The Gateshead Flasher

Since 15 February 1998, the skyline approaching Gateshead has been dominated by a gigantic semi-abstract sculpture, 20 m tall and 54 m wide, overlooking the A1 as you approach from the south. Like the Colossus of Rhodes, standing over the road. You can’t miss it.

I have always been impressed by The Angel of the North. It seems to me to be the kind of civic artistic/engineering project that rarely finds funding. We are, at civic level, a rather peevish nation disinclined to pump money into large public gestures. The French think nothing of placing glass pyramids outside the Louvre. The Germans are happy to see the Reichstag wrapped in fabric. But in Britain? Surely not. So it took some fairly visionary thinking (in UK terms anyway) to see this project through to completion. There were objections all the way with arguments ranging from the ideological – it looks like a Nazi sculpture to some – to woollier counters that it would cause car crashes on the A1 or even, most risible of all, interfere with TV reception. Even its creator, Antony Gormley, was disparaging, at one point dismissing it as “motorway art”. I’m surprised it hasn’t been called to account for the coronavirus outbreak.

Objections have largely faded away since the plans became architecture. What looks deceptively simple on paper, banal even, is lent an undoubted presence by its sheer scale. What seems enormous from the road is positively gigantic when approached on foot, its presence and dominance unquestionable. This is no “blight on the landscape”, no “carbuncle on the face of the earth”. This is a masterpiece, plain and simple.

But what does the Angel say? I have seen countless pictures of the Angel of the North, driven past it by car and train but, only last week, did I approach the statue on foot. And to do so is to be drawn in to another layer in the onion of its meaning.

I know what you’re thinking. “Jon’s lost it”.

I don’t think so, well not over this at least. Ask yourself this question – what is this statue saying? Personally I think the posture of the statue is ambiguous and deliberately so. It’s gesture, arms/wings outstretched can be interpreted many ways. Are the arms and wings a single structure – in other words does it have a pair of wing arms or are they separate, arms tightly by the sides, wings outstretched. Arms, even vestigial arms, held firmly to attention suggest a subservient response to authority. The wings then might be seen as in conflict, spread in silent opposition to that same authority.

Does the statue stand in defiance of the perfidious South? Are the outstretched arms blocking access to the North to the southerners? Do they speak loudly and say “you shall not pass” in recognition of centuries of economic exploitation by Westminster?

Are the outstretched wings a display, like those of tropical birds, a gesture of potential, inviting interest as potential suitor? An invitation rather than a repudiation?

Are the wings meant to symbolise some union between earth and sky? Gormley talks of connections with the ground and the mines in the region, perhaps alluding to the transmogrification of coal into air by burning.

Who knows? And ultimately, who cares?

For many locals, it still known as the Gateshead flasher.