Today marks the twenty-year anniversary of the installation of Antony Gormley’s work The Angel of the North. Gormley’s work is now iconic and the Angel is probably his most famous work. It is estimated to be seen by 33 million road and rail travellers every year or 90,000 drivers a day, which works out as more than one person every second.
The Angel, which Gormley has described as a ‘totem poll for the North East’, measures 20 meters high and 54 meters wide from wing tip to wing tip, and was made from corten weathering steel by the Teeside manufacturer Hartlepool Steel Fabrications. It sits on a hilltop overlooking the A1 motorway over what was formally a coal mine.
Despite its iconic status now, the project was initially greeted with hostility and doubt: not least of all by the artist himself who at first turned down the project saying, ‘I don’t do sculptures for motorways’. There was local opposition too; some locals claimed it would spoil the view alongside the usual voices that lamented the waste of the £800,000 it would eventually cost.
Gormley has explained that the meaning behind the project signifies three things: firstly, to remind us that below the site coal miners worked in the dark for two hundred years; secondly, to grasp hold of the future, expressing the transition from the industrial to the information age; and finally, a focus of our hopes and fears. This meaning reflects the origins of the project as whole. The local authority in Gateshead in the early ’90s was facing the decline of the area’s heavy industry and like many areas that had become economically marginal due to deindustrialization, turned to art as a means of regeneration.
Although Gormley states that it is supposed to encapsulate our hopes and fears, it’s hard not to look back and view the project with a sense of enthusiasm and optimism that saw New Labour form a government to the sound of ‘things can only get better’ a year prior to the Angel’s installation. When asked why an angel, Gormley replied with ‘the only response I can give is that no-one has ever seen one and we need to keep imagining them.’ Ultimately, this is what the project’s optimism rests upon; we need to reimagine the image of the angel because we need to imagine our better selves.
If we are to take meaning from Gormley’s work, it seems worthwhile to reflect upon our own more contemporary hopes and fears twenty years later by contrasting this angel with another; Paul Klee’s 1920 monoprint Angelus Novus. Walter Benjamin described Klee’s angel as being caught in a storm, the angel’s face turned towards the past but whereas we perceive a chain of events, the angel sees a single catastrophe that piles wreckage upon wreckage at the angel’s feet. The angel is propelled backwards by the storm with such violence that he cannot close his wings. The storm, Benjamin writes, is what we call progress.
This image of history as one long catastrophe and a future without redemption is in stark contrast to the optimistic re-imagining of ourselves that Gormley constructs and yet, given the history of the past twenty years, why is it that Gormley’s work feels ever more further from us and that Klee feels like our contemporary?
Illuminations have made two films about Antony Gormley; the first from our series the Eye: Antony Gormley and the second, The Art of Antony Gormley. Gormley was also featured in our film series State of the Art. All these films can be purchased through our website.