THE WORD Angel of Death
Tim Brennan questions the real meaning of the Angel of the North, which is 20 years old this year.
In 1996 I walked from Jarrow Town Hall to the Houses of Parliament: a performance artwork marking the 60th anniversary of the Jarrow Crusade. My intention was to establish a live monument. To walk the route would activate the memorialization of March.
At that time Gormley’s Angel was in preparation and at the public consultation stage. Living in the region at the time, I recall that the overwhelming consensus from the local population was one of rejection.
Shortly before my walk, I remember visiting a talk by Gormley at Bristol’s Arnolfini Gallery. Despite public concern, my impression was that the Angel was always going to be built.
Initially pitched as an ‘Angel of Hope’ for a struggling North East economy, the project was completed regardless of this overriding public opinion. Since then, the Angel has been absorbed into the popular culture of the region. This act of embrace is less to do with a change of opinion and more to do with the fact that people have no choice but to see or come into contact with daily. You can see it whilst driving North on the A1 M or if travelling by train, on the East Coast mainline. The fact that we have little agency over the existence of much public work is a perennial problem.
The Angel descended upon the North East, announcing its permanence and casting long shadows over divided onlookers. The Angel was estimated to cost £350,000 (Ove Arup). The cost came in at much more. The ‘sculpture’, was, at the time, the tallest in Britain. It stands 65ft high with a wingspan of 169ft (like that of a jumbo jet) and weighs in at over 100 tonnes. Massive concrete piles that plummet over 65ft into the ground serve as anchorage. The piles utilized the former pithead shaft of Team Valley Colliery. Herein lies the deep cruel irony that the landscape, having been brutally deindustrialized under the Thatcher administration, should then warrant a symbol of hope. Add some salt to this wound by employing former shipyard workers from the also decommissioned Swanhunters shipyards on the Tyne and you have an Angel of Death – the perfect nail in the coffin.
The Angel appropriates the image of a 1930s Spanish Civil War poster. However this has never been acknowledged publicly. It heralded a new wave of British public art that hinged on the idea of monumentality. Across the country, cities attempted to commission bigger and yet bigger works, a condition I term as ‘Titanicism’. The Angel is so big that it outgrows the terms of conventional sculpture. It is perhaps better understood within the tradition of the ‘folly’ – an architectural work built as a decorative motif that suggests something that has an entirely different purpose (e.g. a temple, or in this case an angel of the North). Being titled The Angel of the North, it espouses an homogeneity to a social landscape that is far from unified. Its function is to gloss over the contested histories that make up the real lived experiences. It is designed to distract us from tackling head-on the root of multiple problems that make up multiple Norths. Writing at the time, Chris Robinson’s prophetic letter to The Journal (Newcastle’s local newspaper) is perhaps worth remembering:
‘Priority Wrong… Apart from the monstrosity of a monumental angel flapping its wings over Gateshead at a cost of around £800,000, 15 members of Northumbria Ambulance Service could be made redundant. This is apparently to be the loss of one ambulance on the road. Surely Gateshead councilors cannot agree to the monument being more of a necessity than the likes of the Ambulance Service. The Lottery is sponsoring lots of organisations – including the Angel – but please let priorities come first. (The Journal, 27/4/96).
The iconography of the Angel offers both secular and religious worlds a symbol of unity. It can be mustered as a rallying point for collective and communal aspirations whilst seemingly maintaining intimate dialogue with the individual. However, when mobilized around notions of ‘darkness’ the angel potentially divides or splits unities. This simultaneous function suggests that ultimately the angel is a weak symbol, and when publicly utilized, it invariably marks an historical, social and at times political controversy.
Professor Tim Brennan is Head of Department of Art, Manchester School of Art at Manchester Metropolitan University.