Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North is a Great British icon. Sublime and fundamentally epic, the sculpture forges a union between earthly corporeality and immortality made manifest. The world-renowned Angel of the North in Gateshead in Northern England, the largest public sculpture in the United Kingdom when it was erected in 1997, is one of the most recognisable landmarks in the UK. Its related sculptures, executed in more domestic scales, share the same phenomenal appeal that lies in the universality of this extraordinary sculpture. By translating an emblem of religious iconography into a new icon for our contemporary era, Gormley has created a transcendental entity that stands for something greater than the sum of its construction.
The vertical element of the Angel was originally cast from the artist himself, providing the template for the form of the present work. Whereas the Gateshead monolith increases the human scale by a factor of ten, this sculpture cuts it in half. Both are braced together by an architectural matrix of girder-like ribs that evoke the wooden struts and structure of an early biplane. The artist considers the airplane as a symbol that represents the restlessness of the human spirit and that also provides a perspective on earth that was formerly reserved for God. Thus his sculpture combines human and aeronautic anatomy to encapsulate the relationship between humankind and technology that characterizes our era: "the use of aeroplane wings is appropriate for a work that attempts to bear witness to our time" (Antony Gormley, Making an Angel, London 1998, p. 15).
Tension between the earthly and supernatural is epitomised by the work's material. Through history the angel has been rendered in the noble matter of virgin marble or polished gold, whereas this celestial being is cast in unpolished bronze, evoking the iron ore of the earth's crust. Referring to the material of the Gateshead Angel Gormley has gone even further: "it comes out of the closed body of the earth. It is made of iron, a concentrated earth material that carries the colour of blood. It is a carrier of the new nature: a body extended by technology, yet actually and metaphorically rooted in the earth and the compressed geology of shale and carbon that lies there" (Ibid.). Thus this angel consists of both material and form that sooner evoke an industrial plant or some aeronautical apparatus than the idealised musculature of a heroic saint or the chaste flesh of an innocent cherub. Gormley inverts the viewer's expectation about what an angel should be and creates a winged presence that is relevant to the evolving perspectives of a new millennium.
This sculpture is integral to the immense collaborative effort that resulted in the Angel of the North, an artwork that undoubtedly stands alongside the Statue of Liberty and Rio de Janeiro's Christ the Redeemer as one of the world's greatest sculptural achievements. The most conclusive appraisal of the Gateshead monument is fittingly provided by the artist himself: "more than any other work that I have been involved with, the Angel exhibits sculpture's ability to endure. The work will stand through rain and shine, night and day, in storms and calm. With the ability to endure comes the possibility that it should stand for our own need to endure vicissitudes. Then there are sculpture's other constant duties which the Angel has and will shoulder: witnessing and marking in time and space, taking now into then, being a focus for life and its dreams. Our dreams" (Ibid., p. 14).
For Gormley therefore, the Angel stands for something greater, embodying themes that will outlive even the hardiest of earthly material. Although the Gateshead Angel of the North is characterised by a physical monumentality, it is defined by a monumentality of spirit. Standing adjacent to the main road from London to Edinburgh, the primary reason for its twenty meter height and fifty-four meter wingspan is to facilitate maximum visibility for miles around. Although it stands like a protector over Gateshead and receives visitors to its base, it was primarily conceived to be seen by a travelling vehicle-based audience estimated at over 90,000 people per day. Scale has become important to the work because of its site, but in Gormley's broader vision, scale is entirely subsidiary to the Angel's iconic form. Unlike the Gateshead work the present sculpture affords an intimate contemplation of the same values that are at the very heart of Gormley's practice; enshrining form, space, memory and spirituality within its cast bronze sarcophagus. Both personal and immediate, this Angel confronts us individually, rather than collectively, yet finally fulfils the artist's promise to inspire endurance and act as a guardian of our dreams.