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The Angel of the North

2003 February 22
by Paul Vallely

At first the fog blew like ribbons of smoke across the road. Then, all at once, it rushed towards the car and enveloped it. The last two hours of the journey through the Dorset countryside became a slow crawl. It was night by the time I arrived on the isthmus that is the Isle of Portland. I felt dislocated and had no inkling of what the dawn might bring.

What the next day brought was my first contact with the work of Antony Gormley. It was almost a decade ago and the place was the Portland Sculpture Trust, a wild landscape of rough grassland scarred by disused quarries from which, over many centuries, the fine creamy limestone was hewn by hand to grace great buildings such as Westminster Abbey and Buckingham Palace.

And there, in the midst of the wild wasteland, suspended half-way up a sheer rock face in one quarry was a bas-relief of the figure of a man diving precipitously from the heavens.

It was an early work, from 1983, but already the qualities were there that have gone on to make Gormley one of the most distinctive and best-loved sculptors of public art in Britain. Still Falling, he called it, and there was something magical and mystical about it – a figure plunging vertically with tremendous velocity, and yet frozen for ever, never to reach the dull earth. One arm stretched behind might perhaps be the wing of an angel, I thought fancifully.

When Gormley some years later erected the work that made his name, The Angel of the North, on a windswept mound near Gateshead, I thought back to the falling figure and wondered if that initial thought had been quite so capricious.

The Angel – which began controversially with churlish protests that the money would have been better spent on local hospitals – has since been taken to their hearts by local people. Indeed, it has won wider affection to the point where it is probably the most celebrated modern work of public art in the country. Schoolchildren relish it in catalogues of facts that relate how this most viewed sculpture in Britain is the height of four double-decker buses and has a wingspan as long as a jumbo jet. Local walkers pause to admire its tense torso glinting like burnished gold in the early morning sun. Football fans have bedecked it in Newcastle colours; indeed the moment that we knew Gormley had become a real celebrity was when, along with Newcastle’s England striker Alan Shearer, he was asked to autograph the giant shirt so it could be auctioned for charity. No wonder there was such a fuss this week when Gormley unveiled his latest project – to make casts of 240 local people for a massive new work commissioned by the Baltic art centre on the Gateshead banks of the Tyne.

If Britain had an artist laureate, Gormley would be a cinch, one critic said recently. It was rather a backhanded compliment. Not everyone in the art establishment is keen on Gormley. Traditionalists such as the Evening Standard critic Brian Sewell disdain him for the androgynous anonymity of his figures; the angel, he said, is vulgar, and Gormley “has absolutely no artistic merit”.

From the other end of the critical spectrum, Jonathan Jones of The Guardian condemns Gormley as “a figurative artist: a very conservative, timid, unprovocative one, but dressed up in theoretical contemporary language”. When the British Museum last year staged an exhibition of Gormley’s drawings – and the catalogue revealed that he had experimented with the viscosity of different materials and so had drawn with linseed oil, methylated spirits, paraffin, coffee, blood and semen – Jones concluded: “Now we know the worst. Antony Gormley can wank on a piece of paper and get it exhibited at the British Museum”.

Yet this is not how the majority of the population feel. To a public weary of Mad Tracey from Margate for ever airing her dirty laundry in public, and that regards Damien Hirst chiefly as a purveyor of dead sheep and sharks, there is something about Gormley that makes him a worthy successor to Henry Moore as a prodigious creator of sculptures both provocative and distinctively his own.

It was not always so. Gormley had first begun to be talked about in the art world in 1981, when Jay Jopling’s White Cube gallery staged his first show. But he first came to the attention of the wider public with his work Field, a piece in which a huge room was packed with more than 40,000 tiny terracotta figures. It won him the Turner prize in 1994, but it also brought criticism from some quarters of the type that had been levelled at Carl Andre’s bricks at the Tate 20 years earlier.

However, there was something about the bewitching army of little figures, with their haunting gouged-out eyes, that caught the general imagination, perhaps, some mused, because they prompted a range of associations, – like the suggestion that they stirred memories of the ancient Chinese soldiers guarding their Emperor’s grave.

But it was not the Turner prize, or the South Bank Award five year later, that provided the significant gear shift. It was getting art out of the gallery – and The Angel alongside the A1 and the east coast main line – that did that.

He turned down the opportunity at first, after a disappointing experience in 1988 when Gormley had been asked to design a figure for a triangle of disused land near Leeds station. He proposed Brick Man, a mummy-like giant, 120ft tall, which was well-received at first, until public opposition rose and the local planning committee rejected it as “unsuitable”. But thanks to the persistence of more far-sighted councillors in the North-east, he was prevailed upon to change his mind.

The result prompted the artist to say later: “The art of our time has failed us if it has to rely on the special conditions of the museum, of the private collection, of the commercial gallery.” Nor, he added, was that failure good for the culture that surrounds the traditional venues for art. Gormley works now stand in dozens of public spaces from Winchester Cathedral to a Birmingham piazza, not to mention similar sites in Germany, France, Portugal, Norway, Korea and Japan.

Part of Gormley’s success springs, no doubt, from his ability and enthusiasm to talk about his work. He is far from immune from lapses into art-speak: “Sculpture is the place in which the ephemeral and lucid nature of human experience can be inscribed in geological terms. Everything is mobile and everything is an image.”

But he also talks around his art in ways that assist ordinary people to understand it. His angel, with its man’s trunk and machine’s wings, asks, he says: “To what degree has humankind assumed powers that were once divine? It asks: is technology an aid, or a handicap? Has the way we have extended our bodies via technology to an extent imprisoned them? Look at the wings. They are an aspiration to fly, but they are also the rack on which the body is torn or held. Their top line is pure horizontal, as is the horizon, echoing the limit to man’s perception.”

There is something else attractive about him. He combines what one commentator called “twin boyish traits – a genuine zeal for making the world a better place, coupled with a secret love of the ‘wizard wheeze’.” There was a good instance of that in 1998, the same year The Angel was hoisted into position, with his piece Critical Mass at the Royal Academy in Piccadilly. There 60 cast-iron figures, some tightly curled up, some prostrate, were strewn around the courtyard or suspended from Burlington House like the aftermath of some appalling occurrence.

Gormley delighted in it on several levels. There was a schoolboy relish in dangling things from the Academy’s celebrated neo-classical façade. There was a mischievous adolescent thumbing his nose at the myopic net-curtain self-contentment of an art establishment “still running on 18th-century principles”. And there was a political protest about Britain being the second biggest arms dealer in a world littered with corpses, from Bosnia and East Timor to Rwanda and Iraq.

But undoubtedly Jonathan Jones is right when he says that it is Gormley’s figurative style that makes him so generally accessible. Almost all his work is based on a casting or modelling of his own body that goes back to a childhood in which most of his Sundays were spent in the National Gallery or the British Museum, where he became particularly fond of a tufty-haired Egyptian mummy named Ginger, the 6,000-year-old occupant of Room 64.

There was something else. Gormley was brought up in Hampstead Garden Suburb, in north London, one of seven children in a family so devoutly Catholic they used to kneel in the dark together each evening to pray. Although, after his schooling at the Benedictine boarding school Ampleforth, he lapsed from his faith, there remained something sacramental about his understanding of the human body. After university at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he read archaeology, anthropology and the history of art, he set off on the hippy trail to India, to learn meditation with a Burmese guru called SN Goenka. All these influences have converged in his art.

He has rejected the crucifixion that is the central image of his childhood faith. But he has held on to the notion of a body given for others and tempered it with the Buddhist sense of present awareness. To him his body is not a focus for narcissistic self-portraits. It is a tool to produce images that stand for universal humanity. “My appearance belongs to others,” he has said “not to me. It is an example of the universal human condition of embodiment.”

There were those, despite that, who accused him of “me, me, me” self-obsession. Which is what makes his latest venture such a new departure. He is turning to the use of other people’s bodies. “It’s a big shift in my work,” he says, “trying to create a collective body, if you like, to represent the community.” It will be fascinating to see how it turns out.

Life story

Born

Antony Mark David Gormley, 30 August, 1950, in London

Family

The youngest of seven children; his father, a pharmaceutical manager, and his mother, a physiotherapist, raised the family as devout Catholics. He now lives in Camden, north London, with Vicken, his wife of 18 years, and their three children Ivo, Guy and Paloma.

Education

Ampleforth school; Trinity College, Cambridge; he later studied at Goldsmith’s School of Art, the Slade School and the Central School of Art.

Career

Launched his first exhibition in 1981; subsequent solo and group exhibitions followed with much acclaim; in 1994 he won the Turner prize, and in 1998 was awarded the OBE for services to sculpture.

Famous Works

Milestone pieces include Mother’s Pride (1981), made out of 6,000 pieces of white bread; Sound II (1986), a lead and fibreglass figure in the crypt of Winchester Cathedral, and Field (1991), an assembly of 35,000 terracotta figures; he is perhaps most famous for The Angel of the North (1998, pictured right), a giant sculpture near Gateshead that stands 65 feet high with a wingspan of 169 feet.

He says

“My sculpture and drawings act as a zone of projection for all sorts of hopes and fears.”

They say

“Antony Gormley has been in receipt of vast sums of money. But he has absolutely no artistic merit” – Brian Sewell, art critic

 

The Independent 

22 Feb 2003

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