Step out along São Paulo’s Vale de Anhangabaú on a sunny day and you’ll find scores of people making the most of this leafy scrap of park in the heart of the city, whether catching some sunshine or just passing through, away from the traffic. Or even cooking a simple meal, in the case of some of the people who live in the valley, in cardboard-box homes under the Viaduto do Chá bridge.
The months of May and June 2012 are set to see even more activity in this downtown swathe of paved promenade and grass. Part of a major exhibition, ‘Still Beings’, by the British artist Antony Gormley, in the installation Event Horizon, 31 life-sized sculptures of standing, naked men will be placed both in the park and on the the eaves of adjacent buildings, silhouetted against the skyline.
‘When I did it in London,’ said the artist, speaking to the New York Times in 2010, ‘the reaction was remarkable. People would stop. They would notice one; they would stop somebody else on the street, pointing to the thing. Gatherings of people would result, and quite quickly they would register their environment in a way they hadn’t before.'
When the army of sculptures invaded New York, a handful of passers-by apparently called the police over the installation, concerned that the statues were people planning to jump.
Created in iron and fibreglass, the sculptures are based on Gormley’s own body and are part of a first solo show in South America for the Turner-prize-winning artist, who is most famous in the UK for his monumental Angel of the North – a 20-metre tall, steel winged-angel sculpture set on a bleak hill in Gateshead, near Newcastle.
Based mostly within the Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil (CCBB) in Centro, a hop, skip and a jump from the Vale de Anhangabaú, ‘Still Beings’ will fill all four storeys of the building before moving on in mid-July to Rio and then Brasília.
Inside the CCBB, artworks will include photos, videos and prints as well as sculptures and more conceptual works like Breathing Room. Describing the latter work to Time Out London in 2010, Gormley said, ‘The viewer comes down the stairs into total darkness and is confronted by this very strange perspectival description of space in blue, photo-luminescent lines, but it will be very uncertain – is it a hologram, is it a projection, is it real?'
In addition to the downtown works, and presumably jumping at the chance to kill two birds with one well-placed stone, Gormley’s gallery, London’s prestigious White Cube, which is concurrently attending SP-Arte, has taken over a large industrial space near Vila Mariana to create a popup gallery filled with newer pieces by the artist, in a show called ‘Facts and Systems’.
Back inside the CCBB, thousands of ceramic figures ranging in size from 4-40cm make up the piece Amazonian Field, in what is perhaps the most topical of the works being shown. In the artwork, 24,000 tiny humanoids are massed like a sea of people, half amusing in their roughly sketched features and pinched-out shapes, and half discomfiting – they seem to be gazing up in supplication.
It was first shown in Brazil twenty years ago, when Gormley was commissioned to produce it to coincide with the 1992 Earth Summit – the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development. Prior to that, the work had first been produced in Mexico, and versions of it were later reproduced in countries including Sweden, China, Japan, Australia and the UK, where it won the Turner Prize as Field for the British Isles (1993).
The work has real resonance as Rio+20 comes round in June – it’s the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, intended to follow up on the Earth Summit. Gormley’s sea of roughly sculpted people, crammed together, mysteriously en masse, gazes back up at the viewer – but what does it mean? In a statement accompanying the piece at the British Museum in 2002, Gormley gives it to us straight: ‘Here are the spirits of the ancestors and the spirits of the unborn. You are the conscious layer in this stratification of mind that we call human being. What are you going to do about it?’
Antony Gormley’s work will be showing at the CCBB from 12 May to 15 July 2012, and at the White Cube gallery’s space, Rua Agostinho Rodrigues Filho 550, Vila Clementino (whitecube.com) from 9 May to 15 July 2012.