8th September 2014, Mayfair London
On a flight to London recently, I came across an article covering the latest work by Antony Gormley at Beaumont Hotel, Mayfair London. Having a few spare hours, I set out to have a look at the sculpture by one of my favorite artists whose works have inspired me to write these two earlier blog posts.
While the basic form of the sculpture itself is similar to the one installed in Alaska, it is different in the two distinct ways. First it sits on top of a building and secondly it is a bedroom in a hotel suite!
As I walked towards the hotel through a narrow alley, there it was, a crouching metallic man hugging his knees. The Lego like form assembled from cube like pieces sitting on top of a jutting towards one side the building with the head reaching the top of the building. Since it was not a Berkley square or Grosvenor Square, there was not enough room to absorb the beauty of the sculpture from afar. One had to constantly crane the neck to observe the imposing figure that refuses to look back at you gazing imperiously ahead, oblivious to its surroundings.
The Hotel was yet to open and there were a number of construction workers milling around. After finishing clicking pictures from different angles and enjoying this unusual visual feast, I confidently walked up to the security and asked to see the owners of the Hotel. (It was an independent hotel set up by two restauranteurs as per the article I read earlier)
Armed with this photo of Antony and me taken in 2012, when I met him at TED Global, I thought I could charm my way into seeing the room. The Security guard was not too impressed with my request to see the owners, but did make a halfhearted attempt to go inside and look for them. After a few discussions over the radio, the head concierge walked across to me. I repeated my spiel of how I was a great fan of Antony, showed him the photo again and murmured that Antony was an acquaintance. (Couldn’t bring myself to lie that he was a friend). Also told him that I was transiting through London for only a few days and please could he just let me see the “Room” just once? Please ?
The Concierge was very polite in his explanation that people are going to pay 2500 pound a night when the hotel is opened, and that it would be unfair to them if it is open for viewing for non paying visitors too! He added that since the room was a piece of art used by public, it has to be free for two days in a year as mandated by the law and suggested that I come back on 20 and 21st of September, when it would be open for public viewing.When I disappointedly told him that I won’t be able to stay back till then, he very helpfully spent time with me explaining in detail the interiors of the room. After satisfying myself and asking him all the questions that could come to my mind, I spent a little more time standing and absorbing the sheer brilliance of a contemporary genius, wishing that I could stay back to view the room on the 20th, just ten days away.
From what he explained to me and subsequent research I did, I could understand that the living room and bathroom of the suite is in the hotel itself and the sculpture only houses the bed. The entrance to the sculpture is at the left side of the crouching figures bottom. One has to enter the sculpture from the white marbled bathroom (the idea is to make it easy to sleep in the buff) through a doorway that only has heavy drapes to shield the light from the bathroom. There is small flight of stairs leading a landing that only has a bed and nothing else. No furniture. Just a sparse room. The entire room including the ceiling is paneled in dark burnt wood. A small window with wooden shutters is opposite the bed. As one lies down on the bed, one can see up to the ceiling, the height of which is 33 M. Small lights have been placed around the head board of the bed and also in the strategic places in wood paneled walls and ceiling that allows you to see the interior contours of the body of the sculpture in the darkness.
During the recent public launch of the sculpture, Gormley gave several interviews explaining the concept behind the sculpture. This is what he had to say:
“I conceived of the room as “a hermit’s cave; a primal space within the city but removed from the city entirely”.
“What I’ve tried to do is make that space you experience when you close your eyes, and real space, somehow closer together”
“I would say that luxury is a sense of total peace, silence and a place that is removed from the incessant demands of the world,”
“Its a cave, a tomb, a womb or a padded cell. I hope it will provoke its wealthy guests to ask themselves such “existential” questions as: “who am I and what am I doing here?”
“I take the body as our primary habitat ” ROOM contrasts a visible exterior of a body formed from large rectangular masses with an inner experience.”
“Shutters over the window provide total blackout and very subliminal levels of light allow me to sculpt darkness itself,”
“My ambition for this work is that it should confront the monumental with the most personal, intimate experience.”
An idea from the childhood?
The fact that Gormley spent two years in India during his formative years and practiced Vipassana Meditation is well known. His choice of human form as his primary focus for exploring and developing his art was also was inspired by his experience of observing people lying on Railway Station platforms during his stay in India.
As I kept reflecting on the ROOM, it I suddenly remembered his talk in TED Global 2012 and realized his childhood experience of sleeping in an attic could also have played a role in his conceptualizing this particular work. Especially given the sparse and the dark nature of ROOM . (However having looked at all the interviews he has given at the time of the launch I did not find any mention about this experience being a source of inspiration too, so this is strictly my deduction.:) )
Listen to the relevant part of his talk here.
“So, when I was a child, I don’t know how many of you grew up in the ’50s, but I was sent upstairs for an enforced rest. (Laughter) It’s a really bad idea. I mean, after lunch, you’re, you know, you’re six, and you want to go and climb a tree. But I had to go upstairs, this tiny little room that was actually made out of an old balcony, so it was incredibly hot, small and light, and I had to lie there. It was ridiculous. But anyway, for some reason, I promised myself that I wasn’t going to move, that I was going to do this thing that Mummy wanted me to do. And there I was, lying there in this tiny space, hot, dark, claustrophobic, matchbox-sized, behind my eyes, but it was really weird, like, after this went on for days, weeks, months, that space would get bigger and darker and cooler until I really looked forward to that half an hour of enforced immobility and rest, and I really looked forward to going to that place of darkness.”
Chamber of Panchakosha
And now for some Vedanta.
Since I cannot afford to pay 2500 pounds to spend a night and experience what Gormley wants us to, I am taking the easier option of imagining what I would reflect on, if I ever get to spend a night in the ROOM, by writing this blog .
Lying on the bed, (one would hope that the mattress at least would be soft,) I would soak in the “sculpted darkness” and as I adjust my eyes to see the contours of the human form from the inside, my mind would meditate on the Panchakoshas. Unpeeling as it were the five sheaths that constitute our Gross, Subtle and Causal bodies.
I am a great believer in using art to meditate upon Vedantic concepts. Through the process of enjoying the beauty of the art, I also attempt to learn Vedanta.
Rupert Spira so eloquently sums up the role of art in this video.
As I turn Gormley’s ROOM into a chamber of “Panchakosha”, I dare say he succeeded in leading my thoughts back into an inward journey towards its source via the five layers.
After all,there is no better place than being inside a body, to discover you are not one.
Om Tat Sat.