In the early 1970s, before he went to art school, Gormley made a series of Sleeping Place sculptures which no longer exist. To make these, he draped cloth, soaked in plaster, over bodies lying huddled on the ground. This created free-standing white tents which enclosed the space of the huddled body, providing a vulnerable covering for sleep. With Bed the artist returned to the theme of a sleeping place, this time using a double mirror-image representation of his recumbent body, delineated in the hollows eaten out of layers of sliced white bread. Gormley used 8640 slices of Mother's Pride bread (minus those he ate in making the negative spaces), which he dried and dipped in paraffin wax before stacking and layering them to produce the final form. The volume of the artist's body is represented by empty space, the contours of which are defined by a surrounding environment composed of bread. Referring to the inevitable destruction (or evaporation) of matter through consumption and digestion (solid to liquid to air), this work also suggests the body's ability to transform it into spirit. Gormley had a strict Catholic upbringing, both from his father's family (Catholic Irish) and the Benedictine boarding school he attended. Bed suggests the Catholic ritual of consuming the body and spirit of Christ, dually symbolised by bread, through the taking of the sacrament. The pose of the absent and supposedly sleeping figure, arms folded on the chest, replicates the traditional pose of the dead carved on mediaeval tombs. The growth of mould on the bread illustrates the life-death-life cycle literally: as one substance decays, another organism is able to take life. Bed, the usual location for conception, birth and death, becomes the ground for the transformative processes of life itself.
Gormley began using his body as both tool and material of his work in 1980. Since then he has developed an investigation into man's physical and spiritual relationship to the natural and elemental world which is almost entirely based on his own body. He suggests that the body is a physical container for the invisible part of himself: his inner feelings, thoughts and imagination. By casting his body he has produced skin-like cases. He uses the space delineated by this body 'skin' as representing a notion of self. Here empty air suggests both infinity and absence: 'the infinity of space within the body', which is the locus for man's spiritual potential. 'Sculpture, for me, uses the physical means to talk about the spirit, weight to talk about weightlessness, light to refer to darkness - a visual means to refer to things which cannot be seen.' (Gormley quoted in Anthony Gormley 1984, pp.ix-xi.)
John Hutchinson, E.H. Gombrich, Lela B. Njatin, Antony Gormley, London 2000, pp.68-72, reproduced pp.70-1 (colour)
Antony Gormley, exhibition catalogue, Konsthall Malmö, Malmö 1993, p.17, reproduced p.16 (colour)
Antony Gormley, exhibition catalogue, Salvatore Ala Gallery, Milan 1984