Singapore may be known as an urban jungle, but celebrated British sculptor, Sir Antony Gormley, remembers the Republic for its nature.
The Turner Prize-winning artist’s last visit here was in 2009 when he was installing his 14.8-tonne work, Drift, at Marina Bay Sands.
The 71-year-old recalls waking at midnight to go fishing at 5am in the South China Sea. “You’re always aware of the sea in Singapore, because you’re so constricted like Hong Kong. You get this high-rise urban matrix, but it looks out to the sea.
“I remember all the banyan trees with these long branch roots coming down.”
His latest work, Horizon Field Singapore, is the star attraction of a small but significant retrospective at the National Gallery Singapore which opens on Friday (Aug 6).
A commission for the Ng Teng Fong Roof Garden, the work was birthed during the pandemic and created entirely remotely.
For an artist who is supremely conscious of space in his work, making a piece without visiting the site was a challenge. A photographer-videographer in Singapore became his eyes and ears, helping him suss out the sprawl of the Gallery’s rooftop garden.
Gormley says during a video call with The Straits Times: “The issue is you’ve got quite dominant architecture all around. You’ve got the horizontals of the roof itself. Then you’ve got Singapore’s skyline. How can you compete with these very massive bits of architecture? The answer is you can’t.”
Instead, he has created a feather-light vortex of curving aluminium tubes that arc across the flat roof.
The work is completed by visitors, he adds. “It’s a collaboration, not just about making, but about participation by the audience as well, coming and being with it.”
He is pleased by the work’s quirky contradictions. “The whole thing weighs 300kg, it’s really very big. The space it occupies is very big, but it doesn’t colonise. It simply energises, activates or catalyses the space. And it’s hopefully catalysing the people,” he says.
He is chuffed by the spareness of this new show. “What I’m really excited about is it’s the simplest show I’ve ever done as a retrospective.”
He likes the dialogue between Horizon Field Singapore and the other three pieces at the show, the oldest of which was created 30 years ago.
With the mischief of a prankish schoolboy, he says he “really likes” the placement of Ferment, which has been hung at a stairwell.
“People don’t like stairs anymore. What I love is you maybe huffing and puffing up the stairs, but here is this image of a body walking on air, lighter than air,” he adds.
“I like that relationship between you as an embodied being, experiencing the difficulty of climbing, contradicting gravity and its force, and your effort in relation to this thing which is evoking effortlessness.”
Sounding relaxed throughout the half-hour interview, Gormley ambles easily from extolling the meditative virtues of washing up to the value of trees in a city to contemplating the silver lining of a pandemic-enforced lockdown.
He has revelled in the opportunity to slow down during the pandemic, after a “manic” 2019 which saw him taking over London’s Royal Academy of Art in a major retrospective show.
“I was simply able to live with the work, which was a blessing. This market economy world where everybody is rushing to do more, to create more, to earn more, to go to more places, the sense of obligation that comes from it is crippling,” he muses.
That being said, he is keen to come see the show if circumstances permit.
He remembers spending time in Little India, buying flute music and eating burfi. “I just love the diversity and the commingling of culture. And the food is so good.”
Where: National Gallery Singapore, 1 St Andrew’s Road
When: Aug 6 to Oct 30, 2022; Saturdays to Thursdays, 10am to 7pm, Fridays, 10am to 9pm
Admission: Free for Singaporeans and permanent residents
Info: National Gallery’s website
This article was originally published in The Straits Times.