult sending a message must actually be. As Gormley put it, “The message is more important than the messenger”. Literature, art and cinema are filled with examples of someone desperate to deliver a message while everything around them conspires to block its receipt. In Zola’s ‘Therese Raquin’, an elderly woman discovers that her beloved daughter-in-law and the latter’s new husband had murdered her son. Paralysis makes her unable to appeal for help, so she saves all her remaining energy for the Thursday night card game at which other people will be present. As she desperately moves her fingers and tries to trace letters to spell out the message on the tabletop, the company assume she wants to play dominoes and finish her message for her: the ‘have’ which was to be followed by ‘murdered’ becomes ‘have been very good to me’. The scene plays out in an agonising and protracted way the basic structure of human speech: the code transforms the message into something else.
If this predicament can incite us towards the soapbox, there is still the question of who the plinthers’ messages were addressed to? This once again brings out the question implicit in the project’s title: ‘One and Other’. If the One now refers to the unique individual there to say something, the Other is more opaque. Is it just the public, defined in the sense of a numerical mass: the more ears that hear, the more donations to the charitable cause, the more public awareness of the issue etc? But who is the real addressee here? It was clear that for some, it was a dead parent or child, for others the audience in the square, for others, the anonymous internet watchers. Gormley observed how one could infer the identity of this audience from the plinther’s orientation: if the audience was the square, they looked south, if the camera, they looked north.
If we can never really know the identity beyond the identity, the real addressee beyond the immediate addressee, the project nonetheless suggested that perhaps the relations of viewer, stage and audience are actually built into our everyday existence. The plinth just brought out a feature of all our communicative acts and, indeed, our everyday endeavours. Perhaps at some level, we always feel that we are on a plinth, in full view of others, with no place to hide, subject to an invasive exposure, or performing for some Other. The look of the Other is built into our view of ourselves, and so there is a continuity between life on the plinth and off it. When plinthers just did boring everyday things like send texts, call mates or read books, they were showing that everything takes place on a stage, whether we are conscious of this or not. Indeed, it was these more humble performances that were in the end far more radical than the more dramatic or clownish interventions.
As Gormley points out, this externalisation of a private, subjective dynamic turns the One – in the sense of the individual participant – into an Other, allowing both an engagement with our internalised spectators and a questioning of the ownership of our actions. Rendering us Other means that we are less masters of ourselves, and indeed, speaking of their experiences on the plinth, many of the participants spoke of their surprise at their own thoughts, reactions and behaviour. ‘One and Other’ signifies, in this sense, less an opposition than an equivalence.
This emphasis throughout ‘One and Other’ on sending a message has a political dimension, and it can help us to bring into focus some of the commentaries which interpret it as a democratic project. We have seen how difficult – if not impossible – it is to send a message without distortion, displacement or misprision. If this is a feature of human speech itself, it concerns just as well each person’s relation to the political process. When news bulletins and media programmes encourage viewers and listeners to email or text their views after some current affairs story, there is the offer of inclusion, as if each individual voice counts. Yet, with a few exceptions, this is hardly ever the case. We inhabit a society in which, rather than a more honest rejection of the individual’s views, there is a new cosmetic listening, a false promise that one’s views will be heard.
Civil servants today go on courses which teach them how to make members of the public feel listened to, and consultation protocols insist that every voice be heard: only to then be forgotten, after of course being duly noted. Engaging with such processes throws the individual back on the basic problem of speech itself and the impossibility of delivering a message. The political process recapitulates the process of language in its alienating and ultimately violent imposition on the human subject. The new democracy is a fundamentally dishonest one, gathering up voices, listening to them but only ultimately not to hear them. The distinction between hearing and listening has perhaps never been more pronounced than today.
‘One and Other’ brought out the political impasse here with great elegance. So many of the plinthers from day one to the final hours had political messages, yet rather than staging mass protests, they were there as isolated individuals on a bare plinth. Even if their voices were registered by viewers and listeners, their physical isolation on the plinth brought home the loneliness and desolation of the act of attempting to have one’s message heard. The political arena here has become part of the artificial space of art, thereby depoliticising the content of the message and indeed, the very dimension of the message itself. The discourse appropriating art today increasingly has this function, as if by designating works and interventions as art they can often be safely bracketed off from real politics.
Even if a work is conceived as a political intervention, and the artist is elaborating a political project, the discourse that tries to subsume it as a particular kind of art can undo it, precisely through the process of framing and designating. Herein lies both a paradox and a principle of action: can a work use the very conditions which seemingly remove its political dimension as a mainspring for, precisely, a political intervention?
As Gormley points out, “people feel that their actions don’t count”, and so they seek out what he calls “points of registration”, which could be situated along a spectrum ranging from acts of violence to emailing a news programme with one’s opinions and thoughts. The key to this spectrum, however, is that the less one is genuinely heard, the more that acts of violence are likely to ramify, as the only true way in which one’s voice can be heard. Situating such points of registration within the social space of public art has the effect of both depoliticising and bringing out the fundamental imbalance of the new politics of listening rather than hearing. On the other hand, one could argue that the multiplication and diversification of new points of registration can have mediating, pacifying social effects.
One of the current political responses to the need for such points of registration is the ever increasing demand for a specificity of registration. When people insist that their voices be heard, they are asked to specify with more and more precision what exactly it is that they want: a new community centre, a larger recreation hall, an official apology for a specific action. Individual differences here are respected to the point, however, that they become depoliticised. As each statement of diversity is reduced to a localised difference claim, these differences lose their value as metaphors for political antagonism itself. And human subjectivity, in the end, cannot be equated with a set of difference claims, however minimal. As Zizek points out, subjectivity, at least in a psychoanalytic sense, is simply the refusal of any form of interpellation. The forms of this interpellation will change over time and in different cultures – from the emphasis on moral duties to today’s imperatives to be autonomous and self-determining – and the forms of refusal of these imperatives will also change – from medieval acedia to the nineteenth century theatre of hysteria and today’s so-called depressive illnesses. But the study of these forms should not obscure for us the difference between the self – construed as the locus of social imperatives and ideals – and the subject – defined as the point of refusal of all interpellation.
Curiously, this imbalance is reflected in the position taken by some plinthers. Rather than instructing the crowd, or telling them what to do – dance, talk, do yoga etc – they let themselves be open to what the crowd, their friends, family etc told them. They received texts or calls or emails giving them instructions, making themselves into puppets. Rather than seeing this as the antithesis of those who sent out a message to the others, why not see it as the reverse side of exactly the same process: that since speaking and emitting a message involves distortion and loss of one’s original intention, disappearing beneath the code of the Other, emitting and receiving are, in a certain sense, one and the same thing.
So why did they do it? Was it solely to seek the “points of registration” that Gormley describes? There are no doubt reasons unique to each participant, both known and unknown to them, for their decision to occupy the space. But, listening to the plinthers speak about their choice, one point recurs again and again: they wanted, they say, to be part of a larger project, to be included, to count. It’s the reason Julie Andrews was so late for her prayers at the beginning of ‘The Sound of Music’: “The sky was so blue”, she says, “Everything was so green and fragrant. I just had to be part of it”. Yet being a part of is not merely a whim or caprice but obeys a more powerful logic
People often wish to feel part of something bigger, be it the sea, a sunset, a family history or a political, social or artistic project. The forms of this inclusion vary, yet one of the underlying themes concerns ownership and love. Sometimes, the only solution to the impossibility of possessing another person is to make oneself belong to them. If they can’t belong to you, you can make yourself a part of them. If we can’t have something, if we can never be secure in our ownership of someone else – or their love –the wish to ‘have’ is transformed into the wish to ‘be to’, a torsion visible in those languages which equate the two verbal forms. This logic sheds light on those partnerships in which the sense of ‘belonging to’ someone else seems to guarantee a longevity which the turbulence of the relationship would otherwise overturn.
And this ‘being to’ generates its own series of avatars: to be part of a community, to be part of a social, theatrical or charitable project – even, crucially today, to be part of the planet. The appetite for inclusion in the plinth project demonstrates this wish to form a part, and as Gormley notes, what began as a portrait of Britain, of a community, ended up actually creating a community which formed around the project. Like his earlier work ‘Domain Field’, what seemed to begin as the recording of a certain social group ended up as the creation of a new collectivity. Gormley’s work, indeed, has always explored this process. At first, this was through the image of his own body, the sculpted form of which allowed an access from the particular to the universal in the tradition of Christian art. But now, as Gormley has in effect vacated his own bodily form from the plinth, a new space has opened up: what will happen in this space is still, as the artist says, unknown.