If you happen to take a stroll along the Leith Walk in Edinburgh, look out for the man in a pink bikini. Antony Gormley has just recently released his latest art installation, 6 Times. The artist has placed 6 figures throughout Edinburgh starting at the National Gallery of Modern Art and finishing at Leith docks (incidentally, the pink bikini was added later). Most are standing in the Water of Leith, the river that runs through the city. About the project, Gormley says: ‘It is wonderful to have the chance to make a work that connects so many different parts of this great city… The idea is to connect to time, weather, and place and play part in the making of a scene, a picture, a reality, incomplete without you: the observer.’ (Creative Boom article)
This desire to involve the observer in the ‘completion’ of the artwork is part of a wider movement of bringing a participatory element back into art. It has been described as an attempt to correct the division between art and reality that was encouraged within the formalist view of art (the meaning of art being only found in the object itself) as well as a response to the growing isolation in society due to the virtual world that we live within. If the distinctions between artist and observer can be diminished, an opportunity is created for sharing, connection, and better society. In Gormley’s case, his art is influenced by both a Christian upbringing and in later life, Buddhism. Gormley: ‘…religion tries to deal with big questions, and I hope my art tries to deal with big questions like ‘who are we?’, ‘where are we going?… (Howes 139)’
There is much in Gormley’s work that starts to evoke these questions even just by nature of him using the human form as his main subject matter (many modeled on his own body). The human form is an accessible image that gives even the casual observer the opportunity to understand and thus ‘participate’ in the work. So far, participation by the public in this particular work has involved a variety of costumes and spray paint. And while dressing the figure in a pink bikini or a McDonalds staff outfit might not have been exactly what the organisers intended (which is unknown), the figures have to some degree drawn the city together as they wait to see how the next figure will be dressed, perhaps starting to give image to the question, ‘Who are we?’ for the city of Edinburgh.
While it could be argued that all art is participatory at some level, I think that Gormley is onto something. For art to engage the observer with life’s ‘big questions’, a dialogue must be started. An intentionality towards this purpose exists in the creation of the work. For Gormley, art that is started by the artist and is completed by the observer is the means to this engagement. To what degree 6 Times gets people to these fundamental life questions waits to be seen. As Christians, especially those who are interested in engaging church life with the arts, we must sit up and take notice. To what degree are our arts actively engaging the viewer, inviting them to participate as a co-creator rather than a passive observer? What would it look like to create art with this intention rather than it being a by-product of its existence?
Photo – Pink Bikini: Deadline Scotland
Photo – Statue on Docks: Creative Boom
Howes, Graham. The Art of the Sacred. London: I.B. Tauris, 2007.