ANCHORAGE - A sculpture standing 24 feet tall and weighing 37,000 pounds is being prepared for installation at the Anchorage Museum.
"Habitat" sculptor Antony Gormley, speaking by phone from his London studio a few days before Sunday's debut, said he hopes his creation will make increasingly city-bound human beings question their relationship to the natural world.
"We spend a lot of time looking at screens, enclosed within rooms," Gormley said. "I want people in a way to use this space and question in their own way: Where does the human animal belong? Are we disappearing in a way with our own self-created environment or are we an animal that will continue to play a part in the environment of life forever on this planet?"
Gormley's oversized sculpture was inspired by Alaska's large and magnificent scenery.
The British sculptor visited Anchorage two years ago to look at the installation site on the promenade outside the museum. Like many first-time visitors, he was blown away by Alaska's beauty - the incredible expanse of sky; the snow-laden forests; the dramatic coastline off Anchorage with its intricate patterns of frozen mud and black ice stretching toward a horizon etched with mountains.
Being a sculptor, he noticed Anchorage's utilitarian architecture - the small, boxy houses and square commercial buildings laid out on a basic grid pattern. Some would find the city's architecture ugly in its lack of adornment and refinement, but not Gormley. What the 59-year-old artist saw was an inspiration.
Gormley said "Habitat" is a man in the form and size of a house.
"The mind inhabits the body, the body inhabits a house, the house inhabits a city, and the city inhabits a land," he said. "Alaska is one of the last wildernesses. This is a meditation on the human animals' need for a very particular form of habitat."
The $560,000 sculpture was created from 57 stainless steel boxes stacked to evoke the image of a seated person with its arms crossed over its knees.
"It is a contemporary type of Buddha. It is an urban, western Buddha that asks something about human nature but uses the idiom of the city and architecture as the place where we find ourselves most often now," said Gormley, who studied Asian culture and Buddhism for several years in the 1970s.
"Habitat" is Gormley's first major, permanent installation in the United States.
One of his works, "Event Horizon" is currently installed temporarily in New York City. It is 31 life-sized male sculptures perched on rooftops, standing in parks and along sidewalks in the city's Flatiron District.
Gormley's work has been exhibited at some of the nation's most prestigious museums and galleries, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
His steel sculpture "Angel of the North", which stands 66 feet tall and has a wingspan of 178 feet, is one of England's most recognizable pieces of public art.
"Habitat" was commissioned by the municipality of Anchorage and paid for with a 1 percent earmark for public art taken from a public building's construction budget. The budget for the sculpture was based on the cost of the museum's 80,000-square-foot addition by British architect David Chipperfield, a $106 million shimmering silver addition that opened in May 2009.
Gormley was one of 35 artists considered by an Anchorage jury that included museum employees, artists, museum expansion architects and others.
"It sort of ushers us into the new century of development, of looking at our city differently architecturally," said Jocelyn Young, curator of public art for the municipality of Anchorage. "It sort of blows it wide open."
Gormley said people might at first mistake the sculpture for a strange-looking house or a cold storage unit.
"I don't expect everybody will like it. I expect people will be confused and puzzled," he said.
That's OK with Gormley - as long as it makes people wonder about their place in the natural world.
"I have great fondness for mountains and moors and large bodies of water. Maybe that is the romantic yearning of an entirely city-bound bloke," Gormley said.