3 June 2010 | Waiting for Gormley
All the world's an installation and all the men and women merely sculptures.
Inside Australia is Antony Gormley's title for his 51 figures on a salt lake wilderness in Western Australia – a state in which four Texases would fit. It's a long way from anywhere and remoteness is part of the experience of being there.
My journey had begun on the other side of the world, with a flight from London to Melbourne, where folks can be a little snooty about the other side of Australia. After three weeks with Waiting for Godot, we reached the smaller Perth: populations decreasing, city by city. A free day led us back east, a little, relatively, to the small town of Kalgoorie, centre of the deep goldfields of Western Australia. Thence another hour by road, through the bush (bushes and more bushes) to Menzies, long-since abandoned by the prospectors, with only a hundred people left, whom Gormley scanned and then shrank, by computer, to matchstick proportions. 51 of these were chosen for his installation at Lake Ballard, pleasingly 51km away down a dust road.
There is no reception centre to tell you you've arrived, just a primitive loo and a couple of picnic benches shaded by eucalyptus trees with pecking, squawking rosellas. Stepping barefoot onto the squelchy red mud crusted over with white salt crystals, like walking on a vast crème brulee, the first experience was the silence, once I'd moved away from the others from Godot. The only signs of life were absent ones, emu tracks and human footprints, on a dry lake-bed, with no water to erase them. So each visitor adds a mark to the installation.
The landscape is dead flat, the liquid horizon a living mirage; a place waiting for something. And, there waiting, are Gormley's shrunken metal figures, etiolated cocks and breasts defining gender. I made for a distant marker, that might have been the remnant of a boundary fence or a stunted shrub but was actually one of the 51. There was a light wind and a blue sky flecked with cumulus clouds: all very pleasant, the warm sand and salt between my toes. It thought of seaside holidays and of Gormley's autobiographical figures that define the emptiness of the beach at Crosby, back home in Lancashire. They get drowned twice daily by the tides.
Lake Ballard is different, a desert. Having travelled so far to reach it added to the difference. The sculptures welcome the stranger, to the emptiness of the landscape, vulnerable yet strong. I faced them one by one, forgetting soon to photograph them and just enjoy being with them, feeling privileged to share their space to which they belong. “What are you doing here? What am I doing here?” Each is physically different, though unidentified; nameless representatives of an actual community but, secured in the dry lake, like Beckett's characters, they stand for us all. Was I their Godot, arrived at last? Yet what had I to offer? They seemed already complete, content.
Gormley says his figures “bear witness” to lives lived hard, to survival against nature's odds. He is planning to add another 50, if funds are raised. They will be there as long as visitors come to wonder and when they leave at nightfall they remain. When I looked beyond to the other actors with their own thoughts, still in the silence, they looked as if Gormley had placed them there too. The sculptor is Godot to us all, in a way. — Ian McKellen, Perth, 3 June 2010