They were made for this space and time – Antony Gormley: Field for the British Isles at Firstsite, Colchester

Local volunteers helped lay out the 40,000 figures which were first shown in 1993 and helped Gormley win the Turner Prize the following year.

Gormley himself said of the artwork: “Thirty tonnes of clay energised by fire, sensitised by touch and made conscious by being given eyes … a field of gazes which looks at the observer making him or her its subject.”

The time is right for the figures to gaze beseechingly at the viewer, a plaintive rather than strident appeal to us to come to our political and social senses as we approach the endgame of brexit. The dust of weariness has slightly clouded the terracotta since I saw them in the nineties – totally appropriate for the tired and outmoded states of mind we have been driven into over the past three years.

The figures are silently screaming in waves of gently changing terracotta hues, each one similar but very different in height, heft and angle of gaze. It’s a quiet and loud work at the same time, it expresses many emotions from anger to resignation. I refer to the work collectively as “it” but there are 40,000 individuals all making a statement together.

Field for the British Isles, 1993, Antony Gormley

Gormley talks of the God’s eye view of the observer looking down – this encourages a compassionate view of the work as well as a dialogue between sculpture and viewer and adds to the sense of common humanity. We are looking in a mirror which amplifies our emotions many times.

40,000 has been said to be the ideal size for a fully functioning town, before scale gets in the way of individuality and social cohesion. Here we can almost comprehend that number but also get the feeling of an infinity of possibilities as the figures fade into the distance…there is no telling what potential we humans have to fulfil when allowed to.

To create Field for the British Isles, Gormley collaborated with Tate Liverpool and pupils from two schools in St Helens in Merseyside (Sutton Community High and Sherdley County Primary) along with their families and others living in the vicinity. This collaborative aspect had always been key to Gormley’s concept for his various Fieldpieces. The figures were fired at a local brickmaking company, who also supplied the clay.

“That repeated action of taking a hand-sized ball of clay, squeezing it between your hands, standing it up and giving it consciousness becomes meditative, the repeated action becoming almost like breathing, or a heartbeat.” Antony Gormley, interviewed by the Daily Mail, 2012.

The powerful work is on display at Firstsite until 8 March 2020.

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