Interview with Antony Gormley by E. H. Gombrich

Antony Gormley:  You ought to know that it was reading The Story of Art at school that I think inspired my interest in art.

Ernst Gombrich:  Really!

Gormley:  ... and made the whole possibility not only of studying art but also of becoming an artist a reality for me.

Gombrich:  That’s very flattering and very surprising for me.

Gormley:  And what I hoped we might do in this conversation was talk about the relationship of contemporary art to art history generally – what is necessary, as it were, to retain and what we can discard from the lessons of that history.

Gombrich:  I would like to start, like everybody else, with Field. I’m interested in the psychology of perception; if a face emerges from a shape you are bound to see an expression. The Swiss inventor of the comic strip, Rodolfe Toepffer, says that oddly enough, one can acquire the fundamentals of practical physiognomy without ever actually having studied the face, head or human contours, through scribbling eyes, ears, and nose. Even a recluse, if he’s observant and persevering, could soon acquire – alone and with no help except what he gets from thousands of tries – all he needs to know about physiognomy in order to produce expressive faces. Wretched in their execution perhaps but definite and unmistakable in their meaning. He gives examples of doodles all of which have a strong expressive character. Anyone can discover in studying these doodles what makes for expression. I have called this ‘Toepffer’s law’ – the discovery that expressiveness or physiognomy does not depend on observation or skill but on self-observation.

Gormley:  For me the extraordinary thing about the genesis of form of the individual figures in Field is that it isn’t about visual appearances at all. What I’ve encouraged people to do is to treat the clay almost as an extension of their own bodies. And this takes some time. This repeated act of taking a ball of clay, and using the space between the hands as a kind of matrix, as a kind of mould out of which the form arises.

Gombrich:  Anyone who has ever played with clay has experienced this elemental form. And of course in twentieth century art, not only in your art, this played a crucial role. Picasso did it from morning to night, didn’t he? He just toyed with what would come out when he created these shapes. When we loose the constraints of academic tradition we not only create an expressive physiognomy but an expressive shape or a more independent usage; that’s what we admire in children’s drawings, though I dare say that children do not intend to do so. We cannot help seeing the creations of primitive art in terms of an expressiveness, which is not always the one intended by the maker. In a certain frame of mind we see everything as expressive. The basis of our whole relationship to the world, as babies or as toddlers, is that we make no distinction between animated and inanimate things. They all speak to us, they all have a kind of character or voice. If you think back to your childhood, not only toys but most things which you encounter have this very strong character or physiognomy as Beings of some sort. And I’m sure that this is one of the roots or one of the discoveries of twentieth century art, to try to recapture this. In my view, it was too exciting to discover how creative and expressive the images made by children, the insane, and the untutored were. It’s no wonder that artists longed to become like little children, to throw away the ballast of tradition that cramp their spontaneity and thus thwart their creativity. But it’s no wonder also that new questions arose about the nature of art which were not so easily answered. Deprived of the armature of tradition and skill, art was in danger of collapsing into shapelessness. There were some who welcomed this collapse, the Dadaists and other varieties of anti-artists. But anti-artists only functioned as long as there was an art to rebel against, and this happy situation could hardly last. Whatever art may be, it cannot pursue a line of resistance. If the pursuit of creativity as such proves easy to the point of triviality then there is the need for new difficulties, new restraints. I believe it would be possible to write the history of twentieth century art not in terms of revolutions and the overthrow of rules and traditions but rather as the continuity of a quest, a quest for problems worthy of the artist’s nature. Whether we think of Picasso’s restless search for creative novelty, or of Mondrian’s impulse to paint, all the modernists may be described as knights errant in search of a challenge. Would you accept this?

Gormley:  I think it’s true that this idea of a reaction against a kind of orthodoxy is no longer a viable source of energy for art today. But I didn’t simply want to continue where Rodin left off, but re-invent the body from the inside, from the point of view of existence. I had to start with my own existence.

Gombrich:  I think in your art also, you are trying to find some kind of restraint. You want us to respond to the images of bodies, of your ‘standard’ body?

Gormley:  I like that idea of a ‘standard’ body, but what I hope I’ve done is to completely remove the problem of the subject. I have a subject, which is life, within my own body. But in working with that I hope that it isn’t just a ‘standard’ body: it is actually a particular one which becomes standardized by the process ...

Gombrich:  Because for you, your body is standard. It cannot be otherwise.

Gormley:  What I’m doing is realizing, materializing perhaps for the first time, the space within the body. It’s certainly a very difficult thing to communicate, but it’s to do with meditation.

Gombrich:  That has to do with breathing, with breath ...

Gormley:  It has a lot to do with breath.

Gombrich:  But you can’t create what you breathe.

Gormley:  No, but you can, I think, try to materialize the sensation of that inner space of the body, and that’s what I hope that these large body forms are. They are in some way an attempt to realize embodiment, without really worrying too much about mimesis, about representation in a traditional way.

Gombrich:  About this internal body, this is something that must interest anybody, but the question of whether it can be externalized is still another one, isn’t it? It starts from the most trivial fact that when we feel the cavities of our own body, let us say the interior of the mouth, we have an entirely different scale. Any crumb in our teeth feels very large and then when we get it out we are surprised that it is so small, and if the dentist belabours your tooth you have the feeling that the tooth is as large as you are. Then it turns out, if you look in the mirror, that it was an ordinary small tooth. In a sense that is true of all internal sensations: the internal world seems to have a different scale from the external world.

Gormley:  I think that’s a brilliant, accessible example of what I’m interested in. There was a repeated sensation that I had as a child before sleep, which was that the space behind my eyes was incredibly tight, a tiny, dark matchbox, suffocating in its claustrophobic imprisonment. And slowly the space would expand and expand until it was enormous. In a way I feel that experience is still the basis of my work. This recent piece, Havmann, a 10-metre high black body mass, will read as a black hole in the sea, but it is made massively of stone. It’s put at a distance from the viewer – 46 metres from the shore. Because there’s an indeterminacy of scale in relation to the landscape, it is difficult to judge its actual size, which is an attempt to realize exactly the sort of thing you were saying.

Gombrich Of course, as you indicate, falling asleep, or even in dreams, this kind of sensation takes over. We are very much governed in our sleep by these body sensations which we project into some kind of outside world and see as things which they aren’t. And you say that in Buddhist meditation this is also so, but it’s not, because in Buddhist meditation you try to get away from thingness.

Gormley:  What I was trying to describe was the first experience of this inner body which was in my childhood. I think then the experience of learning Vipassana with Goenka in India was something very much more disciplined, but had to do with it. The minute you close your eyes in a conscious state you are aware of the darkness. With the Vipassana you explore that space in a very systematic manner. First of all you ...

Gombrich:  You have to learn to relax.

Gormley:  Well, it is an interesting mixture. Anapana, or mindfulness of breathing, gives you concentration. You then use that concentration to look at the sensation of being in the body, and that is a tool that I have tried to transfer to sculpture.

Gombrich:  Yes, but my problem is how you bridge these very intense experiences which we can call ‘subjective’, a word which isn’t very telling, and what you want the other to feel.

Gormley:  That for me is the real challenge of sculpture. How do you make something out there, material, separate from you, an object amongst other objects, somehow carry the feeling of being – for the viewer to somehow make a connection with it. In a way, where you ended in Art and Illusion is where I want to begin. That idea that in some way there are things that cannot be articulated, that are unavailable for discourse, which can be conveyed in a material way, but can never be given a precise word equivalent for.

Gombrich:  Certainly not. Our language isn’t made like that. Our language serves a certain purpose, and that purpose is orientation of oneself and others in the three dimensional world. But I cannot describe the feeling I have in my thumb right now, the mixture between tension and relaxation. Sometimes if you go to the doctor you feel this helplessness in describing what your sensations are, there are no words. And that is a very important part of all human existence, that we have these limits. But your problem as far as I see it is to transcend these limits.

Gormley:  I want to start where language ends.

Gombrich:  But you want in a sense to make me feel what you feel.

Gormley:  But I also want you to feel what you feel. I want the works to be reflexive. So it isn’t simply an embodiment of a feeling I once had ...

Gombrich:  It’s not the communication.

Gormley:  I think it is a communication, but it is a meeting of two lives. It’s a meeting of the expressiveness of me, the artist, and the expressiveness of you, the viewer. And for me the charge comes from that confrontation. It can be a confrontation between the movement of the viewer and the stillness of the object, which in some way is an irreconcilable difference, but also an invitation for the viewer to sense his own body through this moment of stillness.

Gombrich:  In other words, what in early textbooks was called ‘empathy’, a feeling that you share in the character of a building, or a tree, or anything. I am always interested in our reaction to animals, because there we react very strongly. The hippopotamus has a very different character from the weasel, there is no doubt; we also talk to them in different ways. Our response is inevitable when dealing with the world around us.

Gormley:  I think you are saying two things there. One is the anthropomor-phizing of external stimuli and the other thing, which I am more interested in, is the idea of body size, mass; that a hippopotamus is huge and has rather a simple shape, and a weasel is like a line and sharp. It is also to do with speed; bodies themselves carry feeling which is in itself a kind of information that isn’t available so easily to analysis. I want to use that empathy or embodiment in my work, and what I am trying to do is treat the whole body in the same way as perhaps portrait painters in the past have treated the face. I simply use my body as a starting point. I don’t want to limit my sculptures autobiographically. On one level it is not dissimilar to choreography and the dancer’s body. It is using the body as a medium.

Gombrich:  It is not self-expression.

Gormley:  I am interested in discovering principles. In a piece like Land, Sea and Air there is one standing body case, Sea, with the eyes open looking out to the horizon; Land is the crouching one which has ears and listens to the ground; and Air, the kneeling one, has its nose open. What I was trying to do there was find a bodily equivalent for an element through a perceptual gateway. I think that underlying my return to the human body is an idea of re-linking art with human survival. There isn’t just a problem about what we can do next in art terms. In a sense this is where your field and my field mix. You have always been concerned with finding a value in art, the application of rational principles to the understanding of an emerging language, and I think that there has been a sense where art – certainly in the earlier part of the twentieth century – took a view of that history in order to validate its own vision. I think that it is more difficult to do that now. All of us are aware that Western history is one history amongst many histories, and in some way there now has to be a re-appraisal of where value has to come from. Subjective experience exists within a broader frame of reference. When you think about what happens next in art, it is very hard not to ask the question: what happens next in the development of global civilization?

Gombrich:  I agree with you in that the values of our civilization and the values of art are totally linked. One cannot have an art in a civilization which believes in no value whatever, therefore I quite agree with you in the central question. I think that all our response to art depends on the roots of our own culture, that is why it is quite hard to get to the root of Eastern art. I think that sometimes we can’t understand the art of our own culture just as we don’t understand the letters in Chinese calligraphy. Don’t you agree?

Gormley:  I think that it is invariably misunderstood, certainly at first experience, but my reply to the Chinese calligraphy question is my reply to anyone who finds it impossible to understand any one artist’s work today. I think that if there is some sympathy there, then the invitation is to get more familiar. The idea that in some way value can only come from judging it from its own tradition, from which it may have escaped or never belonged to at all, is going to be less useful than looking at the organic development of an individual language and seeing if that has a universal significance. I would be interested to know whether you feel that it is possible to convey a notion of embodiment without mimesis, without having to describe, for instance, movement, or exact physiognomy.

Gombrich:  I have no doubt that not only is it possible but it happens in our response to mountains, for example, we lend them our bodies. I think that the greater problem is the limit, because in a certain sense it happens all the time: it happens in the nursery, it happens in regressive states of the mind. The problem is not so much whether we can make people respond in this almost elemental form to shapes, but how to distinguish a work of art from a crumpled piece of paper, which also has its physiognomy and its character. I think there is partly still a feeling of a person behind it, which adds to the confidence of the viewer, that here is an embodiment and the viewer is interested in engaging in it.

Gormley:  Yes I think that that idea of purpose is embodied in the way that something is put together, not just in its form. In some way that sense of purposefulness has to do with how clear the workmanship is, how ...

Gombrich:  How manifest ...

Gormley:  Yes.

Gombrich:  It is really the ‘mental set’ in twentieth century art which is behind all these problems. You have to have a certain feel of what is going on there, otherwise it’s just an object like any other.

Gormley:  I think that we all are very visually informed these days. Maybe classical education within the visual arts has now been replaced by a multiplicity of visual images that come through computers and advertising and all sorts of sources.

Gombrich:  Then you have the weirdest forms on TV, which I don’t possess, and the sometimes amusing shapes created for advertising or whatever else. That is just the problem, the problem of the limits of triviality.

Gormley:  Yes exactly. How do you condense from this multiplicity of images, certainly in sculpture, something that is still, silent, maybe rather complete, and therefore rather forbidding because it isn’t like a moving image on a screen. It is not telling you to buy something. It’s something that has a different relationship to life. And that for me is the challenge of sculpture now, that it may have within it a residue of 5,000 years of the body in art, but it must be approachable to somebody whose main experience of visual images is those things.

Gombrich:  You want them to feel the difference between a superficial response of amusement and mild interest, and something that has a certain gravity.

Gormley:  Yes, I think it should be a confrontation (laughs).

Gombrich:  Coming to terms with it.

Gormley:  And through coming to terms with it, coming to terms with themselves.

Gombrich:  Yes, perhaps that is a different matter.

Gormley:  But that question of the difference between subjective response and the object is absolutely the essence of what I’m trying to get at. Whether this is something accessible to discourse is another matter. But for me, the idea that the space that the object embodies is in some way both mine and everyone’s is very important, that it is as open to the subjective experience of the person looking at it as it is to me, the possessor of the body that gave that form in the first place.

Gombrich:  You’ll agree that everybody’s experience is likely to be a little different.

Gormley:  Absolutely. We have moved out of the age where you would argue that, yes that is a Madonna, but, well, the drapery isn’t quite fully achieved. Today we have moved from signs that have an ascribed meaning and an iconography that we know how to judge, to a notion of signs that have become liberated. Now that has a certain annoyance factor (laughs), but it also has a certain invitation for an involvement that was not possible before.

Gombrich:  But it was with architecture.

Gormley:  Yes that’s true. And it’s interesting that you mention architecture because I think of my work, certainly in its first phase, as being a kind of architecture. It’s a kind of intimate architecture that is inviting an empathetic inhabitation of the imagination of the viewer.

Gombrich:  But in architecture there was the constraint of the role of the tradition and purpose of a building. This is a church, and this is a railway station, and we approach them with slightly different expectations. The problem I think, which is not of your making, but is for every artist working today, is to establish some kind of framework wherein the response can develop.

Gormley:  I’m working on it! I’d like us to talk a bit more about casting.

Gombrich:  Well, did you know that it has turned out that part of Donatello’s Judith is cast from the body? It’s astonishing. I remember Rodin was charged with casting from the body, so it was considered a short cut, seen as very lazy or mean, or cheating.

Gormley:  Absolutely, there’s a prejudicial negative attitude.

Gombrich:  Of course, quite a number of posthumous busts are based on the cast of the death mask that is usually modified. But this practice is not usually condemned.

Gormley:  But it is interesting you see, because the in-built morbidity of the death mask is in some way in keeping with the idea of a memorial portrait…

Gombrich:  It fits into what you call the context.

Gormley:  But the interesting thing is that idea of trace. Certainly as a child, probably the most potent portraits which affected me in visits to the National Portrait Gallery were the portraits of Richard Burton, which was a rather dark oil painting, and the head of William Blake, which was a cast from life. What affected me as a child was feeling the presence of someone through the skin, where the contact of the skin with whatever was registering it, the impression, was not really as important as an idea somehow of a pressure behind the skin which was both physical and psychological.

Gombrich:  It was alive in other words.

Gormley:  No, it was more than that. There is a sense in which there is this pressure inside the dome of the scalp and then also this pressure behind the eyes which gives that work a kind of potency. It was as if something was trying to come through the surface of the skin. In a way the casting process in that instance, and I hope also in my work, is a way of getting beyond the minutiae of surface incident and instantly into that idea of presence, without there being something to do with interpretation. One of the bases of my work is that it has to come from real, individual experience. I can’t be inside anyone else’s body, so it’s very important that I use my own. And each piece comes from a unique event in time. The process is simply the vehicle by which that event is captured, but it is very important to me that it’s my body. The whole project is to make the work from the inside rather than to manipulate it from the outside and use the whole mind/body mechanism as an instrument, unselfconsciously, in so far as I’m not aware while I’m being cast of what it looks like. I get out of the mould, I re-assemble it and then I re-appraise the thing I have been, or the place that I have been and see how much potency it has. Sometimes it has none; I abandon it and start again.

Gombrich:  What does the potency depend on?

Gormley:  The potency depends on the internal pressure being registered.

Gombrich:  And how much of this, in your view, is subjective and how much is inter-subjective?

Gormley:  I am interested in something that one could call the collective subjective. I really like the idea that if something is intensely felt by one individual that intensity can be felt even if the precise cause of the intensity is not recognized. I think that is to do with the equation that I am trying to make between an individual, highly personal experience and this very objective thing – a thing in the world, amongst other things. It is even constructed by objective principles; the plate divisions follow horizontal and vertical axes, but then they affect the viewer in a very subjective and particular way. I am not sure if I have any right to prescribe what the viewer should be thinking or feeling at that point. I would like to feel that there is a potential for his or her experience to be as intense as mine was, and equally subjective.

Gombrich:  You work as a guinea pig in a test to find out if it affects you. If the cast doesn’t affect you, you discard it.

Gormley:  Yes I think that has to be what I am judging when I see the immediate results of the body mould. What I am judging is its relationship to the feeling that I want the work to convey. Once I am out of it, it does become a more objective appraisal. I work very closely with my wife, the painter Vicken Parsons. Once we have defined what the position of the body will be then it is a matter of trying to hold that position with the maximum degree of concentration possible. Sometimes it’s a practical thing; the position is so difficult to maintain that the mould goes limp. I lose it, I don’t have the necessary muscular control and stamina to maintain it. More often and more interestingly it isn’t those mechanical things but others that are more to do with intensity, and that can have to do with how much sleep I have had or simply with how in touch I am with what we are doing. The best work comes from a complete moment, which is a realization. I then continue to edit the work. It rarely involves cutting an arm off and replacing it with another but it may involve cutting through the neck and changing the angle two degrees. In terms of the process, we are talking about two stages, the first stage – and this is the most important because it is the foundation of the work – is making the mould. Then I go into the second stage which is making a journey from this very particularized moment to a more universal one, which is a process of adding skins. In the past this has meant I used different colours, to make sure that each layer was exactly the same thickness. Now I just rely on my judgement that I have reached the point at which this notion of a universal body and a particular body is in a state of meaningful equilibrium or meaningful balance.

Gombrich:  What you describe is a little like a painter stepping back from the canvas and judging it, examining it as if it were from the outside.

Gormley:  It has to do with making the totality of the work count, as a whole, to deal with the mind/body as one organism, and re-present it as one organism rather than the current orthodoxy of the body in pieces, or the body as a battleground.

Gombrich:  Now I will ask you a shocking question: why don’t you take a photograph of your body?

Gormley:  This is a photograph; I regard this as a three-dimensional photograph.

Gombrich:  As you say a three-dimensional photograph, it could be done by holograph, there are methods. Would you accept it?

Gormley:  No, that wouldn’t interest me particularly. I am a classical sculptor in so far as I am interested in things like mass.

Gombrich:  Tactility.

Gormley:  Yes the tactility is very important and the idea of making a virtual reality for me denies the real challenge and the great joy of sculpture which is a kind of body in space.

Gombrich:  And of course it is to scale, while the photograph on the whole needn’t be and can hardly be demonstrably to scale.

Gormley:  The other problem with a photograph is that it is a picture, and I am not really interested in pictures, as I am not interested in illusion. This idea has in a way informed your book: the history of art as a succession of potential schema by which we are invited to make a picture of the world. As we evolve the visual language we continually revise the previous schema in order to find an illusion that works more and more effectively. I feel that I have left that whole issue behind in a sense, as one that has had its story. We have to find a new relationship between art and life. The task of art now is to strip us of illusion. To answer your question, how do we stop art from descending into formlessness/shapelessness? How do we find a challenge worthy of the artist’s endeavour? My reply to that is, we have somehow to acknowledge the liberty of creativity in our own time which has to abandon tradition as a principle of validation, to abandon the tradition of mainstream Western art history and open itself up: any piece of work in the late twentieth century has to speak to the whole world.

Gombrich:  It may have to, but it won’t.

Editor: What do you think of the question of your masculinity, vis à vis there being an idea about some universally recognizable experience?

Gormley:  In some of the work, the sexuality is declared and relevant to the subject of the work and at other times it isn’t. I have tried to escape from the male gaze, if we are thinking about the male gaze both in relation to nature as a place of slightly frightening otherness and the male gaze in relation to the female body as the object of desire, or the object of idealization. I think the idealization of my work and its relationship to landscape are very different from historical models. I am aware that the work is of a certain sex.

Gombrich:  Well everybody belongs to a certain gender and a certain age, you can’t get out of that and I think it’s almost trivial isn’t it, if you try to.

Gormley:  Yes, but what I am saying is that I think that this is a modified maleness, without trying to be the orthodox new man, a lot of work tests the prescribed nature of maleness in various ways, but I can’t deny the fact that it comes from a male body and from a male mind. Part of the reason that so much of the work tries to lay the verticality of the body down, or re-present it by putting it on the wall, is that I am aware that even when a body case is directly on the floor, because I am tall there is this sense of dominance, of a male confrontationality. So a work like Close attempts to relocate the body and relate it to the earth, takes what could have been a heroic stance and puts it into the position of vulnerability. Close, for me is an image of an adult body put in the position of a child. This could be conceived as being the traditional image of a mother and a child. The mother in this case being the earth, the child being the body that is clinging on.

Gombrich:  You could also say it is a person prostrating himself, which is something different again, because then it is deliberate, humbling.

Gormley:  Close makes the body into a cross, completely fixes it. The body is almost used as a marker of a place, denying its own mobility in order to pick up on the idea that the earth is spinning at 1,000 km an hour around its own axis, and in order to talk about this illusion that we have of fixedness within the phenomenal world where in fact nothing is fixed. Close for me is a way of mediating the two forces, gravity and centrifuge; the body case becomes an instrument through which those forces are made palpable.

Editor: You mentioned the cross and here is an angel, both historically symbolic forms. What meaning do they have for you?

Gormley:  I think that this is a question about religion and religious iconography. Religion tries to deal with big questions, and I hope that my art tries to deal with big questions like, ‘who are we?’, ‘where are we going?’. The fact is that I grew up within a Christian tradition, those things are part of not only my intellectual make-up but images of self that were given to me as a child. But I don’t see them as illustrations of those images, they are just part of the mental and emotional territory that I have to explore.

Editor: They are not symbolic?

Gormley:  I don’t want the work to be symbolic at all, I want the work to be as actual as it can be, which is why my version of an angel is a rather uncomfortable mixture between aeronautics and anatomy.

Gombrich:  Well the problem of how angels managed to fly with these relatively small wings is always present. But then their bodies probably have no weight; the wings are signs.

Gormley:  An interesting point, because it is this idea of a mediator between one level of existence and another…

Gombrich:  Of course, the Angelos, the messenger.

Gormley:  We need these means of transmission between one state of being and another. We cannot be bound by traditional meaning but at the same time it’s important not to reject something simply because it has been done before, because in some senses we have to deal with everything. That is why I am as interested in placing my work in historical contexts, on the end of a pillar or in a church, as I am in the white cube of the gallery. I think that everything has to be accepted as part of the territory and that means accepting what has been necessary in the past for human beings, finding a way in which those needs can be expressed in a contemporary way that is not divisive or prescriptive in its interpretive function. I think that our attitude to history has changed, the idea of layering which also suggests a support structure has been replaced now by a co-existence of temporality. There is a sense in which my work exists within an understanding of historical precedent but also within a matrix of contemporaneity.

I do want to ask you this one important question; I feel that you have done a lot for all of us in terms of making apparent the structures of our own visual culture and I get the feeling that you have a faith in the value of that story. I don’t know what your faith is in the art of now, or of the future.

Gombrich:  About the future I know nothing. I am not a prophet. About the situation of the arts at present, I think that the framework of art at present is not a very desirable one, the framework of art-dealing, art shows and art criticism. But I don’t think that it can be helped, it is part of destiny that art came into the situation and I think it has its own problems. Sensationalism and lack of concentration are not very desirable and not very healthy for art, but I don’t despair of the future or at least the present of art. I wouldn’t despair of the fact that there will always be artists as long as there are human beings who mind and who think this is an imp ortant activity.

Gormley:  But do you feel that we are at the end of the story that you wrote?

Gombrich:  No, of course not. I do feel that there is a disturbing element in the story, and in the new edition I am working on the intrusion of fashions in art, which has always existed. Romanticism has created an atmosphere that makes it harder for an artist to be an artist, because there are always seductive cries or traps which may tempt the artist, I wouldn’t say art, to this kind of sensationalism, like exhibiting the carcass of a sheep – because they are talking points. The temptation to play at talking points becomes the pivot of what the young then want to do, also to have the same talking point. I think this is a social problem rather than a problem of art.

Gormley:  It is very difficult not to start talking about such things without sounding sententious and moralistic, but I do feel that art is one of the last realms of human endeavour left that hasn’t been tainted by ideologies that have proved constrictive. In some way art does have this potential to be a focus for life which can be removed from the constraints of moral imperative, but nevertheless can invite people to think about their own actions.

Gombrich:  It has its own moral imperatives.

Gormley:  It does for the artist making it. I think it is very, very difficult then to transfer that degree of moral commitment.

Gombrich:  It is not all that difficult. I mean the artist mustn’t cheat. It’s as simple as that.

Gormley:  And he must take responsibility for his own actions.

Gombrich:  And if he feels, as you just said, that something isn’t good enough he must discard it. Self-criticism is part of this moral imperative, and has always been. It is the same whether you write a page or whatever you do; if it isn’t good enough, you have to start again. It’s as simple as that, isn’t it? I once said it is a game which has only one rule, and the rule is that as long as you can think you can do better you must do it, even if it means starting again. Of course, from that point of view I don’t think the situation has changed very much. I am sure that has always been the case.

Gormley:  We keep touching on this problem of subjectivity and I don’t think we are ever going to nail it down, but we have to replace the certainties of symbolism, mythology and classical illusion with something that is absolutely immediate and confronts the individual with his own life. Somehow truth has to be removed from a depicted absolute to a subjective experience, where value transfers from an external system that might be illustrated to one in which individual experience is held and given intensity.

Gombrich:  I think your faith is a very noble one. I don’t for a moment want to criticize it. The question with every faith is whether it holds in every circumstance, and that is a very different matter, isn’t it?

Gormley:  I think the idea of style as something that is inherited and with a kind of historical development now has to be replaced by an idea of an artist responsible to himself, to a language that may or not be conscious of historical precedent.

Gombrich:  Quite, but there is a problem in your faith; would you expect from now on every artist to do what you do? Surely not.

Gormley:  No, no.

Gombrich:  Exactly, so it’s only one form of solving the problem, isn’t it?

Gormley:  I think that we can no longer assume that simply because the right subject matter or the right means are being used that there is value in an artist’s project. I think that the authority has shifted from an external validation to an internal one and I would regard that as the great joy of being an artist. The liberation of art today is to try to find, in a way, forms of expression that exist almost before language and to make them more apparent. I think that in an information age, in a sense, language is the one thing that we have plenty of, but what we need is a reinforcement of direct experience.

Gombrich:  I fear this is a false trail; people always say if it could be said it wouldn’t be painted and things of that kind. It is a triviality. Language serves a very different purpose. Language is an instrument, was created as an instrument. Cavemen said ‘come here’ or ‘run, there are bison about’, I mean it’s quite clear that language is an instrument. Painting a bison is a very different thing from talking about a bison. Language is in statements, art is not. Language can lie. I would say that the majority of experiences are inaccessible to language, but it is astounding that some are.

Gormley:  I agree with your idea that in some way language is an orientation, but the point is that once you have oriented yourself, you then have to leap, you have to go somewhere. And then the question is whether you go into the known or into the unknown.