We are enthralled by gigantic statues. The ancient Greeks referred to them as kolossoi. The word was first used by Herodotus to describe the massive stone statues built by the Pharos of Egypt. Two such famous statues in Herodotus’ time were Pheidias’ Athena Parthenos on the Acropolis of Athens, reputedly clad in gold and ivory to glimmer and shimmer under the Greek sun, and the statue of Zeus at Olympia, built around 430 BC, considered to be one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
The Angel of the North is a reminder of how important it is to create markers of memory that give meaning to our communities – SH
The Colossus of Rhodes was the largest statue erected in antiquity. A miracle of ancient engineering, it represented the sun god Helios. Built in 280 BC to celebrate the victory by Rhodes over Demetrius Poliorectes, it supposedly stood towering over the island’s military harbour before being destroyed in an earthquake. Cast in bronze and standing on a white marble plinth, it was around 33 meters high. ‘Few people can make their arms meet round the thumb’, wrote the historian Pliny the Elder. The Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World (to give it its full title), erected on a pedestal on Liberty Island in Upper New York was a gift to the USA from France and based on the Rhodes colossus. It soon became a beacon of freedom, welcoming immigrants arriving in America by sea. When erected in 1886, it was the tallest statue in the world but has since been surpassed by the Spring Temple Buddha, a 420 feet high-gilded copper version of Buddha Vairocana in China’s Henan Province.
Though the A1 doesn’t quite have the exotic ring of ancient Egypt or Greece, Antony Gormley’s The Angel of The North has, if not put Gateshead on the international map, become one of the most recognisable pieces of public artwork in this country. In 1990 the Lower Tyne Colliery pithead baths were reclaimed with a view to erecting a public sculpture to commemorate the work of the miners and to mark the difficult transition between the end of the industrial era and a slow (and sometimes painful) move into the age of technology. Using the vernacular of Tyneside engineering, famous for its shipbuilding, the Angel is ten times life-size, a self-supporting structure fabricated in fibreglass and Corten steel, based on Gormley’s own body. The oxidisation of the steel gives it its distinctive rusty colour. Before its erection, there was a lot of nimbyism and cries of a ‘waste of money’. A local paper even dug up a picture of a winged figure built during the Third Reich that they published under the headline: NAZI…BUT NICE.
The technical challenges were enormous. How could it withstand the prevailing south-easterly winds, the rain, sun and snow? Erected on a mound near the A1 motorway, the scale is important as the valley is a mile and a half wide and the viewer likely to be travelling past at speed in a car. Slowly the local residents have been won over, taking pride in the 20 metres (the height of a five-story building or four double-decker buses) statue with its 54-metre wing span (bigger than a Boeing 757 or 767 jet) standing on 500 tonnes of concrete that gives their locality a special distinction.
Way markers have been erected since humans first moved from place to place to tell us who we are and help us find our way home. In remote heathlands and mountains, travellers could die if they lost their way in poor weather and way markers, at first often no more than simple cairns or a heap of loose stones, provided reference points in a hostile landscape. Romans erected them to mark the way for their soldiers, while the early Christians placed crosses at road junctions. In the 17th century milestones, such as the Trinity Hall series between Cambridge and Royston on the B1638, were erected with the advent of the Royal Mail to help post riders make good progress and know where they were. Pilgrims on the Camio de Santiago follow stone markers and mounds, as well as the famous scallop shell. These not only guide them on their way but offer a symbolic and spiritual sense both of leaving and arriving.
In an alien, frightening world before widespread urbanisation, humans needed to calibrate where they were to orientate themselves. Unmediated space was frightening. Creating markers in the landscape was not only practical but implied control over untamed nature long before there were maps by which to orientate ourselves. The Sphynx in the desert makes that bit of desert singular and stand out from the endless sea of surrounding sand. Space is what sculptors work with. Their objects are designed in encompass and mediate space. Since the beginning of time, they have worked with human dimensions, measuring in hands and feet. A sculpture converses with its location, with the space in which it has been placed. Unlike a painting, it is not an illusion but a three-dimensional ‘thing’ that we are able to approach and walk around. It inhabits a space with its physical presence, much as we inhabit it with our bodies. The Angel of the North is a reminder of how important it is to create markers of memory that give meaning to our communities, both past and present, as well as mirror our sense of place in the wider world.
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