‘A Case for an Angel is not ironic. I do believe that we can be transported or be the agent of our own transcendence. Maybe transcendence is the wrong word – but the idea that flight, in gliding, depends on weight and its correct position, is fantastic. I like the marriage of anatomy and technology’
‘The work is a box for a thing, and it is putting a case forward for imagination over pragmatism. It could be argued that as no one has ever seen an angel it is necessary to continue to imagine them’
With its resplendent 8.5-metre wingspan, A Case for an Angel I (1989) is an icon of Antony Gormley’s practice. Made from lead sheet hand-beaten around a plaster cast of the artist’s own body, it marks the first appearance of an angel in Gormley’s work, and stands, in his words, as ‘a declaration of inspiration and imagination’ (A. Gormley in conversation with D. McGonagle, in Antony Gormley, exh. cat. Malmö Konsthall, Tate Gallery Liverpool, The Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin 1993, p. 46). A Case for an Angel I commanded the entire Front Hall of the British Museum from October 2008 to January 2009, in dialogue with such awe-inspiring statues as the colossal Assyrian winged bulls of the 11th-8th centuries BC. A Case for an Angel II is held in the permanent collection of Takaoka Art Museum, Toyama, Japan, and A Case for an Angel III in Tate, London. These works bear a direct relationship to Gormley’s Angel of the North (1998) – the 200-tonne Corten steel figure outside Gateshead that has come to represent north-east England in the public consciousness. Employing the human body not as a monument but as an empathetic device, Gormley makes a groundbreaking departure from Western sculptural tradition. The life-size figure faces the viewer with electrifying physical proximity. Its heavy, earthbound lead surface brings to ground, with quite literal gravity, a being designed for flight. A ‘case’ could refer to a carapace – the body as shell for the soul – or even something as confining as a leaden coffin. Conversely, the work also ‘makes a case’ for an angel in the sense of argument: the sculpture demands an imaginative leap from the viewer, who sees a body fantastically extended and transformed. The wings spread laterally to create a barrier, a new horizon to overcome. They make the angel starkly aeronautical and concrete, and offer buoyancy and equilibrium to the contained nucleus of the body. A tension arises from this confluence of spirit and matter, of splendour and actuality: mankind’s aspirations towards the infinite meet the recognition that we are fixed solidly on earth. The angel’s perfect symmetry and cruciform welded seams suggest the necessity of balance. In an age defined increasingly by the transient, virtual and displaced image, Gormley refocuses on first-hand experience, returning us to our own bodies as place – what he calls ‘a ground in which all the possibility of emancipated identity is to grow’ (A. Gormley, ‘Of coal and iron and ships and planes’, in D. Allan (ed.), Antony Gormley: Making an Angel, London 1998, p. 15). A Case for an Angel I cannot fly, but it makes a case for finding another kind of freedom in exploring our situation anew.
A Case for an Angel I is a seminal work from early in Gormley’s career. Building on the extended body forms of such works as Tree (1984), Field (1984-85), Home and The World (1986-87) and Home and The World II (1986-96), its wings are an analogue for the mind’s potential infinitude confined by the body’s physical limits. In this vein, it develops an idea of flight that was first explored with Vehicle (1987), a one-man glider sealed, like A Case for an Angel I, in lead. This work generalised the form of the glider to a still, silent vessel of aspiration. In A Case for an Angel I, Gormley incorporates the direct record of his own body, the wings reaching out in two dimensions to embrace the wider world. Like Vehicle’s floored glider, A Case for an Angel I is deliberately static in its totemic, T-shaped stance. ‘I have always been bothered’, Gormley has said, ‘with the idea that the most visible bits of the Western figurative tradition of sculpture are dramatic muscular actions made in marble or bronze like the Discobolus, the Laocoön, or that fantastic Bernini work, David. What it suggests is that human potential can only be expressed sculpturally through the depiction of action. That moment of placing one foot in front of the other which began with the archaic Kouroi and continues with Michaelangelo’s Slaves, suggests that muscular action expresses the metaphysical tension between spirit and body, but I’m not so sure’ (A. Gormley in conversation with D. McGonagle, in Antony Gormley, exh. cat. Malmö Konsthall, Tate Gallery Liverpool, The Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin 1993, pp. 49-50). Moving away from Classical, Renaissance and Enlightenment ideals, Gormley’s sculpture takes the body as a locus for imagination and exploration independent of athletic movement. The body is seen as a condition rather than an identity, a vessel for thought rather than an illustration. ‘It was Buddhism,’ Gormley explains, ‘rather than the Western canon, which gave me the idea of the abstract body. It gave me the idea that you can make sculpture about being rather than doing; that you can make sculpture that becomes a reflexive instrument rather than existing as a freeze-frame in a narrative. I think this is a critical break with the grand history of Western sculpture’ (A. Gormley, ‘Sculpture of Mindfulness’, lecture given at the Buddhist Art Forum, Courtauld Institute of Art, London, 14 April 2012).
Despite the angel’s cruciform shape and inevitable echoes of Christian imagery – an important part of Gormley’s Catholic childhood – its power lies not in any such external associations, but in the direct psycho-physical experience the object offers the viewer. Its two welded seams express not the cross of Christ, but the innate symmetry of the body as Platonic form. These axes cross at the centre at the top of the head and the bottom of the feet, underlining the balance of the body’s paired limbs, testicles or ovaries, eyes, ears, lungs, kidneys, and the two sides of the brain. The body is emphasised as a fixed point in a fast-moving world, and first-hand experience as an anchor against the dispersal of self. Facing the poised figure of A Case for an Angel I, the viewer is made acutely aware of their own centre of gravity. If sculpture is to remain relevant, Gormley says, ‘we have to replace the certainties of symbolism, mythology and classical illusion with something that is absolutely immediate and confronts the individual with his own life’ (A. Gormley in conversation with E. H. Gombrich, in Antony Gormley, London 2000, p. 28). In this sense, his work has far more in common with the work of a sculptor such as Richard Serra than it does with any religious iconography. Like Serra’s massive, swooping arcs of Corten steel, the wings of A Case for an Angel I create a wall-like visual and physical obstacle that activates the viewer’s sense of their own body in space, working in tandem with the architectural arena in which both are situated. This is a challenging encounter, demanding that the viewer assert themselves against their winged counterpart. It is in returning to this primary, corporeal and mindful sense of self that Gormley’s art finds its unique resonance. He sidesteps the rationalist tradition of understanding by empiricism, instead reconfiguring sculpture as a zone of potential for visceral, bodily response. ‘My work has come out of a moment of concentrated being’, he has said. ‘Not an illustration of it: a registration. I’m not interested in being the next step in a trajectory of western visuality, I would like you to feel that there is something coming out from under the skin’ (A. Gormley in conversation with U. Kittelmann, in Total Strangers, exh. cat. Kölnischer Kunstverein, Cologne 1997, p. 27).
The method of fabrication for A Case for an Angel I and Gormley’s lead bodycase works reveals much of his intention to register ‘a moment of concentrated being’. With the help of assistants, he is wrapped in clingfilm and gauze before being coated in plaster. Staying completely still as the plaster hardens, he enters a state of intense physical and mental concentration. The core of A Case for an Angel I was cast from a mould taken of Gormley in a standing position, and subsequently plated with hand-beaten lead. Margaret Iversen notes that ‘Rather than assuming the heroic mantle of the sculptor, Gormley positions himself inside the work-in-progress where he is helpless, blind and immobilised. It is a position comparable to being photographed, about which Barthes observed that he felt himself becoming an object as he experienced a “micro-version of death”’ (M. Iversen, ‘Still Standing’, in Antony Gormley: Still Standing, exh. cat. State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg 2012, p. 48). Gormley uses his own body as a starting point not to impute any personal or biographical content to the work, but simply because it is the only space in the world that he inhabits. The body is the subjective device by which we experience the world, but it is also a part of the collective human condition. Gormley’s works are not about Gormley, but are designed as ‘diagnostic instruments’ and ‘resonators for human experience’. He explains that ‘each of them displaces a space where someone could really stand … This acknowledgement of the absent is very important and is what needs to be filled by the subjectivity of the viewer. So I would say that the subject of my work does not arrive until the viewer is looking at it’ (A. Gormley, quoted in D. Ozerkov, ‘God’s Body: Dimitri Ozerkov interviews Antony Gormley’, in Antony Gormley: Still Standing, exh. cat. State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg 2012, p. 59).
A Case for an Angel I’s resemblance to an aeroplane carries timely associations of human technological endeavour. Gormley would revisit these themes in the Angel of the North, whose mighty weathered steel body invokes the grand industrial heritage of its location. Discussing that work, he described the aeroplane as ‘the icon of our age. With the plane we have gone from earthbound creatures to seeing the world from a position formerly attributed to God. The aeroplane is the tool that has shrunk the globe, made the bridge between here and there and allowed the transcontinental romance. But it has also been the instrument of surveillance by which death has been meted out from the air; from which bombs have been tossed like seeds. So there is a sinister as well as a benign side to the image of the aeroplane; the use of its wings is appropriate for a work that attempts to bear witness to our time’ (A. Gormley, ‘Of coal and iron and ships and planes’, in D. Allan (ed.), Antony Gormley: Making an Angel, London 1998, p. 15). There is certainly something unnerving about A Case for an Angel I, whose wings evoke the most streamlined designs of modern engineering. Its welded seams leave traces of its manufacture. We face an image of man fused with what man has made. In making flight real, Gormley believes, we may have lost the ability to imagine it: capability gained can mean agency lost. He often refers to Paul Virilio’s phrase ‘maximum velocity, minimum mobility’ and the image of the strapped-in astronaut to demonstrate this point. If aviation has altered our century, however, flight remains a timeless metaphor. A Case for an Angel I is a craft for imaginative transport, taking us beyond our physical horizons and contemporary concerns towards a deep, ageless desire for transcendence. Like the British Museum’s winged bulls or monumental head of Ramses II, or even Leonardo’s 15th-century designs for flying machines, it embodies an aspiration. Being human has always also meant wanting to be something more.
The word ‘technology’ has its origins in the Ancient Greek tekhne, meaning ‘art,’ ‘craft’ or ‘skill’. Its contemporary implications of inhumanity and remote, robotic intelligence are inescapably rooted in acts of human creation. Though unparalleled in form, A Case for an Angel I takes its place in a long tradition of synthesising technology and anatomy. Gormley has observed that ‘There is an uncanny similarity between the wrappings of a mummy and the space suit – both prepare the body for the passage across barriers in time and space’ (A. Gormley, ‘Of coal and iron and ships and planes’, in D. Allan (ed.), Antony Gormley: Making an Angel, London 1998, p. 15). Indeed, when Gormley himself is wrapped and daubed in plaster his body makes just such a journey. Like a sarcophagus, the cast at the heart of A Case for an Angel I is an index of the body made permanent, undecaying, and radically transfigured for new purpose. Distinct from the gold and lapis finery of the Egyptian afterlife, however, Gormley’s use of lead has potent metamorphic impact and intention. While the metal has the protective qualities of being dense, heavy and resistant to corrosion and radiation, it is also identified in alchemy and the Jewish kabbala with primordial matter – an elemental base for something higher. It is a paradoxical material, toxic yet insulating, dull yet gently reflective, neutral yet powerful. Gormley’s leaden angel-skin is no inert tomb, but conjures diverse associations of material and magic, of catalysis, creation and transformative potential.
A Case for an Angel I is a complex and deeply engaging sculpture. It is imposing, but not imperious. It is elegant in design, yet awkwardly at odds with its situation on earth. The questions it addresses are religious in scope, as massive and weighty as its vast leaden frame, but the work is not a fixed terminus: it is a manifestation of ideas in a certain form, a resonator open to the involvement of the viewer and malleable to the extent that each person’s subjective encounter is different. Forging a new and vital place for sculpture in today’s world, it emphasises rather than escapes from bodily experience. The work stands testament to the human imagination, and argues resolutely for that imagination’s continued exercise – for thinking beyond the narrow purview of narrative, fleeting image and technological ease. ‘A Case for an Angel is not ironic’, Gormley affirms. ‘I do believe that we can be transported or be the agent of our own transcendence’ (A. Gormley in conversation with D. McGonagle, in Antony Gormley, exh. cat. Malmö Konsthall, Tate Gallery Liverpool, The Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin 1993, p. 47). Spreading our wings for us, A Case for an Angel I makes this agency visible. Reanimating and confronting our most immediate sense of being in the world in our bodies, we can truly soar – not by taking to the skies, but by journeying within ourselves.