June 30, 2004
What I like about Gormley's Angel

It's a sign of how well Anthony Gormley is doing that this exhibition is being called "… Clay from Gauguin to Gormley". This man has become a name you use to get people's attention.

Gormley hit the big time, in terms of public acclaim, with the Angel of the North:


I have been mulling over a great big posting about Gormley in general, because I think he's a very interesting artist, but for the time being I will only offer what I hope is an insight into the popularity of this one piece. (By the way, none of these photos are mine, in case you were wondering. I just picked from the many, many Angel of the North pictures you get if you google "Angel of the North".)

I don't know exactly what everyone else likes about Gormley's Angel, but I have now worked out something of what I like about it, and what it says to me. And I can at least guess at part of why it has been such a popular hit.

Most "angels" of the kind that the general public get shown (I'm thinking of the character portrayed in a recent movie by John Travolta, and before that by the angel in Barbarella played by John Philip Law I think it was) have both wings and arms, which is anatomically wrong. And that horse that you often see at the beginning of some movies has front legs as well as wings. In other words, with most angels, the wings are just bolted onto the top.

But in the real world of real biology, winged creatures of any great size have mostly had to choose. Insects, yes, they can have wings and lots of legs. But mammals, no. And Gormley's angel obeys this rule. Gorley's angel has wing, but pays the biological price.

However, the next thing to notice about the wings on the Gormley angel is that they are not bird wings, but airplane wings. These are industrial wings, rather than the sort of wings supplied by Mother Nature. And what this communicates, to me anyway, is the idea of a creature who has taken wing as a result of industrialisation, but at a price.

And the price is even heavier than that. Not only are the wings totally industrial. The very body itself, though still recognisable as a human body, has also been heavily industrialised. It's built like an iron ship, rather than out of flesh and blood. Those industrial wings have industrialised the entire person.

It's a potent image, I think. And it reconciles me to the thing which at first I thought was wrong about this Angel, which is that I at first thought it far too small. Surely, it should have been hundreds of feet tall, dwarfing the surrounding world. It should, I thought, have been put on top of that hideous multi-story carpark which is the absurd architectural summit of Newcastle's twin city across the river, Gateshead. Yet instead, there it stands, next to the huge motorway, dwarfed by the surrounding huge landscape of rural Tyneside, looking not superhuman at all.

I was thinking: angel as extraterrestrial bestower of super-power, super-blessing, or super-something. Now I see him as an angel-representative, an everyman angel, an angel who is human only more so.

This angel acts out in physical form the feeling lots of people must have about industrialisation, especially in places like Newcastle and its surroundings, which is where the Angel is to be found. It's great. It can do wonderful things. With it you can fly. But you must pay its price. And above all, it will change you. Don't think you can just stick your arms into the wings and then shrug them off when you've done your flying. You'll be stuck with them.


This is an angel who cannot now easily resume normal life, working as a keyboard pusher for the Newcastle Social Services Department, or in a colourfully humming Japanese car factory or driving a potato crisp lorry, while wearing a designer suit or designer jeans. You just can't make yourself do things like that any more. You have become something else. So Gormley's angel is impressive, but now, rather incapable. Pathetic even. An industrialised dinosaur, now utterly immobilised – crucified even – by his accursed wings.

Crucified. Yes. Jesus Christ, I only just realised that. Comes of having been a devout atheist for forty years.


Or so the Angel seems to me, now. Perhaps I am reading far more into this thing than Gormley intended, or maybe quite different things to what he intended. Although actually, not entirely. What I've just put, especially about the bodily experience the angel is undergoing, fits in well with some of the other things I'm learning about how Gormley goes about sculpting and what he reckons his own sculptures are all about. Here however, Gormley says that this is much more a superbeing who blesses, along the lines of my first (and somewhat critical) reaction. So I guess a lot of what I like about the Angel is in spite of what he reckoned he was doing.

Maybe I will get around to doing that posting about Anthony Gormley in general, called something like "Anthony Gormley and the populist retreat from abstraction", some day or some week soon. Because I do not think that it is an accident that this man has hit the jackpot of popular acclaim like no other British sculptor now alive and sculpting, nor at all surprising that he did it again with this, which accounts for the clay thing.

Meanwhile, I recommend looking at Gormley's own website and threading your way through to "FULL LIST OF WORKS". One of the secrets of Gormley's success is clear right there: it's a long list.

Anyway, more about this man later, I hope.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:17 PM
Category: Sculpture