Leisure, Media and Visual Culture: Representations and Contestations
LSA Publication No. 83 ISBN: 0 906337 94 1
Visit / return to The Angel
of the North web site
The Brick Man versus the Angel of the
Angel of the North
Brick Man maquette
Brick Man simulation
The Brick Man proposal engendered much controversy and debate, not only in Leeds but also in the national press of the time. After a sometimes bitter struggle the project failed in 1988 to achieve planning permission and was eventually abandoned. Not only was an opportunity lost for Leeds to have been internationally innovative with a high profile contemporary public art development, but the Brick Man debacle inhibited further public art development within Leeds for a number of years (Sandle, 2001).
There are many interrelated reasons why the Brick Man project failed. For example, it did not help that while its advocates argued for its local relevancy as a site-specific work, symbolic of the industrial history of Leeds and Yorkshire, Gormley himself specified with insistence that rather than using local material it should be made from brick from Lancashire, as Leeds' bricks were no longer of the traditional quality needed. The selection process by which the Antony Gormley proposal was adopted was also counterproductive, for although proposals from several selected artists were exhibited in a shopping precinct in October 1985 for public comment and vote, it was not made clear that this public vote was for guidance only. Accordingly an unsympathetic local press exploited the fact that the first two favourites of the public were rejected by the selection committee, albeit for technical reasons (fn1).
Although the Brick Man proposal received support from many leading figures within the art world and also by some local and national politicians, it failed in the end to gain the support of those local officials and politicians who were most influential, including the then Chair of the city's planning committee and the Leader of the Council. Both were members of the ruling Labour Party and their lack of support was strengthened by political caution, as the local press, supporters of the Conservative opposition party, conducted a campaign against the project. The Yorkshire Evening Post held a public telephone vote and claimed that with 2,284 votes out of 3,114 against the proposal, the public of Leeds had overwhelmingly rejected the Brick Man. The poll was later condemned as biased and methodologically unsound by the international polling organisation, Mori.
However, the Brick Man proposal and the
space it was to occupy was construed with meanings and sub texts
that go beyond the prosaic practicalities considered by the planing
committee and the stated reasons for its rejection. For the proponents
of the proposal and for those nationally established figures
from the world of arts and culture who expressed support for
the project, the Brick Man was construed as a new iconic symbol
for Leeds, a stimulus for regeneration and an expression of creative
confidence for the city. In contrast, for those local politicians
who opposed the concept, such opposition was seen as a populist
expression of local common sense, as they uncritically welcomed
the results of the local newspaper poll. Thus, for example, the
Chair of the Planning Committee of the time commented, "I
very much welcome this poll, which gives an indication of public
opinion. Certainly the result will be noted when we discuss the
planning application next month". Further, the Leader of
the Council commented, "I am delighted but not surprised
with the formidable common sense of the Leeds public. The result
demonstrates that the scheme should not go ahead" (fn 2).
Undoubtedly, political expediency had a role to play, as there was a concern that the Conservative opposition would make political capital from opposing the project, especially as the factually incorrect notion that large sums of public money were to be involved was gaining credence. However, it is significant that in spite of the lack of its objectivity, the local newspaper poll should have been seized upon as "evidence of the formidable common sense of the Leeds public". That the then Leader of the Council should also add that such a common sense view "contrasts sharply with the airy fairy views of celebrities who don't live within a hundred miles of the city", is significant of how Leeds, its public and hence its spaces were construed.
The myth of the down to earth, common sense, anti-intellectual and proudly independent UK Northerner is one that is well documented as ideologically sustained within cultural and historical processes, for example as articulated by Shields (1991) in his book, Places on the Margin alternative geographies of modernity. From my own experience this stereotype perception had some currency within the labourist orientated local Labour Party of the time, particularly with regard to contemporary art and visual culture. As well as being typically modernist in its paternalism, an appeal to a mythical and generalised down-to-earth common sense Leeds public could be regarded as a manifestation of the northern stereotype, which, as Rawnsley (2000) states, has emerged historically from the construction of the industrial working class with its demotic cultural style on the one hand, and the creation of a middle class identity in which the northern businessman is depicted as philistine on the other. The political implications of such geographical stereotypes are identified by Shields (1991), who states:
These images and stereotypes, an imaginary geography of places and spaces, are shown to have social impacts, which are empirically specifiable and located not only at the level of individual proxemics but also at the level of social discourses on space, which (1) underpin the rhetoric of ideologues and politicians and (2) pervade and subvert even the rationalistic discourse of planning and regional development policy. (p. 6)
This would seem particularly apposite with regard to the Brick Man in Leeds.
That the Brick Man and the space it was to occupy was controversial is not surprising, given Lowe's assertion that space in the public realm is inherently contested. What is interesting in the Brick Man's case is the political and cultural agenda that underpinned the controversy and its dynamic around perceptions of cultural identity and stereotype. This is exemplified in a letter to the Yorkshire Evening Post, during the controversy, that stated, "No doubt this scheme will be greeted with oohs and aahs from the arty farty brigade but to we plain ordinary Yorkshire folk left with common sense the Brick Man is just plain daft" (fn 3).
Another possible sub-text is that a few years previously Leeds had experienced a traumatic period in which an infamous serial killer known as the Yorkshire Ripper had perpetrated a number of murders and violent crimes against women, creating an atmosphere of fear that pervaded the city. The presence of the Yorkshire Ripper also coincided with the growing political and cultural expression of feminism, particular strong in Leeds with regard to visual art. Some local feminists felt that even though visually its gender was somewhat equivocal, to have a huge image of a man towering over Leeds was inappropriate for a city whose women had been subjected to a brutal period of terror by a male. Although this did not feature as a consideration within the male dominated council hierarchy of the time, the project might otherwise have gained more support among grass-roots members of the District Labour Party who were sensitive to the concerns of some of its women members.
With regard to the Angel of The North, it is claimed that it is locally popular and an asset to the Gateshead and Newcastle region. In a newspaper article, Sid Henderson, former Chair of Gateshead Arts Committee, claimed "we've won over the doubters" and the local council clearly believe that the Angel is an asset that has boosted tourist and economic activity" (fn 4). In a similar vein the manager of the Newcastle Youth Hostel Association, quoted in the association's magazine Triangle, claims for both the new Millennium Bridge and the Angel of the North that locally "you never hear a word said against either of them" (Stathers, 2002: p. 21). However, at the time of the proposal, there was considerable local opposition to the idea and four and a half thousand local people signed a Stop-the-Statue petition, which was supported by the local press. There was also a political divide, with local Liberal Democrats leading the campaign against the proposal and the Labour council, arguing that the money could be better spent even though again it was coming from external sources, (the national lottery and Northern Arts), and not from council revenue. One Liberal councillor, quoted in The Independent On Sunday, claimed that "local scrap lads are ringing me to find out what it will be made of, and they assured me that this statue would no sooner be up than they had it down. They see it as a challenge and insult, and they are quite determined to see it vandalised and brought down" (Celmins, 1996).
Its opponents claimed, variously, that the statue would distract motorists on the nearby A1 causing accidents, pose a threat to low-flying aircraft, be turned into a platform for skydivers, attract vandalism and also disrupt local television reception. One letter writer to The Guardian claimed that similar statues were last seen as fascist symbols in Nazi Germany and it would give offence to Gateshead's large Jewish population (fn 5). This view was supposed to be reinforced by the local publication of a photograph that showed a statue of Icarus by the Nazi architect Albert Speer to have a similar profile as the Angel of the North (Usherwood, 1999: p. 94).
However, when the ruling Labour Party was
returned with an increased majority in the local elections, two
years before the statue's completion, the opposition lost its
political impetus. Moreover, unlike Leeds, Gateshead Council
had an established Art in Public Places committee and an ambitious
public art programme. Thus there were key individuals in the
council and in its cultural services, planning and engineering
departments who were experienced in using public art for regeneration
and were committed to seeing the proposal to completion.
But undoubtedly the scale of media interest in the Angel of the North following its realisation has ensured that the work would become iconic for the region. On the 16th February 1998, the day after it was erected, it appeared on nearly every front page of both local and national press. Soon after, the travel section of The Independent on Sunday featured a large picture of the statue and suggested Gateshead and its region as a holiday destination. On the 9th May 1998 it was featured on the Eurovision Song Contest as one of the major sights of Britain along with Warwick Castle and Loch Ness. In August of the same year its profile was widely featured as a result of an 18-year-old climbing to the top of the statue. The image of the Angel has been reproduced in countless magazines and newspapers all over the world, and featured on innumerable websites (fn 6). The Red Arrows aerobatic team used it for one of its stunt flying formations, a trade union magazine featured it on its cover (fn 7) and The Guardian published a striking half page photograph of the statue to illustrate an essay article on personal and national identity, even though it was not mentioned or referred to in the article itself (Mantel, 2002). But perhaps its most significant appearance within the national psyche was when a full front-page version of the same photograph was used as an iconic image by The Sunday Express of January 1st 2000 to proclaim the new Millennium. That a piece of public art should be so used to embody the coming of a new age, clearly indicates that it had become successfully placed within the nation's psyche as a recognisable and potent symbolic image.
The Angel of the North and its image have been appropriated and used by a number of constituencies to reinforce the identity, values and purposes of those constituencies whether self-seeking as in the case of the climber, or a generalised collective identity as in the case of the millennium front page of the national press. On a local level, perhaps the success of the Angel of the North was sealed firstly when The Mag the Independent Voice, a local football fanzine, featured a front cover of local football hero, Alan Shearer, pretending to be the Angel with the caption "the God of the North"; and subsequently when, in May 1999, fans draped the Angel in a 29ft by 17 ft nylon replica of an Alan Shearer shirt. (Interestingly enough, the previous year an advertisement had appeared in the fanzine, The Wearside Roar, with the Angel seemingly wearing a giant football shirt of local rival football club, Sunderland though in this case it appears to have been a manipulated photograph) (fn 8).
In appropriating the Angel of the North to their own cause and values, the football fans are giving the statue and its space a meaning and an identity that they can own. Such appropriation is to be expected if, as earlier stated with reference to environmental psychologist Proshansky, our self identity is derived not just from our interactions with other people but also through objects and things and the spaces and places they occupy. As in the example of the Angel of the North, this would seem to be not just a reactive process, but a proactive act of acclamation in which object and the space occupied have been subject to a transactional process to reinforce a self identity. The contested object and its space, rather than being the focus for rejection, has been internalised and appropriated. Such a process is also both defined and mediated by image and representation.
That this should happen probably owes something to three factors: the universality of the image as ubiquitous cultural capital; its formal presence as an imposing yet simple and instantly recognisable shape; and, thirdly, an element of ambiguity of meaning and hence fluidity in interpretation. As cultural capital it has not only become an established sign for the North East of England (as used alongside such as the London Eye, Blackpool Tower and the White Cliff's of Dover in the title sequence of the BBC's television programme Match of the Day), but it also can be used in self-congratulatory transactions to indicate status as a consumer and a traveller. Thus in the current fashionable act of photographing one's iPod against a background of internationally recognisable locations, the Angel of the North features as one such 'valued' world-wide location along with, among others, the Sydney Opera House, the Eiffel Tower and the Empire State Building (Clements, 2003).
As an easily recognisable and imposing form, its symmetry, simple outline and closure accords with the gestalt psychological notion of Pragnantz, or 'good figure', which makes it perceptually strong and easily memorable. With regard to its element of ambiguity of meaning, the statue was not conceived as an angel by Gormley but as a more generalised winged figure, the title being given it by a local council committee. In an article in The Sculpture Journal, Usherwood (1999) draws upon the distinction proposed by the art theorist Rosalind Krauss between modernist and pre-modernist sculpture. While the Angel of the North is often referred to as if it were pre-modernist that is as a commemorative representation giving a particular symbolic meaning to a particular place Usherwood argues that it can also be regarded as modernist: that is, as an abstraction, functionally placeless and largely self-referential. It is its latter category as modernist free floating, ambiguous and without specified meaning that allows it to be readily appropriated for personal or social symbolic identity and meaning, whether as an affirmation of a local passion and identity for football, or a national proclamation heralding the coming of a new millennium.
Whether the Leeds' Brick Man, if erected a decade earlier to have become the largest piece of sculpture in the country, would have become as well known and publicised as the Angel of the North, we shall never know. Certainly, when first proposed it attracted academic and media interest and for example, Miles (1989: p. 4) wrote that:
The proposal for a brick man at Holbeck Triangle, Leeds, by Antony Gormley, aims to capture the imagination in no uncertain terms. The concept itself is challenging. At 120 feet high it would certainly be seen. What feelings will it draw into itself, its dark interior lit by windows high up in the ears, a hollow cavern like an enormous and misshapen chimney? Perhaps, it is the hollowness that will stand for the twentieth century: a giant man made of dust, and empty.
The Brick Man still makes its presence felt in Leeds and according to Corinne Miller of Leeds City Art Gallery, the 198 cm. maquette of the Brick Man is one of the gallery's most popular exhibits. During the current year, 2003, there has been a renewed interest in Leeds for what is now seen by some as a missed opportunity. A local MP, Colin Challen, has called for the Brick Man project to be revived (fn 9). This time the debate is more considered and the local newspaper's telephone poll has provided a more evenly divided response. The issue however is also being presented as choice between the Brick Man and proposals for a more local image, that of the Leeds' heraldic owl by a local artist (fn 10). However, the last word on the Brick Man probably belongs to the sculptor Antony Gormley, who maintains that Leeds missed the boat and is against reviving the proposal (fn 11). In the Brick Man versus the Angel of the North, the winner undoubtedly is the Angel of the North (Figure 4).
Figure 4: Angel of the North
1 The public's first two sculptural choices were rejected, one on the grounds of cost, the other on the grounds that its surface would cause dangerous reflections in the eyes of the drivers of incoming trains. This highlights the importance, sometimes neglected in public art commissioning, of ensuring that the artist's brief is specific enough to take account of logistic and technical realities, as well as of creative expression.
2 Yorkshire Evening Post, 20th Oct. 1988. In a June 14th 2003 article in the same newspaper, in response to a recent proposal to revive the Brick Man project in Leeds, the former chair of the planning committee which rejected the original proposal states that "it was the result of the YEP's phone poll which eventually killed it off".
3 Letter quoted by Joan Bakewell (1988).
4 In the same article (Whitely, 2000) it is claimed that "the undistinguished town of Gateshead has suddenly acquired an international reputation, which has boosted both tourist and economic activity" and Sid Henderson is quoted further as stating, "We always believed in the economic potential of the arts, and now people can see that they are bringing jobs they're acting as a catalyst". However, while the Angel of The North undoubtedly has stimulated further environmental regeneration of the Gateshead-Newcastle region and boosted tourism to the area, a full assessment of the long-term impact of the sculpture to the local economy has yet to be determined. (Acknowledgements to Anna Pepperall, Public Art Curator, Gateshead Council, and Gateshead Libraries, Arts and Information [http://www.asaplive.com.] for tracking down the Henderson reference).
5 The Guardian, 18th February 1998.
(2002) claims that an internet search for the Angel of the North
brought up 50,000 websites.
7 Unison, Labour Link, Winter 2000.
8 Sunderland Echo, 10th April 1998.
9 Yorkshire Evening Post, 10th June 2003
10 The Yorkshire Evening Post 12th June 2003 headlines an article "Bird Man versus the Brick Man" and features sculptor Steve Blaylock and his stainless steel owl sculpture. Responding to the proposal to revive the Brick Man project, Blaycock states "Leeds doesn't need a deformed brick building, but a huge shining Leeds Owl for the next century". The issue is also the subject of several letters in The Yorkshire Evening Post, 19th July 2003.
11 Quoted in a further article on the proposal to revive the Brick Man in The Yorkshire Evening Post, 14th June 2003 In general, current attitudes towards public art among the Labour Council are more enthusiastic. The 2002 procurement brief for the Leeds Supertram project included a public art requirement and in September 2003 the Council held a civic reception for innovative international artist Bill Fontana, who is planning a major sound installation work for Leeds.
Bakewell, J. (1988) 'Vote to cement history, Bakewell's view', Sunday Times, 30th October.
Celmins, M. (1996) 'Scrap men sharpen saws for giant A1 angel statue', The Independent on Sunday, 21st April.
Clements, J. (2003) 'Been around the world', Daily Mirror, 5th July.
Low, S. M. (2000) On the plaza The politics of public space and culture. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Mantel, M. (2002) 'No passport required', The Guardian G2, 12th October.
Miles, M. (1989) Art for public places, critical essays. Winchester: Winchester School of art Press.
Plagens, P. (1986) 'The new patronage and the new public art', Art Criticism Vol. 5, No 1: pp 19-33.
Proshansky, H. M., Fabian, A.K. and Kaminoff,
R. (1983) 'Place-identity: Physical world socialization of the
self', Journal of Environmental Psychology, Vol. 3:
Public Art Forum (2003) http://www.publicartforum.org.uk, [assessed August 28th, 2003].
Rawnsley, S. (2000) 'Constructing the North: Space and a sense of place', in Kirk, N. (ed) (2000) Northern identities. Aldershot: Ashgate.
Roberts, G., Ball, S., Entwistle, T., Sandle, D., and Strange, I. (2003) A review of public art in Wales 1998-2003. Leeds: RKL / The Arts Council of Wales.
Roberts, M., Marsh, C. and Salter, M. (1993) Public art In private places: commercial benefits and public policy. London: University of Westminster Press.
Sandle, D. (2001) 'Public art and the city political and cultural issues in the development of public art in Leeds (UK)', in Remesar, A. (ed), Art for social facilitation, Mongrafies socio-ambientals, 30, Barcelona: Universitat de Barcelona.
Shields, R. (1991) Places on the margin-alternative geographies of modernity. London: Routledge.
Stathers, K. (2002) 'City of angels Newcastle', Triangle Magazine, Autumn/Winter, pp 21-22..
Torre, S. (2000) 'Claiming the public space: the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo', in Miles, M., Hall, T. and Borden, I. (eds) (2000), The city cultures reader. London and New York: Routledge, originally published in Agrest, D., Conway, P. and Wiseman, L.K., (eds) (1996) The sex of architecture. Henry N. Abrams Inc.
Usherwood, P. (1999) 'Monumental or modernist? categorising Gormley's Angel', The Sculpture Journal, No.3: pp 93 -100.
Whiteley, J. (2000) 'Angel bringing glad tidings to the North', Daily Telegraph, December 22nd.
Figure 1: The Angel of the North (Lisa Young Leeds Metropolitan University).
Figure 2: Maquette for Leeds Brick Man (Antony Gormley Henry Moore Institute, Leeds).
Figure 3: Mock-up of the Brick Man in place at Holbeck, Leeds. (Leeds Museums and Galleries Henry Moore Institute, Leeds).
Figure 4: The Angel of the North (Lisa Young Leeds Metropolitan University).
Visit / return to The Angel of the North web site http://www.gateshead.gov.uk/angel/
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