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Value of Antony Gormley’s Artwork the ‘Angel of the North’

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Arts
Wordcount: 3279 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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When it comes to the value of a piece of art, it is understood that value covers more than just a financial viewpoint. Value is how a piece is desired. Its desirability is based off many factors and theories that all interplay to dictate how much something is worth to an individual, or a group. Overall, value is more poignant than numbers on a page. There are many things that influence the value of an artwork. From the contexts that surround it, to the people that gave it life and a story. Through various theories this essay will focus on the ideas that society and the theory of art and civic responsibility; viewing experience and the entanglement theory; and the making process, all have an impact on the value of a piece of art. Whether that be a personal value, or public. And these will all be applied to the chosen piece, the ’Angel of the North’.

Fig. 1: ‘Angel of the North’ (2011) Andrew Yates

There is more value held for a piece when there is a societal understanding of it. “Try to imagine society without the humanising influence of the arts, and you will have to strip out most of what is pleasurable in life, as well as much that is educationally critical and socially essential.” (Bazalgette in Arts Council England, 2014). What Bazalgette means by this is, that society is built upon the arts. Society wouldn’t be what it is without the arts. It is an integral piece of what holds humans together. It teaches us lessons. The values and ideals portrayed can be a backbone to the communities that hold them. It brings people together, through moral principles and ideologies. “The arts are made by and for people… embodiments of people’s political and ideological beliefs, understandings, and values, both personal and collective.”(Elliott, Silverman, and Bowman, 2016)  This ‘civic responsibility’ channels the unanimous ideas of a community and materialises them into something physical, something to be seen, understood and passed on. Art can be created with the intent to influence. To dictate a standpoint within the social and political climate. “Art, freedom and creativity will change society faster than politics.” (Victor Pinchuk, 2018). When art resonates deeply with the audience, they will hold that piece with high regard, and more value. As George Bernard Shaw says, “you use works of art to see your soul.” (Shaw, 1921).

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When the ‘Angel of the North’ was commissioned, Antony Gormley wanted to create a piece “That would be a focus of hope at a painful time of transition for the people of the North East, abandoned in the gap between the industrial and the information ages.” (Gormley, 1998). The North East is famously a historic hub of industry. From the Shipyards to the Coal mines. With “the shallowest, most accessible coal seams lay so close to the Tyne.” (Simpson, 2016). The Angel is built on the site of old Pithead Baths, the place miners would wash after a shift, so they wouldn’t go home dirty and in soiled clothes. “Before pithead baths became widely available, most coal miners, already exhausted from a day’s work had little choice but to travel home from work still filthy with coal dust.” (Thompson, 2011). Gormley took this historical context into consideration when designing the piece, stating it is “to remind us that below this site coal miners worked in the dark for two hundred years.” (Gateshead Council, 2019). These industries were an integral part of building Newcastle and its surrounding areas. However, in recent history, the North East’s industry has declined into being relics of a bygone era. From the mines being closed, to industry being outsourced to other countries for cheaper costs, “overall from a total of 1,250 pits in 1947 to the present day” (Bradley, 2015). Gormley wants to celebrate this ‘work in the dark’ with his ‘work in the light’. He wants to portray Northumberland “Grasping hold of the future, expressing our transition.” (Gateshead Council, 2019). A symbol for hope. Gormley also notes that “this is a collaborative venture. We are evolving a collective work from the firms of the North East and the best engineers in  the world.” (Gormley, 1998) This also plays on the fact that it is a piece made for the community it was built in, not just the land it sits on. It is a homage to the hard working people that built the industries and communities of the North East. It even used “the engineering vernacular of ships and the Tyne Bridge, to produce a strong structure.” (Gormley, 1998). (See Fig.2) As the picture shows, the ‘Angel of the North’ does have strong parallels to its inspiration, the ‘Tyne Bridge’. They both have that industrial aesthetic, from the large beams that make it up, to the industrial processes that assembled them. This is a definite homage to one of Newcastle’s most iconic artefacts.

 The value it holds for the people around it is significant. It speaks for them, it embodies their struggles and hardships. “In a decaying society, art, if it is truthful, must also reflect decay.” (Fischer, 1959). But it stands for their future. And like the people that paved the way, the sculpture is solid, and can withstand the tests of time and it’s trials. It is this understanding and impression that is the key to the public’s value of the piece. However, its initial impression was less than nice. With one critic stating “the most inflated and most vulgar of his works.” (Sewell, 1998) But over time, it grew on people and has since come to acclaim and love. “People seem to have developed a sense of ownership about it.” (Norman, 2018). They value its place within their society. It stands for their pride of the North East.

Fig.2: ‘The New Tyne Bridge’ (1928) Robert Johnston

The viewing experience is fundamental to how value is given to the piece. Ian Hodder states, “There is a two-way dependence of human bodies and things.” (Hodder, 2012). What Hodder means is when we experience a piece of art within a space, we gain an understanding of how our body works and feels. Value is given to art when they help us experience the world around us. Hodder also states that “The going towards and away from things [that] is also at the heart of the attribution of value.” (Hodder, 2012). This is to show that if we decide to go and see something, it dictates what value we have given that object. The fact that we have dedicated time and effort, just to witness the piece shows that the piece in question is valued and held in regard. This is the case for the ‘Angel of the North’. It is situated on a mound at the top of a valley. The site is historically valuable, as it is where the old pithead baths were. It is not confined within a white walled gallery, it is out in the elements. Everyday, all year. But yet, people still decide to go see it. “Antony Gormley has created a powerful landmark which is seen and enjoyed by tens of thousands of people every day.” (AboutBritain, 2007). The North East has a rough climate, where it is most likely cold, or raining. (see Fig.1) In the photograph, the Angel has been coated by a layer of snow, this proves that it can be in an uncomfortable environment. People are still willing to brave the harsh conditions, just to stand next to the Angel, and bask in its majesty. Antony Gormley backs this up when he says, “the Angel is rarely alone in daylight hours, it is given a great deal through the presence of those that visit it.” (Gormley, 1998) Its value is dictated by those who venture to see it. The reputation of the piece, alongside the viewing experience brings value to the piece, as more and more people are drawn to go see it. To experience it.

However, Gillian Rose argues that the world is becoming more ‘ocularcentric’. This is the idea that visuals are being prioritised over the other senses. She states, “we are almost constantly surrounded by different sorts of visual technologies – photography, film, video. They render the world in visual terms.” (Rose, 2016) This implies that a physical structure, which has to be experienced in the open, has less value than another form of media, that one could reference from the comfort of their own home. It seems that two dimensional renderings are more important than seeing the piece in real life. This is evident by the amount of information and photography online considering the Angel. It is a well documented piece, in various forms of media. It can be explored and learnt about from the viewers home.

However, In opposition to this, the Tate disagrees, and states that, “the brain understands the world by combining what it receives from all five senses. Can taste, touch, smell and sound change the way we ‘see’ art?” (Tate, 2015). This question poses the idea that, yes, we do need the rest of our senses to fully experience and appreciate art. This applies to the ‘Angel of the North’. The Angel has to be seen in person to fully experience it. A huge part of the experience is getting to the sculpture. Standing there at the top of the hill with the Angel. Feeling the wind, smelling the open air. Being able to touch it.

Antony Gormley goes on to say, “If your work doesn’t speak to people, it’s beyond comprehension and risible, but if people engage with it, you become tarred with the brush of populism.” (Gormley, 2011). It is this ‘populism’ that Gormley focuses on, he wanted the piece to be accessible, and applicable to regular people.This experience is far more valuable than seeing a photo of it. When on site, physically there with the piece. You are able to make contact with it, and thus a relationship is formed. A personal value and meaning has been placed onto it. People will remember and value the piece and the time they spent with it.

The making process for the piece adds value to it in the way that its materialisation affects the people who surround it. Nina Hole is a ceramicist who makes an event out of the firing of her piece. She live fires them in front of an audience. This spectacle exists for the benefit of the public and those who choose to witness it take place. In her own words, she has “developed the concept of constructing large outdoor sculpture that contains all the elements of a kiln… built and fired site specific.” (Hole, 2006). Her live firings are called ‘séances’, and draw many people who come to view her work come to life with fire. They marvel at it.

It is not a very common experience to be able to watch a ceramic piece be fired. It would usually be done in a kiln. “You have witnessed and taken part in a process that by tradition is reserved for the artist alone.” (Navo, 2000). The process inherently does not require many people, so to have an audience that is willingly there to watch it take place must imply that this version of the process holds value for people. They are watching something rare. This will have huge value to the audience, as they will forever have the memories of watching the piece being born. They will value their experience as being a part of the process. “Performance art can involve the audience with taste, smell and sounds not available with electronic media.” (Bowman, 2006). This is apparent in Hole’s work (see Fig.3), where all the senses are used during the performance. The feel of the heat from the fire; the smell and taste of the smoke; the crackle of the flames. This would also be applicable to Gormley’s piece, as it was February, therefore it was colder. It would have been frosty. There would have been lots of noise from the machinery, and the crowds. The smell of the air would have fresh and sharp.

Fig.3: ‘Fire Sculptures’ (2009) Nina Hole

This theory of live process as an event is also applicable to the ‘Angel of the North’. The Angel was assembled in public, in front of a large audience. It had to be, as it wouldn’t be be able to get transported to the site if it was fully assembled. When it was being assembled,it became an event. The public were, like Nina Hole’s audience, witnessing something rare. Something usually “reserved for the artist.” (Navo, 2000). This sculpture will only be assembled and installed once. It is a permanent piece, which was designed to stand the tests of time, it wasn’t designed as a show piece that would be paraded around various galleries. It was commissioned, and briefed as a site specific, installation. The whole occasion will only ever happen once. The value of being able to watch this exceedingly rare occasion, is immense.

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 When it was being transported from the workshop to the site, the ‘Angel of the North’ “was treated like royalty.” (Williams, 2011) There were huge crowds that lined the roads as the Angel was being transported.  ”Every corner, every roundabout, every turn – hundreds, thousands, everywhere” (Porter, 2011). Claimed the man, who was tasked with driving the lorry that bear the ‘Angel of the North’. The public had already decided that this piece had value, and desired to lay witness to its release.

Eventually there were thousands there, all wanting to see the Angel. “Everybody had been told to stay away – but they didn’t,” (Gormley, 2011) stated Antony. This shows that, regardless of being told not to be there, the public still crowded to spectate the exclusive occasion. They had already valued the piece enough to come and watch it, just to look at it for the first time, before it was even assembled. And the crowd stayed there to watch it be assembled full of intrigue, and pride. As they watched on, they had already accepted its place within their community. They already valued its presence.

Fig.4: ‘Construction of The Angel of the North proceeds in 1999’ (1999) Don Mcphee

Art can hold huge value. From everyone involved with the creation of it, to the audience who view it. Value can be drawn from various factors that influence it. Such as the societal value it has, and the cultural and historical contexts, the civic responsibility. The experience of viewing the art and the theory of entanglement, and the experience of making it. When these things are applied to the ‘Angel of the North’ it is apparent that value can come from anywhere, but it is not only a matter of money and numbers. It is a emotional connection to piece of art, that everyone who comes into contact with it in one form or another have.

List of Illustrations:

Fig. 1: ‘Angel of the North’ (2011) Andrew Yates

Fig.2: ‘The New Tyne Bridge’ (1928) Robert Johnston

Fig.3: ‘Fire Sculptures’ (2009) Nina Hole

Fig.4: ‘Construction of The Angel of the North proceeds in 1999’ (1999) Don Mcphee


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