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Gormley, Antony - VM - Grady van den Bosch

Antony Gormley: Angel of the North

An Angel on Earth

by Grady van den Bosch

Angels speak to the imagination. People often have a picture in their mind of large, awe-inspiring apparitions with wings – white, heavenly. The Bible frequently mentions angels. They visit and help people, fight and sing… Angels appear in various forms, for example, as ordinary people dressed in white (Mark 16:5) or as figures surrounded by light (Luke 2:9). The Bible only seldom speaks about wings – the cherubs on the Ark of the Covenant and the angels in Ezekiel 1 and Revelation 14:6 are the exception. There are different kinds of angels besides those that I described above, i.e. seraphs (Isaiah 6:1-2) and archangels. There are innumerable angels: thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand (Revelation 5:11). Angel means ‘messenger.’ Angels move between heaven and earth.

This characteristic ‘between heaven and earth’ is what the British artist Antony Gormley had in mind when he conceived of his work Angel of the North (1998). The wings of this steel sculpture have a slight angle forwards to picture the suggestion of an embrace. It is possible that its size refers to the tall stature described by some people when they see angels. The sculpture is 20 metres high and has a wingspan of 54 metres.

It was not by chance that Gormley chose an angel for precisely this location, where used to be a miners’ town. The lightness of the angel is a counterpart to the work deep in the dark earth. It is furthermore an allusion to the transition from the industrial era to the information era. And it is about human fears and hopes. Initially there was the usual resistance against the arrival of a gigantic statue. In the meantime, however, it has become a true icon in the landscape at Gateshead near Newcastle in northeast England.

As with many of Gormley’s works the Angel of the North is based on his own body. For me that enlarges the connection between the heavenly and the earthly. As basic as his own body is, so exalted is that of the angel. Gormley speaks about his body as the ever-returning model for his art: “The closest experience of matter that I will ever have and the only part of the material world that I live inside.” His interest in the metaphysical can be traced back to his Catholic upbringing. He is inspired by the theme of renewal and resurrection, while his sculptures pose questions about life and death. During a break from his studies Gormley was engrossed in Buddhism, from which flows the theme of ‘self-awakening’ in his body sculptures. In Angel of the North we discern his familiarity with the biblical images from his youth, in a completely unique interpretation.

The description of the materials used and the construction of the work stands in immense contrast with the lightness of an angel. Six hundred tons of concrete form the foundation of the sculpture that goes down into the earth for 21 metres. In that way it can withstand a wind-force of 160 km per hour. In our lives too we need a lot of ballast and weight in order to achieve lightness. Think of pianists who need many hours of practice before they can play difficult runs with virtuosity, as if effortlessly. Or the many hours of therapy we may require to be able to live life nimbly again. Or the sheer quantity of love we need to enable us to feel safe.

In my view angels are reassuring and have a direct relationship with our loving God. In the Bible people are commonly frightened by angels. “Fear not,” says the angel to the shepherds in the night of Christ’s birth. Mary must have also been startled by the appearance of the angel Gabriel. But ultimately angels are able to reassure us.

However mysteriously, angels play a part in our lives. There are many known accounts of people who escaped death through the intervention of angels. Perhaps Angel of the North may remind us that heaven watches over us, that dark terrestrial and subterranean places are not separate from the lightness of heaven. 

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Antony Gormley: Angel of the North: 1994-1998, corten steel (weathering steel), concrete, copper, 20 x 54 m. Gateshead, England, overlooking the A1 and the A167. This sculpture is the largest sculpture in Great Britain and possibly the largest sculpture of an angel in the world.

This link is to a video of a drone flight over the Angel of the Northhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LdbdxblaxqE

Sir Antony Gormley (1950) was born in Hampstead, London, England. He grew up in a German-Irish family in Dewsbury Moor, West Yorkshire. He studied archaeology, anthropology, and art history at Trinity College in Cambridge. After spending three years in India and Sri Lanka, he studied at the Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design (then Central School of Art) and the Goldsmith College in London. Much of his work is based on his own body, playing with his bodily form, always in relation to the surroundings. Both in interiors as well as landscapes, like Another Time (installed in 2017) in the sea near Margate, where 100 body sculptures are visible, or not, depending on the tide. On this subject he says that he likes to emphasize the stillness of a sculpture, as a counterpart to earlier artists in the history of art who, in contrast, wanted to picture movement. Antony Gormley’s work has been exhibited multiple times, as in the Tate Gallery and the British Museum and internationally in museums. Gormley took part in the Biennale in Venice and in Documenta 8 in Kassel, Germany (1980s). In 1994 he received the Turner Prize for his installation The Fields Beneath. Gormley was knighted in the 2014 New Year Honours for services to the arts, having previously been appointed OBE (Order of the British Empire) in 1998.  

Grady van den Bosch is Master of Education in Arts and works as an art and music teacher and artist from her own business Studio Grady Art & Art Education. She is a member of the committee of Platform Kerk & Kunst (Church & Art), member of the steering committee of the Christian Art Collective Arsprodeo, and a researcher and assistant editor at ArtWay. www.gradyvandenbosch.nl 

ArtWay Visual Meditation October 31, 2021