Think about ambiguity in your art. To be ambiguous means to give double — or more than one — meaning. Ambiguity is one of the main reasons installation art attracts. Different, perhaps, from the “quality art” that most of us strive for, it’s the “quality idea” that engages and bends the mind.
Antony Gormley is a British artist who deals in ambiguity. Angel of the North is a massive winged figure that overlooks the A1 motorway near Gateshead in the UK. Rising on the horizon like one of those ballsy bulls that formerly advertised brandy on the skylines of Spain, it’s a modern-day Otto Lilienthal about to take the leap. As the believable technology of possible flight, it feels like a tribute to the century in which man finally mastered the air. Then again, perhaps it’s the Egyptian Goddess Isis winging over her subjects. Or is it a hilltop crucifixion–man crucified by his own technology? Or an ornament, like a car badge that happens to be made large, as “big” artists are wont to do these days.
Gormley raises the stakes on rural and urban installations by embracing enigma and looking for the potential of ambiguity. What are those bronze people doing standing on London rooftops or knee-deep in the Crosby tide looking wistfully out to sea?
“Angel” was completed in 1998. It’s made of Corten steel, weighs 200 tonnes and has 500 tonnes of concrete foundations. It’s the largest outdoor monument in the UK. Gormley has asked himself, “Is it possible to make a work with a purpose in a time that demands doubt?” Without giving too much away, he says, “I wanted to make an object that would be a focus of hope at a painful time of transition for the people of the Northeast, abandoned in the gap between the industrial and the information ages.” Could anything be clearer?
Ambiguity need not be in your face. Ambiguity, particularly in the long term, may be most effective when subtle and hard-won for the viewer. Windows suggest eyes, trees reach for the sky and pray, rocks have relationships, rivers have ambition and disappointment, patterns of snow or sky have secondary patterns that tell another story beyond the obvious. People are birds and can fly.
PS: “The entire landscape becomes a potential flight path for this human condor.” (Waldemar Januszczak, critic)
Esoterica: People are drawn to mystery. The psyche demands a puzzle. Humankind is in love with ambiguity. Gormley’s work stands, without a spotlight or a plinth, day and night, in wind, rain and shine, and has many friends. “It is a huge inspiration to me,” says Gormley, “that the Angel is rarely alone in daylight hours, and as with much of my work, it is given a great deal through the presence of those who visit it.”
Angel of the North by artist Antony Gormley
More than face value
by Terry Gilecki, Delta, BC, Canada
Everyone enjoys a mystery. Some people will go to great length to find one, regardless of whether there actually is one to find or not. I try to work a message into my art when I can, and I’ve found that an ambiguous one is a far more compelling one. As a painter, my first intention is to stimulate the visual senses. However, if the subject of the painting allows, leading the viewer into a mystery in the interpretation of the painting adds another dimension and possibly a more personal interaction with the art. A painting becomes a favourite, based not only on how it looks, but also on what it may have to say. There is something to be said for getting more than face value.
Looking into the bag
by Lorelle Miller, CA, USA
Ambiguity in art can create a living, breathing response to the work. We create in a particular moment, in a specific intellectual or emotional state of mind. Once time and circumstance has changed, so does our perspective and hence our interpretation. This activity, which allows for an exchange of thought and response, feels like the flow of the creative process itself. How wonderful for artist and art appreciator alike to have the same benefit brought about by an open-ended conversation. What does it mean? The question may stay the same; the answers usually differ. The creator can be quite astonished at what his creation has brought forth. It is the mystery bag of creativity. No one knows what he will get, yet we all look in the bag to see what’s there.
Gormley down under
by Rosemary Mostyn, Perth, Australia
We have these amazing steel sculptures which were formed and installed by Antony Gormley at Lake Ballard near Menzies in Western Australia for the International Festival of Perth in 2002. There are 51 sculptures placed widely apart on this desert-like landscape. Although installed as a temporary exhibition for the duration of the festival, they now stand as a permanent reminder of Gormley’s creative spirit inspired by this ancient land.
Mr Dressup on the beach
by Faith Puleston, Herdecke, Germany
In April I visited Crosby beach. Crosby district is just outside Liverpool city on the English coast. There, Antony Gormley has installed a whole lot of life-sized naked males cast in metal in the sand. When the tide comes in they are partially or completely submerged. I enclose some snapshots I took there. It was an uplifting experience to be there on a beautiful day. I feel that he has captured our smallness in the universe in a very special, poetic and dynamic way. Ambiguous? They are all male! These figures all look out to sea and are obviously regarded highly by visitors, who even dress them up. Liverpool is the European city of culture in 2008. Fortunately the metal figures have been saved and will remain there for everyone to enjoy.
Viewers not always aware
by Linda Blondheim, Gainesville, FL, USA
The average viewer has no idea of the mystery and intrigue going on right under his nose. Most artists are using complex and mysterious methods to achieve the beauty in their paintings. Through the elements of design the artist leads the viewer around the painting with deliberation. Viewers are not aware of the arcane complexities of painting. They believe it just happens. It doesn’t take installation art to create intrigue. Good old fashioned design skill can achieve all the intrigue you need.
Anthropomorphism in Japanese art
by Carole Ann Borges, Knoxville, TN, USA
I’ve always marveled at the way Japanese masters can infuse natural elements with incredible, almost human, emotion. It is as if they had honed the ability to embed a whole host of feelings in the most ordinary elements. You not only recognize agony, endurance, and tenacious strength, you also get feelings of incredible serenity, humor, and dance-like movement. Leaves swing like children, tree roots grab the soil with ferocious need, and even rocks can seem to laugh. This is never overt, and yet it is impossible for me to look at a Japanese landscape without seeing human qualities embedded in the painting. Could this be because my own mind has a desire to identify human forms even when they are absent? Possibly, but this doesn’t happen when I look at landscapes done by European painters. Van Gogh’s wild sky and his dancing stars and undulating fields come close, but they are more like pure animation and seem to come from the artist’s own emotion rather than the subtle spiritual infusion the Japanese paintings offer. Anthropomorphism? The word comes to mind. Do the Japanese see something we Westerners don’t see when they look out at a natural setting? Do they feel something different?
Meanings surface in unexpected ways
by Brigitte Nowak, Toronto, ON, Canada
In art, I believe that “ambiguity” adds interest, depth and meaning, enriches the viewer’s experience of the work, and allows the artist to make allusions without preaching. Symbolism, subliminal messaging, even Freudian slips, enhance the way a work can resonate. The most interesting ambiguities may well extend beyond the artist’s conscious intentions, to the subconscious meanings that surface in unexpected ways.
Viewers’ versions the best
by Georgeana Ireland, Irvine, CA, USA
As an artist, I am drawn to a mysterious haunting beauty that is often elusive and hard to capture. It is like striving to hit the perfect note in a musical score. So often, my collectors see many things in my work… It is safer to say “what do you see in my work?” when they ask me to describe it. They go on to tell me complex stories of a place once visited or the emotion of love… Indians, eagles, sculls, geishas, and faces in the murky, mysterious, abstract works. I enjoy the stories and the connection that draws them to the art. I often fall short in my explanations and enjoy their versions much more… I then see the face in the water… and share the experience.
Reaching out with ambiguity
by Mary Moquin, Sandwich, MA, USA
I have delved into the craziness of obtaining my MFA at the tender age of 47. It is something I have always wanted to do. This letter speaks to the current challenge I am struggling through with my own work. I have discovered that in order to reach more people I have to be more ‘ambiguous.’ At one time, I might have thought that was a cop out. If one has something to say, shouldn’t one say it clearly? Yet, if we say it clearly, it is possible that fewer people will hear it, because perhaps the message is too obvious or limited or trite or sentimental, etc. To leave a work more ambiguous is really to allow it to have a life of its own. To let the work interact with the many intellects and emotional beings that will encounter it. As an artist, it may be more powerful to gently point in a direction and leave the ultimate journey to the free will of the viewer.
Such a wing-span!
by Anne Swannell, Victoria, BC, Canada
I saw Anthony Gormley’s bronze cast figures in London this spring. Like dozens of tourists, my partner and I had our photos taken standing beside the one on the bridge. We also went into his fog box in the Hayward Gallery. But my question is this… How do you think The Angel of the North manages not to be blown down in the gales that sweep across England from time to time? Such a wing-span! Divine intervention?
(RG note) Thanks, Anne. No. Consulting engineers dictated a huge underground concrete foundation and sound structural design. It is built to withstand winds never heard of in England. I may be wrong, but only the Angel’s critics can blow her down.
Appalled at the rust
by Dudley Parker, England, UK
I have seen The Angel of the North and am appalled. A large piece of steel allowed to go rusty. In time it will corrode away or have to be maintained at great cost. The whole heap of junk should have been left in the steel mill, but since it was built to be displayed, the matter of corrosion should have been dealt with in the design stage. A gross waste of metal and other resources.
(RG note) Thanks Dudley. Corten steel is formulated in such a way as to achieve a reddish patina in short order and maintain the look without a great deal of degradation. Having said that, Robert Indiana’s much replicated LOVE statue, made from Corten and first installed in 1976, has had to be restored and even painted in several locations.
Behemoths bake no bread
by Jerome Grimmer, Oakhurst, CA, USA
Would you be commenting on Gormley’s “Angel” if it had not been done on such a colossal scale? Admittedly the sculpture is an idea that tweaks the imagination and causes the viewer to speculate on the artist’s statement, an amalgam of Icarus and Oscar maybe? I have come, however, to see titanic size of execution as a kind of plea – no, DEMAND – for attention rather than a quality required by the original concept. At least “Angel” is rendered more permanently than other staggeringly large installations such as Christo’s transitory Running Fence or The Gates. It is said cynically that “Art bakes no bread.” The enormous consumption of resources that these outsized behemoths require can only feed that same cynicism and cause it to cry, “Art squanders bread.”
Exploration of relationships
by Suzanne Northcott, Fort Langley, BC, Canada
I was entranced by Gormley’s show at the Hayward Gallery in London last spring, a retrospective which included the new piece Blind Light. It revealed an artist moving along an avenue of discovery, using, changing materials, lead to wire to light, as called for. The gap that I sometimes experience with contemporary work between concept and material presence was bridged through his understanding of the implications of his material choices in the expression of his ideas. Here was an artist given over to “bringing to light” the result of his endless inquiry and I saw that his work could be entered at any level. Anyone could walk into Blind Light and have a very direct experience of that which he is exploring, the relationship between our “first body” or elemental flesh body and the second body of the architecture we live inside and the relationships between those. The evidence of the power of heart and mind together in the work was heartening, uplifting.
The space around
by Sara Genn, Santorini, Greece
Gormley has stated that the energy behind his work stems from a need to define the space left out by his sculptures… as opposed to the standard “defining” of volume that most sculptors strive for. Funny for a guy who casts his own life size body in lead. This left-out space is as valuable. Using the figure as he does, it’s easy to overlook these other subtleties (the figure is so literal… everyone can grab it as an object metaphor). What I love about his work is the devotion to this human thing and also the cleverness with which he exhausts it. One only needs to see Blind Light (the exhibition).
by Robert Erskine, Harrow, Middlesex, UK
Your article on Ambiguity where you site Gormley’s work as the perfect example, is typical of the seduction surrounding him. Many of our critics here in the UK particularly applaud him because he speaks “critic speak,” and his work, as you state, is ambiguous in nature. Gormley’s sculpture is cloaked in pseudo cerebral explanatory layers. It is repetitious and always about his own body form, usually directly cast. The direct body cast technique is quick, lifeless, bland. However, with one exception is the artist George Segal who put a little more life in his body casts. The very soul or energy that must emanate from within sculpture that moves, stirs, is lacking in Gormley’s work. Henry Moore has written about just this facet of sculpture. If these elements are present, then the smallest piece of sculpture has this resonance. In terms of scale, if they are absent then the weaknesses are merely amplified, as Gormley’s work shows.
Angel of the North is based upon his own body form with adapted elongated out of scale arms formed into wings. He has used his explanation of it to fit into what the politicians, arts organisations, and councillors of the time wanted to hear. The sculpture was erected because the last Conservative Government, in a desperate move to obtain votes in this most impoverished region of the UK, wanted to be seen to be ‘doing something positive,’ and to argue that they had ‘supported the arts.’ It has nothing to do with re-generation or hope for the region. In previous months they had destroyed the major ship building industries, with the closure of the Swan Hunter Ship Yard. Why ambiguity is so important to create ‘presence,’ is largely due to the simple truth that individuals like Gormley have misunderstood the fact that honesty is a pre-eminent strand in one’s work. I do not see it but hear smart explanation, and charm. I feel that he just makes miles of uninspiring objects which he tries to eloquently wrap in verbal ambiguity. His recent ‘works’ in London have been criticised for their inherent weaknesses. His work he says is about life, about the ‘body, presence.’ Herein is the ambiguity, for none of these energies are present. What is present, is lifeless repetition, for which he is master.
Time changes the story
by Luann Udell, Keene, NH, USA
When I first studied the Lascaux cave in the ’70s, the common theory was that these beautiful animal paintings were “sympathetic magic,” created to aid and ensure a successful hunt. Only men and adolescent boys were probably allowed to participate in the ceremonies. Damage from spear points suggested their use as target practice, so seemed to support this. Now research shows that these animals were NOT a food source for this tribe. The target practice was committed by another, much later tribe who came upon the cave paintings years after. There is evidence of the presence of women and children in the caves. So what is their “real” story? The newest theory about the purpose of these paintings is something much more powerful, and poignant, and timely: It was an age of great climatic change, and cultural upheaval. Their whole way of life was disappearing, almost overnight. Their very survival was at stake. They may have been calling the horses back. As one writer put it so eloquently, the cave paintings are a message that is not addressed to us. We do not know the meaning, we FEEL its power. We SENSE something big is going on. We SEE the changes in our hearts when we look at it. And we make up a story that satisfies us as to what that is. And that, to me, is at the root of all great art. It moves us. And pulls a story out of us, whether it is the one the artist intended or not. Once Angel was put out into the world, he carried a story, and we will read it with pleasure. But in time, it may not be the one the artist thought he was telling.
by Sidney Chambers, East Sussex, UK
I am particularly fond of ambiguity between the title and the image, a hangover from my younger days when infatuated with the Surrealists, the masters of ambiguity. I tend to produce an image that would be classed as figurative and uncomplicated intellectually and then throw the observer by having a title that presents another facet to the work. The attached work had a working title of Catch 22 only because I started it on the 22 March. But after I had completed it I felt an allegorical connection between the old, gnarled cricket ball and planet Earth. I eventually settled on the title of Planet in Peril. This title is not complicated and possibly obvious when stated but probably not what the observer would have considered as the content of the work.
Enjoy the past comments below for Ambiguity…
pastel painting, 10.5 x 13.5 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Liron Sissman of New York, NY, USA who wrote, “Although representational, my flowers have always been about relationships and my landscapes about my inner journey. Call it ambiguity or call it metaphorical, when it comes to art I’d much rather suggest than say. It lets me get more personal on a selective basis. The more one knows the more one sees, which goes for both art and life.”
And also Claudio Ghirardo of Mississauga, ON, Canada who wrote, “My experience has been that people actually hate mystery. They want to know exactly what it is or are able to define it the first time around. Ambiguity is not something they are comfortable with and that is why contemporary artists like Antony Gormley are needed in today’s world, to make people stop and consider that there is more to life than what they perceive.”
And also Kasssahun Kebede of Jimma, Ethiopia who wrote, “Ambiguity is capable of being understood in two or more possible sense. I deslike the answer for what kidneylooks like question. The answer it looks like bean. and what bean looks like? it looks like kidney. An artist who usees his or her sub consiouse in his art work leades the people in to various dimension. the longer our dimension different the wider our life nonboredom, attractive and life with varity of spice. let agree to change the word by adding …z….Ambigutyz to be every body can get A–Z possible senses if he or she digs.”