There will be better afternoons for viewing Antony Gormley’s STAND, atop the Art Museum steps, than the one I chose last weekend, a few days before its official unveiling Thursday morning. The museum’s plaza was windswept and so cold my pen wouldn’t write and my hand was turning numb.
Still, there were people there, as there almost always are, posing and taking pictures, which is the way we experience places nowadays. Since Gormley’s intention is to engage viewers, and to make them think about their own bodies and the space they occupy, it was important that at least a few dozen hearty visitors were present.
The work consists of 10 cast-iron sculptures, each 10 feet high, arrayed across the top of the steps. Each is essentially a stack of different-size boxes, but they are clearly figurative.
From a distance they look powerful, like totems or ancient colossi. When you get close, you notice that they are all standing on one leg, and their weight appears to be unevenly distributed, making them appear precarious and slightly comic.
They look a bit like sculptural renderings of the pixelated avatars from Pac-Man-era video games. Each has a name, such as Big Lull, Big Prop, or Big Assuage II, though the connection between their names and their form is not evident.
They will be in place through June 16.
My strategy was not to disturb people in their cold-weather enjoyment of one of Philadelphia’s most iconic settings. I just lurked and tried to observe what Gormley calls “the subjective witness of the citizen.”
“Can it have a revelatory or diagnostic function?” Gormley asks in his statement explaining the work. “Can it work on us to recognize our true selves and allow collective space to again be a space in which personal truth can arise?”
If such a thing happens, I am not sure that it would be visible to an outside observer. Still, for such a transformation to take place, one would expect that those present actually look at the sculpture. This was not happening the day I was there.
As with the huge rearing horses that stand on plinths that flank the top of the staircase, visitors seemed to see Gormley’s work as more or less irrelevant to their experience of the place.
And those few who did focus on the sculptures seemed to view them as more irritant than inspiration. People complained to one another about how difficult it is to take a good picture with these things in the way. A child tried, with limited success, to climb one.
“Where did those things come from?” someone asked, and sighed with relief when told they were temporary.
I found myself thinking of an evening in 1973, in balmier weather, when I walked from my apartment a few blocks from the Art Museum to see another temporary installation there, Sky Bridge Green by Rockne Krebs.
It consisted of a green laser beam shot from the Art Museum to a mirror atop City Hall and bounced several times across the Parkway. The atmosphere was like a party. People kept throwing objects to see if they could make this monumental beam of light disappear for a split second.
It was so much fun seeing the amazing light and the community it created, I went back for several more evenings to see it again and again.
The Krebs piece dramatized the polarities of the Parkway — with one end in the heart of the city with its commerce and politics, the other at the Art Museum, representing aesthetic contemplation and the gateway to a natural world beyond. On the ground, the Parkway often falls short, but Krebs’ work shined a new kind of light on the ideals that brought it into being.
By the way, a similarly thrilling temporary experience is available right on the other side of the Art Museum, where Bronze Bowl With Lace by Ursula von Rydingsvard stands in a climactic spot in the Anne d’Harnoncourt Sculpture Garden. This enormous bronze draws and gathers people at a great vantage point in the romantic landscape of the Waterworks, Lemon Hill, and the Schuylkill. The loan of this piece has recently been renewed through August 2020.
Like some of Gormley’s earlier work, such as Another Place (2007), a group of 100 bronze figures installed in a tidal estuary near Liverpool, von Rydingsvard’s work gives focus to an entire landscape. STAND, by contrast, fights its setting.
The one thing that this temporary visual barrier does accomplish is to dramatize the enormous size of the Art Museum’s forecourt. This space usually bleeds into the expanse of the Parkway, but Gormley’s sculptures make it a kind of room. The largest, though last, phase of the Art Museum’s expansion project will burrow beneath the forecourt and the staircase. I suspect the museum’s leaders are happy to have this site dramatized.
But Gormley’s stated intent is different. He says the work rejects “reinforcing hierarchies of power or mythologies of race, place, or nation.”
The Parkway and especially the Art Museum and its steps certainly appear to be seeking what the art historian Kenneth Clark, describing baroque Rome, called “grandeur and obedience.” It is part of a tradition of city planning that began with Counter-Reformation Popes, and was elaborated by kings and emperors.
At a time when authoritarianism seems to be on the rise worldwide, one can see why an artist might want to deploy a line of less-than-heroic figures to stand in the way of an imperial power trip.
But Gormley seems not to understand the myth of the place his work is seeking to transform. The figure with which the space is indelibly associated is Rocky, the struggling figure out to prove he's not "just a bum from the neighborhood."
Philadelphians, and visitors from throughout the world, use this imperial setting to ennoble the ordinary man and woman. Gormley’s figures interrupt the vista. But they don’t transform the place, or transcend it. They just don’t make much difference.
Antony Gormley’s STAND
Through June 16 atop the Rocky Steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2600 Benjamin Franklin Pkwy., free. Museum admission $14-$20, free for children under 13, pay what you wish first Sundays and 5–8:45 p.m. every Wednesday. Information: 215-763-8100 or philamuseum.org.