Scale and multiplication have been key to Gormley’s work throughout his career – from his largest commission to date, the iconic Angel of the North (Gateshead), to his multi-figure work Another Place (Crosby Beach, Liverpool). Engaging with both these concepts and the possibility of individuality or collectivity within a group of figures is Gormley’s diminutive series of 33 sculptures: MEMEs. The title borrows a term coined by Richard Dawkins in his seminal book The Selfish Gene, published in 1976. ‘Meme’ is a shortening of the Greek word mimeme, meaning ‘imitated thing.’ Dawkins defines it as the cultural analogue of a gene – a self-replicating unit capable of mutation and responsive to conditional environments, disseminating cultural ideas from one individual to another through non-genetic means, such as speech or gesture.
The MEMEs, each constructed of 27 identical individual iron blocks, together make up what Gormley calls “an abstract lexicon of body-posture”, from those standing tall and openly – like the present work – to those cowering from some unseen terror. The cuboid forms of the MEMEs reflect Gormley’s perennial interest in the relationship between architecture and the human figure, which is likewise evident in one of the artist’s most recent projects, Room (Beaumont Hotel, London), a suite built out of rectangular masses which, seen from the exterior, form the shape of the artist’s body. At the other end of the scale, the tiny MEMEs also represent the paradox that a body may both be contained by space and contain it: the intimate architecture that replaces the anatomy of these figures invites one to imaginatively inhabit their inner space, while remaining physically outside them.
The MEMEs articulate exquisitely the relationship between spirit and matter through the language of Modernism in their abstracted forms and contemporary materials, as opposed to conventional representations of this tension, which rely on mimesis. Almost punning on this idea in his title, Gormley plays with the notion of imitation in the self-referential meme-like blocks or units, and the postures of the bodies themselves, which emulate both architectural structures and expressions of human feeling. Ultimately, the disparity of scale between sculpture and viewer elicits a heightened awareness of one’s own physical and emotional dialogue with the works, resulting in an essentially empathetic response – yet another form of imitation.
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