Lockdown Walking To Another Place
words and images: Lorraine Bacchus
One of the inherent qualities of Antony Gormley’s iron men on Crosby Beach is the mutability of the material: iron rusts when exposed to moisture and oxygen and there’s plenty of both on a beach. Gormley has spoken about how this was part of the concept, to reflect life’s transience. Such a reflection can be melancholic but during these past few months of Covid 19 Lockdown, I’ve found the thought, that nothing lasts forever (not even a pandemic) has been something hopeful to hold onto.
Everyone has had to find a way to come through this pandemic. Part of my own strategy for coping with solitary isolation was to establish a routine. In this I know I was fortunate to be able to walk every day from my home to the Port end of Crosby Beach where the first Gormley figure stands and then the three kilometres to the one hundredth. The only variation to this routine was the time of day. The constant was the daily walking and the reliable company of the iron men. Their regular spacing provided a metronomic rhythm to the walking so that it became more reflective than the usual incentive of being physically good for me.
Art that has an ethic of impermanence has always interested me and Gormley’s installation exemplifies this. The passage of time is evident in the materials but the setting in which the figures are located is also continually changing – not just the ebb and flow of the tide but also the light, the shifting sands, the huge container ships going in and out of the Port. All of these factors work visually on the sculptures so that, although secured on metre-deep concrete piles, their world is not static.
And we, the people who enjoy the beach and who therefore, willingly or not, interact with the figures, we are part of their changing world. It’s curious that a stranger’s body, or at least how it was when the casts were made, should have become so familiar to me. But despite all my looking and photographing, I hadn’t observed their differences – other than those made by the elements.
I learnt that they are not identical while listening to Gormley talking about “Another Place” with Simon Armitage on BBC Radio 4’s “The Poet Laureate Has Gone To His Shed” (https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0884kv9). He explained that there is a limit to how many casts can be taken from one mould so several had to be made. The result is that there are subtle variations in the tension and relaxation, in particular of the hands. Perhaps instead of walking amongst them, I should sit and draw them – as one of my art tutors once said, until you draw something, you have never really looked at it. She quoted William Blake: “I can look at a knot in a piece of wood till I am frightened at it”.
Gormley has come in for a lot of criticism for so often putting his own body in public places but it is the “Black Lives Matter” movement that has recently, tragically, globally re-ignited the debate around public sculpture. Surely none of us can now look unthinkingly at something that has been placed in the public domain? Gormley characterises his iron figures as the “Everyman”, that “he is no hero from history, no ideal, just the industrially reproduced body of a middle aged man trying to remain standing”. He has also said that “Another Place” is about emigration, which of course makes its presence a more complex artwork. And he accepts, is pleased, that they will mean something different to everyone who sees them.
Whether or not Gormley intended to make a political statement, the figures have become magnets for others to make theirs. The morning after they were installed 15 years ago on Crosby Beach, for example, each of the numbered wristbands on the figures had a rose inserted with the message “Make Poverty History”. Sadly, it isn’t. More recently, the iron men have been used to reflect the Covid 19 pandemic, initially with a homemade face covering and then with a more professional facemask. I took a photo of my own shadow at the prescribed social distance from one of the men. I’m sure there are hundreds more on social media of people using the sculptures to make a comment on what’s happening in their lives or around the world. Some make you smile as you pass them – the Easter Bunny Ears, the shorts to give him some modesty, looking cool in a hard hat and shades, etc.
On one occasion during this lockdown walking, the addition to the sculpture had a profound effect. Around the time of the shocking George Floyd murder, one of the figures was wearing a Stars and Stripes t-shirt. The visual impact of this was that I thought the figure looked like it was in some kind of straightjacket, that it was a comment on police methods in the US. But was this the intention? I don’t know. Anything to do with a nation’s flag has political connotations but in this case, in another context, even the day before Floyd’s murder, my response would have been different because the figures are often decorated with discarded clothing.
The hot and sunny weather during the first months of the lockdown meant that there were more people than usual on the beach. It was striking how often people sat themselves near one of the iron men, so that the figure became part of the group. It was as if the sculpture somehow helped anchor them in the vast open space of sky, sea and beach. Or maybe they just wanted somewhere to hang their wet towels.
One of the sights that has been missing during these lockdown walks is that of the tractor driver whose job it is to scoop up the sand that has encroached on the coastal paths and deposit it back on the beach. It is an endless cycle of repetition, as each day the wind and tide move it inland again – a modern day evocation of what poor old Sisyphus from Greek mythology went through. The Gods w eren’t happy with what they saw as his self-aggrandisement and condemned him to repeat into eternity the task of pushing an immense boulder up a hill, only for it to roll down again when it nears the top.
The parallel of trying to hold back the sand on the beach is obvious, as it is with a lot of daily chores and tasks – all of which seemed to have become magnified during this lockdown, without access to so many of the other things that usually give our lives structure and meaning. But as the weeks have gone on, I’ve found that the repetition of the ordinary has been a strange comfort in the face of the magnitude of what was happening in the world.
The tractor driver’s task also evokes for me a work by the artist, Francis Alÿs, “When Faith Moves Mountains”, 2002. (https://francisalys.com/when-faith moves-mountains). For this he recruited 500 volunteers in a district outside of Lima, Peru. Each person moved a shovel full of sand one step at a time from one side of a dune to the other, and together they moved the entire geographical location of the dune by a few inches. The emotional response of the people who took part, who made it possible, is one of the most affecting aspects of the work.
One final thought … when the iron in steel rusts, it occupies approximately six times the volume of the original material. So this means Gormley’s figures are getting bigger all the time. Is this another case of self-aggrandisement? Discuss.