One cannot be blamed for engaging in a bit of escapist fare as an antidote to the constant barrage of disturbing news that assaults us every day. British murder mysteries can fill that bill nicely, and my wife Blythe and I began watching the series, Vera, about District Superintendent Vera Stanhope—a disheveled investigator just south of the Scottish border who has an uncanny knack for solving complex cases.
There is a quick shot in the title sequence of an unusual sculpture that caught our eye. It is not explained and does not have an obvious connection to any of the episodes we’ve seen so far (the twelfth season is currently in production, so I guess others like the show as well). However, its unexplained positioning in the opening montage led us to believe that it must be significant.
Sure enough, a bit of research uncovered a fascinating backstory and, in my mind’s eye, a powerful symbol for our time, even though the initial season of Vera was filmed more than a decade ago. What is this metallic sculpture? Located in Gateshead in northeastern England, the Angel of the North is a contemporary sculpture by Antony Gormley, best known for his work with human forms that examine aspects of the human presence in the world.
Completed in 1998, the sculpture weighs 208 tons and stands 66 feet tall. It is believed to be the largest sculpture of an angel in the world and is viewed by an estimated 33 million people every year due to its proximity to major highways. Its sheer size and dominance over the surrounding landscape allow for an artistic impact on a large audience. Although the Angel of the North is a static sculpture, it is intended to be viewed from many angles and by travelers who pass by at speed. The wings tilt 3.5 degrees forward to create, according to Gormley, “a sense of embrace.”
The Angel of the North, while being figurative, clearly represents the human body rather than abstract forms. Since The Angel does not commemorate any one person or people, the sculpture provokes wide-ranging questions about the relationship between art, politics, the environment, and society.
Initially, plans for the sculpture encountered significant opposition. Local newspapers ran campaigns against its construction, in which local politicians joined. Some critics compared The Angel to fascist or communist monumentalism. Now, over twenty years since its completion, The Angel evokes local pride and is considered to be a landmark for the North East of England.
Viewers have attached their own meaning to the sculpture, including optimism associated with the millennium; a reminder of the industrial history of the site, beneath which is a disused quarry where miners had worked for centuries; transition from the industrial to the information age; and as a focus for human hopes and fears. The Angel as conceived of by Gormley is a secular symbol of hope rather than a religious one. As he says, “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.”
Art has a way of interrupting and then defining a community, a region, a cause. Gormley’s comment—no one has ever seen one; we need to keep imagining them—struck me as a particularly important idea for our day—moving us beyond rational sightings and to a more deeply resonant emotional plane and belief that angels do exist and can deliver us from the quagmires that we often create for ourselves.
Art has a way of crystalizing thought. In times of stress when our lives seem to ricochet from crisis to crisis, we need to make space for art—especially art that is challenging and considered controversial.
As such creative expressions become integral parts of our personal worldview and our cultural landscape, they can be a source of comfort, affirmation and inspiration. And when they challenge us, they and can change outcomes dramatically.