'More than any other work that I have been involved with, the Angel exhibits sculptures ability to endure.' (A.Gormley quoted in A. Gormley et al., Making an Angel, London 1998, p. 14).
With its human height and massive wingspan of more than five metres, Angel of the North, executed in 1996, is the iconic figurehead of Antony Gormley's internationally acclaimed oeuvre. This human scale maquette is one of a series of five sculptures that prefigure the colossal Gateshead project that Gormley completed in 1998. Rising twenty meters from the ground and spanning fifty-four meters from tip to tip, the Gateshead project was cast out of 200 tonnes of steel and was conceived as a national emblem and beacon for the North of England. As the artist himself has elaborated, 'people are always asking, why an angel? The only response I can give is that no-one has ever seen one and we need to keep imagining them. The angel has three functions - firstly a historic one to remind us that below this site coal miners worked in the dark for two hundred years, secondly to grasp hold of the future, expressing our transition from the industrial to the information age, and lastly to be a focus for our hopes and fears' (A. Gormley quoted in http:/www.theangelofthenorth.co.uk/, [02/09/11]).
Born out of the artist's early A Case for an Angel (1989-1990) series, Angel of the North represents a celebration of earth and sky, the corporeal and the ethereal. Gesturing its wings and heart towards the heavens, its feet are resolutely anchored to the ground, a result of the gravity acting heavily upon its solid metal figure. The body of the sculpture with its noble, upright posture is positively human in spite of its industrial material and facture; the lines of its contours recalling the curves of the bicep or calves with close precision. Across the shoulder blades and spanning the torso of the elegant figure grow long, ribbed wings, less biomorphic than aeronautic.
Angel of the North takes this relationship between man and machine and reflects on the way that the body is extended by technology. At the same time it draws an allegory between the aeroplane and the elevation of the human spirit. Whilst Gormley denies religious symbolism, he acknowledges that the work 'comes from the same source as the need for religion: wanting to face existence and discover meaning. The work attempts by starting with a real body in real time to face space and eternity.' (A. Gormley quoted in E.H. Gombrich, Antony Gormley, London 2000, p. 120).
Constructed out of cool, cast iron, its material is both industrial and organic, beautifully variegated by the elements. Its shape borrows the physique of the sculptor himself, who created the mould using his own body as a pattern. Standing with head raised and chest open, the sculpture channels the confidence and serenity of Cycladic Greek sculpture, celebrating the 'imaginative space inside the body' (A. Gormley quoted in Ibid., p. 140). For Gormley, a central premise of sculpture is to reinvigorate the dialogue between the body and space by challenging the legacy of the Enlightenment and its empiricist regime. As he explains, 'the world is understood as an object out there, of vision requiring distance which promotes knowledge. My work tries to create a place of feeling which is in contrast to objective rationalism' (A. Gormley quoted in, E.H. Gombrich, Antony Gormley, London 2000, p. 122). Rather than privileging the eye as the primary channel of communication, Gormley seeks through his sculpture to activate space and invoke a 'psycho-physical' response from its viewers. As he once suggested: 'I want the body to be a sensing mechanism, so your response to the work does not have to be pre-informed and does not necessarily encourage discourse' (A. Gormley quoted in Ibid., p. 140). In creating the maquette on a human scale, Gormley invites the viewer to interact with an inert being of roughly the same shape and size, whose perfect silence prompts self-reflection. With the angel's wings seamlessly welded to the sculpted body at eye level, the sculpture imposes a physical barrier, blocking the viewer's optical horizon. In this way, as with the spatial intervention of Richard Serra's Tilted Arc (1981), the sculpture encourages the viewer to consider space, and the nature of his or her own body.
Gormley has consistently emphasised the significance of physical interaction. As he once emphasised, 'the body is language before language. When made still in sculpture it can be witness to life and, as you say, it can talk about this time now' (A. Gormley quoted in U. Kittleman, Total Strangers, Ostfildern-Ruit 1999, p. 22). In creating sculpture to fulfil this ambition, Gormley reconnects with a type of existentialism and spiritualism rarely engaged within contemporary art. Arguably the affinity with the body and self-awareness resonates with both Buddhist teachings and the yogic concepts of 'chakras' or 'energy centres', but perhaps more manifest in the Angel of the North is the reproduction of a deeply Christian tradition. Within Christianity, the angel bears significance as the herald of God; in the Angel of the North this subject is consolidated by the sculpture's cruciform posture. Gormley accepts that these themes are latent in his work as part of his 'mental and emotional territory' (A. Gormley quoted in E.H. Gombrich, Antony Gormley, London 2000, p. 25), yet denies that faith was his motivation. He argues that it was his interest in the innovations of technology and progress that determined his art.
Adopting the wings of his earlier work Vehicle (1987), in which a oneman glider is cast out of lead, Gormley constructs Angel of the North with a view to investigating mankinds relationship to his tools. The glider or airplane as an image holds almost totemic significance for modern society, being the innovation that accelerated globalisation and gave man the ability to see the world from a vantage point previously reserved for God. Gormley once said of his work, 'I like the marriage of anatomy and technology. It isn't a kind of Icarus - you know, little bird feathers. I want something that is very concrete' (A. Gormley quoted in Ibid., p. 137). Icarus was the embodiment of hubris and disillusionment with technology, his wings failing him at the decisive moment and leaving him to plunge to Earth and to his death. Whilst this analogy appears appropriate for the machinery that facilitated the violent history of the 20th century, Gormley's sculpture takes a more optimistic perspective. For Gormley, Angel of the North represents the promise of science and technology when combined with human inspiration at the beginning of the 21st century.