Driving out of Liverpool, past run-down warehouses and dockside cranes, I wonder if I’ve taken a wrong turn. But 10 minutes later I see signs to ‘Another Place’ and pull in to a desolate, wind-whipped car park next to a kids playground full of rubbish. No more signs, but I know what I’m looking for is a series of statues on a beach so I pull on my waterproof and follow that bitter wind to the sea.
And what a sight! Under an overcast sky, silent sentinels stand before me, looking out to the far horizon. I’m overwhelmed by their sheer presence. I was hoping for a good photo opportunity, but I wasn’t expecting to feel quite so moved by these hulking, barnacled figures.
This is the work of British sculptor Antony Gormley. One hundred figures, spread over two miles up and down Crosby beach in Liverpool. Some stand up near the concrete walkway that runs along the beach, others are dotted around the foreshore, others stand part immersed in water, as if heading out into the great beyond. To see a partly submerged figure in water brings an immediate and very human response – the urge to check them out, to assist, to save – it’s uncanny.
Each figure is over 6 feet tall and weighs 650 kilos – and all are made of casts of Gormley’s body. In 2005 contractors spent three weeks lifting the figures into place, driving them into the sand on giant foundation piles. Looking at the nooses round their necks as they are lowered to the ground is an uncomfortable sight.
Perhaps best known as the creator of the Angel of the North, Gormley said about this work:
“This sculpture exposes to light and time the nakedness of a particular and peculiar body, no hero, no ideal, just the industrially reproduced body of a middle-aged man trying to remain standing and trying to breathe.”
Like most of Gormley’s work, this installation garnered extensive coverage in the media, some of it negative. Local people seem to have taken the figures to their hearts however, calling them ‘The Iron Men’.
In 2017 some of the figures were gaudily painted in day-glo bikinis and shorts by an unknown artist. The figures are often seen ‘dressed up’ as in the images below, but this time Gormley felt the spray can public interaction had gone too far. He asked the Council to clean them up.
Before arriving in Liverpool, the figures had previously been on display in Germany, Norway and Belgium. The risk-averse local Council wanted the figures moved on a year after installation, and in 2006 the figures were set to move to New York. But at the last minute, after lobbying by art lovers, it was decided that they should remain in Liverpool. And I think that was the right decision. It is an other-worldly experience, walking amongst these figures, gazing into their impassive iron faces. They seem rooted, ancient, like guardians. Turn to see where they are looking, and you experience a timeless landscape, just the sea ebbing and flowing according the moon and the planetary seasons. But then, out at sea, an impossibly giant ship slides across the horizon, carrying goods and materials around the globe. These figures are at home here – it feels as if they will stand and scan that horizon for years to come. And for that I am glad.