Anatomy as architecture

Antony Gormley's Event Horizon in New York is unoriginal but thought-provoking and a conversation starter.

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New York has always provided a haven for conceptual art, and recently a few well-publicised projects have infiltrated the city's elite cultural institutions. Earlier this spring at the Guggenheim, Tino Sehgal staged a piece entitled This Progress, in which so-called "interpreters" approached museum-goers with a question: "What is progress?" As the visitors ascended the Guggenheim's ramp, they were handed from interpreter to interpreter and met with a more complex set of questions.

If the success of Sehgal's project depended on the quality of conversation, then Marina Abramovic's solo piece at the Museum of Modern Art depends on the quality of silence. As part of the retrospective The Artist is Present, Abramovic sits silently at a table from the time the museum opens until it closes, and visitors wait in line for the chance to sit across from her, one at a time. Both projects are designed to seem somewhat confrontational, but they still cater to a rarefied audience: anyone viewing either exhibit has paid a fee to enter a museum with the expectation of seeing art. The same cannot be said for the thousands of Manhattanites who walk the streets of the Flatiron district daily, yet they are currently privy to an even more radical art installation.

The English sculptor Antony Gormley's Event Horizon, which will last until August 15, plants 31 naked life-size sculptures of the artist on the rooftops and sidewalks of the Lower Manhattan business centre. The element of surprise is crucial to the project, and so none of the sculptures is labelled or signposted for easy comprehension. Gormley envisions the installation as a way to disturb the average New Yorker's daily routine and force a reconsideration of the urban landscape. Most of all, he wants people to stop and talk.

"There are two kinds of things going on," Gormley said, introducing his United States public art debut in Madison Square Park. "One is the inert, silent sculptures, and the other is what's happening on the ground, and how people stop each other and say: 'Hey, what's going on?'" The project is a reprise of the 2007 Event Horizon in London, in which Gormley arranged the sculptures along the Thames river, but the current installation is already provoking eerie resonances specific to New York. The police had to assure the public officially that the sculptures perched atop the New York Life Insurance Building, Metropolitan Life Tower, and Empire State Building were not potential suicide jumpers. (These are not irrational fears. At the end of March, the same week Gormley's project went up, a college student leapt to his death from the Observation Tower of the Empire State Building.) And of course, any imagery that combines skyscrapers with human figures in peril cannot help but call to mind the horrors of September 11, 2001.

Like its predecessors in free public spectacle - Olafur Eliasson's Brooklyn Bridge waterfalls and Christo and Jeanne-Claude's Central Park "Gates" - the Gormley installation aims to define public art in New York as an inextricable part of the environment. (An earlier Gormley idea that never came to fruition would have placed the sculptures all over the island, and not just in the current, narrowly circumscribed area.)

One of his particular concerns is the ways that architecture interacts with the human body; he sought out specific buildings with historical or aesthetic significance, and made sure the sculptures were exact replicas of his 1.9-metre frame. To combat the sense of human life as isolated from the imposing structures that define the metropolis, Gormley has attempted to transform the body into architecture.

The most legitimate criticism of Gormley's art is that he tends to repeat himself. Not only is this the second iteration of Event Horizon, but his Another Place similarly (and permanently) mounted 100 cast replicas of the artist on Crosby Beach in England, where the sculptures are sometimes submerged by water. Still, he sees his work defined less by its own materiality than by the surrounding environment and the people who pause to interact. "Traditional statues are not about potential," Gormley told The Times newspaper in the UK, "but about something that's already complete. They have a moral authority that is oppressive rather than collaborative. My works acknowledge their emptiness."

To Gormley's apparent delight, visitors to Another Place on Crosby Beach fitted some of the sculptures with bikinis and hard hats. So far the New Yorkers I have observed contemplating Event Horizon have mainly expressed their appreciation (and befuddlement) by taking cell phone photos.