It lives in public

Antony Gormley, "Angel of the North," 1998. Steel and concrete. Copyright John Clive Nicholson and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons License.

It is base-level arts conversation but it is the very one that I have had most in my life.  Like the best conversations, everybody has an opinion, whether you are an arts life-termer or just your everyman on the street.  Also like the best conversations, it allows you to get passionate, show prejudices, be able to make a few jokes and, easiest of all, compare and contrast.  It is a conversation that I have had with ex-girlfriends in the kitchen over the Sunday papers, with gallerists in Amsterdam, in the pub with my friends, with television presenters on location, in the back of a New York taxi with film school kids and many more times besides.  It is the conversation that begins: “Who do you prefer, Antony Gormley or Anish Kapoor?”

For the record, I am a staunch Gormley-ite [though it does help his cause that one my favorite all-time works is Still IV (1994), his lead casting of his daughter Paloma as a newborn, at just six days old].  Regardless, Gormley has developed a stunningly simple method of having people engage in the art of viewing.  The body as a token of empathy.  Event Horizon, Gormley’s placing of twenty-seven life-size figures across a cityscape originally erected in London in conjunction with the artist’s Blind Light exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in 2007, and currently on view across New York City until August 15, remains an extraordinary explication of urban alienation and how one views one’s place in the world.

With the exception of perhaps Svayambh, his forty-ton block of red wax that has showed at heavyweight venues including Haus der Kunst, Munich; Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes and London’s Royal Academy, Anish Kapoor’s work leaves me cold. I get very little impression that Kapoor cares about anything other than his own cerebral rationale behind his work and anyone who disagrees is quite obviously a philistine.  Indeed, Svayambh appears to be the physical manifestation of the disdain that he holds for the foundations that allow his work to be created and exhibited at the highest level.  “I have a great problem with public sculpture.” says Kapoor, “Public sculpture is something that doesn’t easily work.  It doesn’t easily work in my opinion because, in a sense, the philosophical reasons for it being out in the public are eroded” Replies Gormley, “art doesn’t have to, as it were, have the special conditions of the gallery, the private collections or the museum to give itself a context in which it can work.”*  I find Gormley more attendant to the public-at-large, quite aware that, like any artist, he would not exist were it not for his viewers.  Perhaps I am mistaken?  A small story reported in Monday’s papers does make me wonder.

Angel of the North, Antony Gormley’s giant sculpture, one of the great public art success stories of recent years, is placed on a stretch of greenery beside the A1, the UK’s premier highway, which runs between London and Edinburgh.  Including visitors and viewability from the East Coast Main Line train service, it is estimated that the figure is seen by approximately 90,000 people every day. However, trees and shrubbery around the sculpture have grown to an extent that there have been complaints by passengers from passing trains that the view is now obscured.  The artist has expressed his opinion and revealed that in his initial specifications, it was stated that the statue should stand in complete isolation. In fact, it has been reported that the original complaint came from Gormley himself, as he viewed the sculpture whilst on a train to Scotland. The result?  The offending greenery will be felled to allow clear sights of the work from all angles.

It is an interesting concept, of work that resides in nature but that has not been defined by its surroundings and vice versa.  The local authority, grateful to the artist and in deference to the work, which brings in significant tourism and recognition to the town of Gateshead, are loyally pressing ahead with landscaping.  Aside from the obvious, which is that however large trees and shrubbery grow it would be impossible for the Angel to be entirely obscured, it seems entirely against the grain of of public art that the natural surroundings are sculpted in order to accommodate a commissioned art work.  This in addition to the fact that modifying the situ in which the statue is currently in is a few steps removed from what anybody could describe as restoration.  The integrity of the piece is embedded within its natural environs and changing these in respect of the work will not make it any different to the special conditions applied in a gallery, private collection, or museum.

The stretch of land on which Angel of the North sits is not a landscaped garden.  A few hours drive north of the Angel is the late Ian Hamilton Finlay’s gorgeous, and purpose-designed, Little Sparta.  Here we have an instance where art has been created to be exhibited in a natural, outdoor habitat and as such, the garden is landscaped appropriately and sensitively; the power struggle between art and nature is in balance.

I am disappointed in the decision to cut specific routes in the view of the Angel, insofar as Gormley’s cityscape figures are situated in reference to the sites at which they hold firm.  It may be that this “ugly brute” (in Gormley’s own words) may be built from the ground up in steel with concrete foundations and s/he may never be able to fly, especially with these grotesquely out-of-proportion wings, but please do not let the Angel force things around her/him to change.  Her/his wings are in plane; they are set marginally forward in an embrace to the land before them.

In a similar vein to Kapoor, I do get the whiff of arrogance that it is art for art’s sake, or worse still, art for the artist’s sake.  I do not need to repeat the argument that there is a reason that many people find contemporary art, particularly gallery-based contemporary art, elitist and alienating.  Whatever happened to public art for the public’s sake or, better still, outdoor art for outdoor’s sake?

*The artist’s quotes above have been taken from Illuminations‘s wonderful documentaries on contemporary British visual arts, The Sculpture 100 and theEYE Antony Gormley.

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