Modern Art by the People, for the People...

...But is it of the people? An award-winning British sculptor says, `You decide'

The British sculptor Antony Gormley, recent winner of the London Tate Gallery's annual Turner Prize, is hardly alone in believing that modern art went wrong somewhere.

According to such postmodern doctrine, modernism started idealistically populist early in the century, but it became increasingly esoteric, puritanical, and elitist: remote from ordinary people.

Mr. Gormley reiterated this contention in a Granada Television documentary aired in northwest England last August.

The film's specific subject was ``Field for the British Isles,'' an extraordinary - and certainly popular - work shown earlier at the Tate Gallery's Liverpool outpost and then in Dublin.

This year, ``Field'' was staged at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh. (See below for future showings.)

``Staged'' is the right word for this piece, composed of some 40,000 small terra-cotta figures entirely filling a gallery floor space, up to its very threshold. The figures, every one different, all face the viewers. Viewers cannot enter. They can only look.

The figures are hand-sized: They were made from lumps of clay held between pairs of hands. But these hands did not belong only to Gormley. They were what he calls the ``creative molds'' used by some 100 people of St. Helen's, Merseyside (near Liverpool), whom Gormley invited, encouraged, cajoled, and admired during a week of nine-to-five dedication to the task of making ``Field.''

He had specified that he wanted grandparents, parents, and children working together, and his volunteers were certainly a social cross-section, many of them with no pretension of art appreciation. The figures were then fired by a local brickmaker.

This was not the first time Gormley had organized the making of a ``Field.'' Earlier versions were made in Australia, Mexico, and Sweden. And these were seen in places as far apart as New York, Montreal, Warsaw, and Prague.

In the documentary, Gormley states: ``To me, the success of the work is that it is completely open to interpretation.'' He is only partly convinced when people claim it is about ``have-nots'' or ``overpopulation.'' In fact, it seems as likely to be about the relationship of art to ordinary people as anything else.

Gormley's own (usually larger) sculptures, often made in lead and based on casts of his own body, are immaculately crafted. They are weirdly impassive like Egyptian mummy cases, stylized containers for a now-absent personage.

The figures in ``Field'' could hardly be more of a contrast. Gormley gave some guidance about their making, about their upturned heads, the proportions of head to body, and about the holes that are their eyes. These were made with pencils. They bring the figures to life.

But he wanted each of the makers to form the clay so that it reflected them, not him. He accepted everything they made. No ``ethnic cleansing'' (as he termed it) was applied to the figures, and the skills needed to form them involved no degree of craftsmanship.

If they all have individuality, they also achieve a conformity as if all the same species of creature. This creature could be a rather early form of Homo sapiens, but these characters might also be seals or owls or odd-shaped root vegetables.

Whoever they are, they look pleadingly up at us, making us feel benevolently large: They encourage our self-esteem and may even prompt a kind of lordly compassion.

Gormley has described the piece as ``a kind of harvesting - it's about tilling the earth with your hands, but instead of making something grow, it is the earth you are forming directly. The harvest comes from within the people.... I see it as a kind of soul garden.''

The artist even suggests that the communal experience of making the figures might be more important than the work itself.

In the documentary, some of the work's makers came up with comments which indicate the gulf that often exists between art and people - any art, that is, not just the modernistic.

One middle-aged woman says she had seen a film of some of the earlier ``Fields.'' She was impressed how ``these little mud piles do make a good crowd scene.''

Another woman says she went out of her way to make sure her figures would be unlike anyone else's, so that she could pick them out in the crowd.

One of the men, looking at the final work, admits he finds it ``quite moving.''

But it's a woman at the end of the documentary who gives voice to a kind of unabashed philistinism.

She says: ``We've had a wonderful week here making these chaps. But I shan't ever do it again.... Art and me don't mix!''

But is she sure? Isn't ``art'' precisely what Gormley had coaxed her into?

* `Field of the British Isles' will be staged at the Orchard Gallery, Derry, Ireland, March 20-April 30; the Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, England, May 13-June 31; and the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, between August and October.

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