The London artist creates a cavernous suite in the Beaumont Hotel to help answer the question “What is luxury today?”
The wrath of Antony Gormley is terrible to behold. As we sit on a rooftop terrace Mayfair, in London, he berates my “rudeness” and reels off some of the nasty things I have written about his art. I stop him before he can get to my favourite: “he dominates and squats on British art like a lead toad.”
While not exactly a lead toad, Gormley’s latest sculpture, which towers over the south-west corner of the garden square where we are tensely chatting, is a crouching steel man. A cubistic man, all blocks and angles; or maybe a metallic Lego man, shining in the joyous June sun. But this colossus contains a surprise: the figure emerging from the facade of a building is just the outer shell of his new artwork. The real treat, if you can afford it, is the luxury hotel room hidden within the statue.
Gormley has created his suite – it’s called Room – for the Beaumont, a hotel due to open this autumn in Brown Hart Gardens. The hotel is not exactly a Travelodge. It is a swanky place that raises the question of how an artist can, in good faith, make a work that teases the general public with its shiny exterior while in reality be a delight for the rich guests this Mayfair establishment is hoping to attract. No one would tell me the cost for a night in Gormley’s Room, though it’s said to go for roughly £2,500.
Gormley tells me the commission made him think about what luxury is today. “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,” he said. He thinks of the Room as “a cave, a tomb, a womb or a padded cell” and hopes it will provoke its wealthy guests to ask themselves such “existential” questions as: “who am I and what am I doing here?”
I certainly don’t think they will be distracting themselves from those big questions with sex and champagne, unless they are of a sadomasochist persuasion. From the suite’s relatively conventional, austerely plush sitting room, with its original Gormley framed drawings, you pass through a marbled bathroom to climb narrow steps into the bedroom, which is located inside the artist’s statue. Huge wood-panelled cubes hang overhead, receding all the way up into the statue’s square skull. It is indeed a wooden cave, with dovetailed joints and dark timber to express the “luxury” that Gormley is trying to rethink.
The space is much taller than it is wide and, with the window darkened, it is oppressively sepulchral. When the lights are turned off to get the full effect, one journalist becomes claustrophobic and has to leave.
I am starting to enjoy myself. There’s something powerfully perverse about offering, as the height of luxury, a room that resembles a penitent monastic cell created for some guilt-stricken Renaissance prince. In fact in the 15th century Cosimo de’ Medici, the richest man of his day, did commission his own cell at the monastery of San Marco in Florence, where he could contemplate his sins in comfort. In the 1950s, Mark Rothko visited Florence and drew inspiration from San Marco for the dark portal-like paintings he was planning for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York’s Seagram building. He hoped these deliberately oppressive canvases (now in Tate Modern) would make the “rich bastards” who ate there feel terrible about themselves.
Gormley laughs at this comparison. He is keen to stress that anyone can visit the Room on open days and during London’s Architecture Weekend, and he is also trying to persuade the owners of the hotel to offer it at a cheaper nightly rate if it hasn’t been booked by 8pm on the night in question.
This is, primarily, a room for art collectors to stay in when they’re visiting Frieze art fair, or on a weekend shopping trip to West End galleries. It is a brown cube in which to lodge when you’re in town for White Cube. Yet it does have the monstrous Rothkoesque quality of a space that enforces reflection. The luxury of silence has its dangers.
As an artist, Antony Gormley leaves me cold, but as an architect, his imagination rubs uneasily against reality. His hotel room takes London’s art and property booms to new heights and darker depths.
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