The challenge was to produce in clay an imaginary time capsule that would give future generations who might unearth it a clue about ourselves in much the same way as contemporary archaeologists interpret past civilisations from the material objects that they excavate.
The globular form for the capsule grew out of an earlier project to illustrate Blake’s wonderful line ‘To see a world in a grain of sand’. There, I had made a largish hand-built ceramic sphere, itself comprising grains of sand, to represent the world. And because that world had been hollow, it would be possible to make another, cut it in half at the equator and, using the northern hemisphere as a lid, treat the southern hemisphere as the repository for clues about ourselves.
But how was one to decide on which clues to include? Should I, for instance, try to show, as we are constantly being told, that we live in an information age in which we are all interconnected and news never sleeps? Well, no. Even if true - which it isn’t for most people in the world - how could it be illustrated in clay? Either or both of these shortcomings seemed to apply to most of the other important messages that I dreamt up as candidates for inclusion in the capsule. Until I hit on the notion that future generations, if indeed there are any, or extra-terrestrial visitors, assuming that there aren’t, might be fascinated to discover that even at the beginning of the twenty-first century, some earthlings were becoming exercised about human population growth and the limited capacity of the earth to sustain it.
An apt way to illustrate our overcrowded world would be by means of phalanxes of clay figurines. Thus I beat a path to Antony Gormley’s door. The impression made on anyone seeing his Field series for the first or the umpteenth time is unforgettable. I determined, in homage to Gormley, to make scaled down versions of his little people with their limbless bodies and doleful, upward-staring eyes, and to over-populate my world with them in order to make the general point. According to the UN, the world population is six* thousand million. Each of the two thousand little figures therefore represents three million of us. They are made from three types of clay broadly proportionate to the racial composition of humanity. It is a salutary thought that although the developed world consumes the vast bulk of the earth’s resources, the population of Northern America comprises only about 5% and Europe only about 12% of the world’s population.
And that is how there come to be some two thousand little people staring up at you from their niche on the left hand-side as you climb the stairs to the Office or the Main Gallery in the Poly.
Anthony Fagin 3 May 2005
* The global population had reached 7 billion by 2011, six years after this article was written. To mark that milestone, a new installation Seven billion people in 2011 was prepared for The World exhibition in 2012.