Angels of New York

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Posted 21 Jun 2010 in Photos

There’s something about my enthusiasm for Anthony Gormley that isn’t intellectual or aesthetic at all – it’s a learned feeling which I think I must have developed as a teenager, visiting the North East; the the birthplace of my parents. Gormley’s Angel of the North arrived at the right time for me; a work of art I instinctively got; something big and impressive – meaningful, political and wistful simultaneously. My dad explained how it was important that it paid tribute to the industrial heritage of the North East, but most of all it felt important – at a time when it was particularly fashionable to decry modern art – that the people of Gateshead and Newcastle so enthusiastically welcomed it. Geordies know the value of local pride and the value of loyalty, so they quickly wrapped the Angel in an Alan Shearer shirt.

So I’ve always had time for Gormley – the same way I do for Newcastle United. I want him/them to do well. And he does good work consistently – even if he’s repeated himself and pursued a vision so doggedly it’s become over-familiar, I think he understands public art better than most, and instinctively makes art human, which is innately valuable. Event Horizon, a touring exhibit made up of life-size, cast iron and fibreglass models of his own body, is a brilliant example of what he does best. Having missed it in London, and never seen the comparable Another Place in Merseyside, I was really excited about seeing the figures – placed discreetly or imposingly, high or low – in Madison Square when I visited New York last month.

So I wasn’t surprised at the extent to which I loved the piece. Although they are wonderfully still, the statues inspire constant interaction, whether in a tactile sense at ground level, or, most excitingly up high, where one must strain one’s vision, scan the horizon in search of them. At first, I sought them out keenly, searching the tall buildings for the figures, and then began, in a more leisurely way, to slowly examine the skyline, to see parts of the city I’d otherwise surely ignore. The men themselves – they seem far more real than statues – are startling. Grounded, they are like silent sentries, motionless amongst the hubbub of the city. They attract people to them, who stop and stare. They reach for their cameras, or reach out a hand to cup an iron shoulder blade or, inevitably, laughing, the moulded genitalia.

Raised from street level, their stillness, and their proximity to the edge at such grand heights, is nerve-wracking. They seem poised to jump, and no amount of reasoning entirely dispels the frisson of concern their positioning provokes. It’s funny how hard it is to unlearn the lessons we’ve all been taught. Stand back from the edge. With each sighting I felt a ripple of unease. But the unease is tempered by excitement at seeing a new relationship of sorts between a city and a human form. From what I could tell, others seemed to feel the same way. Gormley has created a really fascinating, involving, thought provoking work. I hope it moves on somewhere where it can alter another familiar landscape is another, unfamiliar, way.

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