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Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 12-Jul-2006

Edition: First

Section: News and Features

Subsection: Comment

Page: 13

Wordcount: 946

Why these half-baked figurines leave us lost for words

Elizabeth Farrelly; Elizabeth Farrelly writes on architecture and planning issues for the Herald.

TUCKED into the ventral premotor cortex of the macaque monkey are certain neurons, known as “mirror neurons”, that fire during hand actions. The same neurons fire during observation of those actions in others. Even when the monkey, having watched the start of such an action, is prevented from watching the rest and can only infer it.

Meanwhile, in the meretricious global dross that is the 2006 Sydney Biennale (pronounced banal-e), one work stands head, shoulders and terracotta above the rest. Antony Gormley’s breathtaking Asian Field, occupying the top floor of Piers 2/3 for the duration, elicits awe, humour, pathos and, above all, fellow feeling for its 180,000 human figurines, jointly and severally.

What’s the link between these two apparently unrelated facts? It’s this. Mirror neurons are one of neurophysiology’s latest toys. If (as some still doubt) they exist in humans as well as macaques, mirror neurons help explain both our relentless urge to imitate and our rather less reliable capacity for empathy.

Imitation, of course, is the basis of much learning, most shopping and all advertising: I see it, I want it – want to have it, do it or be it. There’s nothing like watching Bogart to make you crave a martini.

Empathy, meanwhile, produces other herd-sustaining social glues like love, kindness, charity.

But that’s not all. Mirror neurons also help explain a number of our aesthetic reflexes, notably the knee-jerk anthropomorphism that generates our instinctive attraction to faces, bilateral symmetry and all things erect.

Gormley, a British sculptor, has played mercilessly on these reflexes for years. His 2003 Inside Australia, 130 kilometres north of Kalgoorlie, set 51 gaunt blacktitanium figures on the shimmering salt-encrusted expanse of Lake Ballard. Spear-legged, gonads flying, they stalk the whistling landscape, unrelated except by mysterious desire-lines traced in the salt. Total Strangers (Cologne, 1996) placed bronze figures outside the gallery, peering in; the watchers watched.

This latest, Asian Field, develops an idea with which Gormley has toyed for 15 years. Here he collects the 180,000 figurines into an ankle-deep human poppy field that drifts around and through the pier’s rusted-out wool-handling machinery, receding until the figures blur. Squeezed from gritty local clay one balmy January week by 1000 hands (including Gormley’s) in Xianxian village, Guangzhou, the figurines are featureless except for two eyes poked, perhaps, with chopsticks.

The figures are grouped into shadowy tribes, or waves, implying some sort of peristaltic tide through the pier’s majestic black space. For Gormley, they evoke “the spirit of our ancestors and of the unborn”, and although they vary in height, posture, age and expression as much as humanity itself, each of the 360,000 eyes fixes itself on you, the watcher. Not accusing, not angry; curious, perhaps, or pitying; interested, anyway, in you. In us.

It’s surprising and touching. Peoplearrive, smile, gasp, shake their heads. They sit, kneel and lie on the asphalted timber, silenced by these tiny, baggy, mute figures. Why so potent? What do these hand-squeezed lumps of half-baked clay have that a field of, say, half-a-million Barbie dolls would not?

It’s a quality for which English should supply a name, but doesn’t. Something like unity-in-diversity would do, except for the ecumenical overtones. Or complexity-within-unity. Emergence is similar – the idea that simple units and rules can co-operate, like termites in a colony or neurons in a brain, to produce a sophisticated and self-directed whole. Emergence, though, is a concept from science, notaesthetics. And it doesn’t capture the idea of essential difference, where small but myriad variations in the parts generate an extraordinary beauty in the whole.

It’s a quality that occurs, if we’re lucky, in buildings, street walls, facades, villages, textures and spaces. Compare, for example, a typical 17th-century brick wall with a new one. The first is warm, charming and picturesque, the second cold, chiselled, ruthless-looking. It’s not just age or patina or the traditional patterns of brick-bonding, though these all help. It’s that the old bricks, being handmade, are all slightly different, slightly wonky.

This simple fact gives the completed wall a softness, or humanness, to which we instinctively warm.

In Sydney, a particular example isoffered by Lang Road, alongside Centennial Park. It’s a street of many mansions, mostly ugly, occasionally gracious, but it feels picturesque, mainly because of its garden walls. Many of these are also individually ugly, but the overall effect is serene and graceful. Why? Because although the materials range from brick to stucco to timber to vegetation, and the style ranges from country to kitsch, from fake-classical to fake-modern, they somehow sing from the same sheet.

Or take the Sydney terrace house. Terraces are at their best somewhere like Paddington, where winding and hilly streets force variation in height and alignment, within the imposed discipline of the form.

Good public spaces work similarly. Think, for example, of the foyer of Thomas Hastings’ 1912 New York Public Library on 42nd Street, Manhattan, where an array of niches, alcoves, stairs and balconies adds depth and mystery to a still-legible overall space. The same quality can be found in the building’s Vermont stone French-classical facade, and in Manhattan’s gaggle of mid-century skyscrapers.

What is it about unity-in-diversity that so attracts us? Quite likely it’s those old mirror neurons again, recognising subliminally the way unity-in-diversity mimics the human condition; slightly wonky individuals, strangely lovely whole. Call us narcissistic, but we can’t help recognising it, mirroring it, liking it. Monkey see, monkey do.


PHOTO: Photo: AP/Paul Miller


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