An anonymous contemporary land artist has graced St Andrews West Sands in the East Neuk of Fife with a true tour de force of anthropomorphic sculpture. The effigy-like Body makes barely a ripple on the beach itself, but is sure to cause a lasting shudder across the international art scene.
Given the location of the work, it is hard to deny a reference to the folk tradition of Scotland. What we have here is the mark of a body on the edge of the sea, where the real body has disappeared, leaving only a grave-like mound of earth and a little clothing behind. If you’re one for wisps, giants and ‘gentlefolk’, the implication of this is impossible to ignore. The lore of the land (and of the British Isles in general) is littered with tales of people turning to stone and to earth, particularly looking out to sea or across the land. Stone circles and standing stones are often said to be wicked heretics, giants, or maidens, petrified by their own longing, God or the Devil – and every one of their allies in between. Given that the Maiden Rock – a forty feet sandstone spire – stands just across the bay from this spot, the association is especially potent. Rather than the finished product of curse or wish, here we see a person only half melded with the earth, the trace of their self still visible and recognisable. It is up to the viewer to decide the reason for this body’s fate.
Despite his jollies across Scotland, however, and even his visits just a few miles away in nearby Auchtermuchty, the Devil didn’t make this. An artist did. And who the body is to them is of primary importance when understanding this work. If they are a subject of the artist, such a treatment can be read as an abuse upon the sitter. When an artist recreates the human form, what does that mean for the prototype? They are subject to the eyes, the hands and the thoughts of the artist, who reforms them in a new image. The artist forces themselves upon the body they scrutinise, erasing previous identity and proclaiming themselves as creator and master. Are we shown here what is left of a person who becomes an artwork – just the crude signifiers of half buried clothing to suggest who they were before? It is certainly tempting to read it as such. Conversely, this treatment could be one of loving memorialisation. Most frequent among the subject matter of artists are those close to them –Schiele’s lovers, Whistler’s mother, Cassatt’s children. Those who are painted find themselves immortalised, beatified, hallowed as the highest example of human creation. Is the subject here diminished into earth – or is the earth made to record and proclaim them?
Or perhaps neither. To echo (and interpret literally) the much resurrected words of Leonardo: “every painter paints himself”. A lot of sculptors sculpt themselves too. This piece could very well be seen as a testament to the artist who made it. The work itself become a signature – rather than the pained cry of the subject, the yelled declaration of the creator: “I was here, therefore, I am”. The presence of the artist remains in the artwork itself, so that the anonymous maker becomes preserved on the sand that briefly held their true form. Here, it is clear that our artist is tipping their hat to Antony Gormley, particularly his work Another Place (1997). Located along a stretch of beach in North Western England, Gormley’s work consists of 100 identical bronze casts of his own body, placed at intervals along the shore. Some become completely submerged at high tide; others remain visible throughout the day. Gormley’s work again echoes standing stones and crude, old-world sculpture – their inherent loneliness, their constancy and their singular fixed gaze leaves them engaged in a constant vigil, an endless contemplation of the sea itself. Nonetheless, they also clearly place the artist in the land. Through them his form, his name and his memory are made eternal fixtures of the coastline, a defiant testament against a place itself so at the mercy of the elements.
Where Gormley’s shades emerge from their submersion, returning to the visible world as the tide ebbs, the ephemeral medium of this work consigns it to a far more ignominious fate. Rather than a permanent edifice of the human form to forever stride St Andrews’ beach, this sculpture rather acts as a temporary trace, of which soon will be left no trace at all. In this sense, the piece has more in common with that of short-lived Latin American artist Ana Mendieta. Mendieta’s practice included transient sculptures – Siluetas (1973-1978) – which commemorated her own presence on a landscape – her shape was branded onto the earth, daubed upon it with blood, and laid out in flowers. Each media brings with it the aura of sacrifice, of a geography and people untamed and elemental. As with Body, Mendieta simplified and reduced to sign and icon her own form, so that her traces were both anonymous indications of a universally humanoid form, and highly personal scars of a single experience. Whether hinting at violence, trauma or memoriam each was nonetheless doomed to disappear with the passage of time. The wind, the rain, the tread of feet and growth of fresh flora – all have collaborated to ensure that Mendieta’s sculptures have vanished completely. As I first chanced upon this anonymous tribute this morning, it is likely that the North Sea has already done the same for our example.
This work then, like Mendieta’s, mutate the idea of the artist’s body as the vessel for their art itself. Here, yes, the body literally dictates the shape of the art. But the artist is shown not to be the modernist inhabitor of studio and gallery, but an animal of flesh, whose body could return to the earth at any moment. Some markers of place and time still identify our body as a creature of the now, and no timeless sprite: even the Devil in Auchtermuchty did not deign to wear canvas shoes and a sweatshirt. However, these indications themselves are disappearing – both into and alongside the form that bore them. The clothes are becoming half submerged in the sand that previously formed their flesh. As body re-becomes land, so are possessions taken along with it, rendering the artist’s body and the art work itself utterly anonymous, robbed of their place in the present and swallowed by earth and sea. Inasmuch as the artwork acts as a mirror for the artist’s body then, this piece suggests the trends and trappings of modernity to ultimately be in thrall to the eternity of the land. The various isms of the twentieth century are simplified into the blandest of airport-bound outfits, and consumed by a nature that remains both within and without both those who create, and those who witness.
In a simple, shallow mound of sediment, with just a few remnants of clothing an anonymous artist ponders and crafts a series of contradictions. Art, and human effort, is shown to be both fleeting and eternal, debasing and glorifying, a mark on the earth and plain matter returned to it. The constant flux of a body both tragically fragile and heroically strong is played out on a unremarkable Scottish beach. Like a scream into the wind, the piece is both undeniably tangible and irrevocably gone. This work, like all human life, becomes a marvel of complexity, a wonder for all to gaze at. Yet – after all is said and done – there now remains nothing to see.