The Human Cost of ‘Progress’: Antony Gormley’s “Human” (2015)


An important aspect of monuments and their relationship to public space is their interaction with not only their audience but the space within which they are situated. The choice of location for the building of monuments and enactments of artistic interventions is very much determined as part of the project and as such is particularly important in determining the meaning of the piece. Antony Gormley’s 2015 exhibition at the Forte di Belvedere in Florence, Italy is a particularly interesting example of public art that really takes space into account within its actualization and display. The exhibit takes place at the historic fortress commissioned by Grand Duke Ferdinando I de’Medici in the 15th century and is a status of power as well as surveillance for the region. Strategically built on a hill overlooking the city of Florence the fortress has a wide scope of the city beneath which sprawls out to the Tuscan hills that form its borders. The status of a fortress is one of a guarantor of security; a stronghold or keep, the fortress is a space of defense, control and boundaries. Working with these ideas of what the fortress has represented over time Gormley situates his iron sculptures throughout the entirety of the space in order to create an awareness of how bodies interact with the building. The 100+ sculptures, all made of iron, are of the human body in various forms of movement and states and include several previously completed exhibition pieces such as Gormley’s 1995 exhibition Critical Mass II of which there are two arrangements. Composed of 60 pieces Critical Mass II contains 12 body forms each cast 5 times in a variety of different postures. These are present at the fort in two juxtaposing arrangements: one is set up in a line of figures beginning from a crouched position and ending in a confidant stance while the other is a jumble of figures on the ground lying altogether in a mass heap. According to Gormley the arrangements represent ideals such as the ascent of man and the “shadow side of any idea of human progress” (Gormley Human). Indeed, Critical Mass II was created as “an anti-monument evoking all the victims of the 20th century” and originally was intended as a commentary for the dark parts of Germany’s past and was to be displayed in an unused tram depot in Vienna (Human Press Release). Other pieces include Gormley’s more recent works collectively labeled as ‘Blockworks’ which resemble a pixelated human form. In total the works extend throughout the fortress and await people to stumble upon them. Situated both on top of the ledge as well as every nook and corner of the grounds these sculptures perform an occupation of the space, taking back control of the space of surveillance, power and ideological narrative of renaissance idealism.


The name of the exhibition, Human, refers to Gormley’s work with the human body and its occupation of space both material and ephemeral as well as the ideals of humanism and its subsequent failures. Within the context of the renaissance fortress the occupation of space by the sculptures reconsiders the space from the perspective of human bodies thereby placing emphasis on the relationship individuals have with the building. Rather that creating a piece of similar size to match the scale of the fortress Gormley uses life-size pieces to accentuate the size of the fortress and consider it through a human scale. Analyzing the fortress through the interaction and viewpoint of human bodies inserted throughout the premises considers the impact and relationships bodies have with the structure. Rather than focusing on the grandness of the building and its location above the city, which lends the structure its powerful gaze and stature, the plethora of sculptures occupy the space in a way that scales it down for better human conceptualization. This differs from the typical consideration of the fortress as a grandiose monument and reconsiders its grander than life persona. The Forte di Belvedere stands as a symbol of the historic domination and power of Florence throughout the Renaissance. Within a contemporary context the fortress serves to uphold this reputation and narrative of Florence. Though it is invariably influential throughout the renaissance, this reliance on the perpetuation of a single narrative isolates Florence within a single time period and leaves little consideration for the more recent as well as older histories it contains as well as the consequences and casualties of this achievement. In this way the fortress invokes the standard qualities of a monument to represent a monolithic and limited national, and in this case local, narrative.


Human acts as a public intervention unto the monument associated with perpetuating and exalting the narrative of the ideals and achievements of humanism and renaissance thinking. Using the structure associated with military power and dominance Gormley inserts a human perspective that questions these ideals and the narrative of progress which stems from them. Using life-sized sculptures Gormley complicates this narrative by asking the viewer to reevaluate the notion of progress by considering its cost, usually comprised of actual human bodies. The ideals of the renaissance placed high emphasis on the mental qualities of humankind such as the ability to reason and make discoveries. The desire to exercise these qualities led to the flourishing of education and culture but for select parts of the population. Those who could afford to study and practice art were offered opportunities while the people who benefitted from this form of enlightenment and splendor were those already in positions of wealth and power. In order to sustain these practices massive amounts of labour was performed and even artists were at the mercy of their patrons and the courts. While several of the sculptures look up with a sort of dreamy expression others are found in fetal positions, lying in a lifeless mass or strewn in doorways as if homeless. This intervention inserts the idea of the public into local memory by making sure that at every turn of the edifice the viewers encounter a body. These encounters insist on grounding the dreams of humanism and critiquing its idealism as incomplete and problematic visions. What is particularly interesting about the exhibit and its placement is the interaction with contemporary Florence as a site of complicated relations with its public in terms of immigration and citizenship. The city, in supporting its status as a form of museum of the renaissance relies on its tourist industry and in so doing on the many vendors who proliferate the streets selling selfie-sticks and knock off handbags. Of these people the majority are immigrants from South-East Asia and Africa. While Italy’s citizenship policies are becoming more and more strict its economy is nevertheless supported by its immigrant population. This contestation between who comprises the public and who is addressed by the cultural heritage thus becomes a site of criticism which Gormley explores within his exhibition. I think that the intervention does a good job of occupying space and that Gormley possesses a very good spatial awareness, however I wish the exhibition had a more distinct link to the local contemporary histories within which it was located. Still, the ambiguity of the faceless sculptures does well for raising questions over the relevance of human bodies in fulfilling grand narratives and ideals and this links the project on a transnational scale as many places in the contemporary world bear relevance with this exhibition. All of North America was built through the bodies of slaves, Aboriginal populations and immigrants; all current notions of progress and 21st century achievements rely on this foundation. In this way the simplicity of the form of the body becomes a moving discourse that critiques our national narratives and reminds us of the historical realities as well as the current ones on which such narratives rely.



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