You’ve probably seen Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North, wings outstretched, dominating the big sky south of Newcastle. Or his Another Place – sculptures on a wild stretch of duney coast on Merseyside, being ground down by sea and other elements. Then there’s his latest work, Land – life-sized installations placed in epic sites on the coast at the cardinal points of the compass.
Which is why it’s strange to be meeting the artist huddled out of the rain under a canal bridge in central Warwickshire; his hair plastered black against his head and his round glasses steamed up and spotted with raindrops. But it’s on this waterway – the Stratford and Avon Canal – that I’ve come to see the unveiling of the last part of Land. It’s a fifth installation, standing beside a lock in almost the geographical centre of England, to compliment those four compass point figures. All five Land sculptures were commissioned by the Trust to celebrate its 50th anniversary this year.
From a distance, the hunched sculpture, head slightly bowed, looks quite muscly. Up close though, he or she – the figure is sexless – is formed of polyhedral shapes. Like others passing on the canal towpath, the figure looks a little forlorn in the spring drizzle.
“You couldn’t get a bigger contrast between here and where I was last Thursday on Lundy [the location for another of his Land figures],” Gormley tells me, in gentle considered phrases. “A 150m-high cliff above the boiling sea with a very severe wind from the east. Here we are sheltering under a Victorian brick bridge – with all the domestic quiet of the lock and all its mechanisms. That was the whole point – to contrast this with the edge of an island.”
Going to the edge
I ask him why this contrast is important – what is it about edges that grabs him?
“The idea was to provide catalysts for a reflection on what it means to be an island people – on this group of islands somewhat apart from the great Eurasian landmass. And what our relationship is with water – the water that both separate us from the continent but also encourages us to travel on it to other lands.
“The shoreline, the extreme edge, is washed twice every 24 hours by the tide. That washing removes all trace – it becomes a place of renewal for us. It is also our outermost skin. We live in a body, which is protected by clothes. We inhabit rooms that cohere into buildings and these cohere into cities. But our perceptual final ‘skin’ is the horizon and you never feel that more strongly than when you’re on the beach with the sea beyond. That coastline identifies us as island dwellers.
“With that come all those qualities of self-reliance, being independent and bloody minded. Of not really wanting to belong to any collective grouping – or being suspicious of them.” And we’re a rowdy mixture of thick- and thin-skinned when it comes to our European neighbours.
I ask him why his art frequently involves putting human figures into natural places. Some people think that this imposes on nature. Naturally, he disagrees.
“There’s something exciting about putting humanly made things into the elements. Sculpture is unique in that it doesn’t need a roof or the support of a wall – it’s not a picture. And it can live in the vicissitudes of climate in a way no other art form does.”
“We are nature – we are part of the natural world. Can we think about human nature apart from nature? I say we can’t.”
“A great negative sculpture”
I’m curious as to why he chose a humble canal in leafy Warwickshire for his fifth and final sculpture.
“This one is a contrast with the others, which try to activate the liminal – the edge between the formed and unformed. In Lundy, for example, you have the churning ocean below the cliffs, resisting any shape, any imposed architecture. The sea as the unformed, resisting the will of the formed.”
“Here, though, the canal system is a great negative sculpture where the earth has been carved to hold this fluid element, domesticate it, to break it as you would a horse.
“The canal is also a good example of our being part of nature. It is a result of the relationship between coal, iron and engineering and the evolution of the form of technology during the Industrial Revolution that 300 years later has profoundly compromised natural systems, threatens the biosphere and our own species.
“The question is whether we are going to creatively face this biggest challenge that has ever faced our species and, creatively, within the evolution of life to find a sustainable form of our nature within nature.”
I’m interviewing Antony on 7 May, the day of the General Election, and it seeps into our conversation. “It’s extraordinary that climate change hasn’t been mentioned,” he says.
“The evidence is clear. But the degree to which politics has become immersed in economics means that no politician feels they can risk making any promises in relation to our Kyoto obligations [the international commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions]. It’s tragic. The short-term profit motive of business is now the short-term election motive of politics.”
“We don’t have a chance. We cannot expect capitalism to be the cure of the problem that it has created. This piece relates to that bigger question of what our duties are as an intelligent species to the future of life on this planet.”
“He’s grown on us”
I ask about the industrial processes used in creating his works. “It’s a curious paradox that my work is made using very basic industrial processes – ie, the casting of grey iron [used in this work] is about 300 years old,” he says.
“I use it in order to touch that transformative point – that step into the industrial production of many things. Surplus production. I don’t know that we can continue. We all know that we can’t put greater stress on the planet.”
As we talk, we’re politely interrupted by two women who are staying at the Lockkeeper’s Cottage, now a Landmark Trust holiday let. They tell Gormley that “we weren’t too sure about the figure at first but he’s grown on us.”
Gormley replies laughing, “Well, at least he’s a very quiet neighbour.”
One of the women pipes up: “He looked so cold this morning that I put a coat on him.”
“I’m so glad to see him partaking in the life of the lock,” Gormley laughs. He turns to me when they’ve left: “I’ve no idea how people will respond. And it’s important that I don’t predict how.”
He leaves me with something to chew on:
“The truth is that I think art is the way that we express our values and what we care about in terms of being alive. The 20th century was poor in comparison with 18th and 19th centuries at incorporating art into public spaces. We’ve lost that. Our understanding for the potential of architecture has changed. I don’t think we’ve gone very far in the past 120 years. We need art to help us think about our present and future.”