Art made a few headlines in Norwich last week when three figures from Anthony Gormley's 'Another Time' series were unveiled on the campus of the University of East Anglia in Norwich. The renowned artist was there in person on Saturday, but a controversy was already stirring about the siting of two of the three figures. One stares out towards the lake from the roof of the Biology building, overlooking the UEA's distinctive ziggurat halls of residence. Another can be seen six floors up on the roof of the library building, a lone figure silhouetted against the skyline. Meanwhile, 'Another Time IV' stands in its naked glory at the top of the stairwell to the library, still visible to some of those studying at their desks and computer terminals.
Gormley was forced to defend the siting of the first two figures from accusations of insensitivity raised by organisations associated with mental health who felt that the sight of lone figures on roof tops could be distressing or create disturbing association with suicidal thought. Perhaps his comments at the unveiling that they may help to open up debate on the pressures facing students inadvertently poured more fuel onto an already festering fire, and causing even the Bishop of Norwich to contribute to the discussion.
So, rather than come to a conclusion based solely on media coverage, I decided to visit the campus yesterday, and see the statues for myself. I have been a fan of Gormley's work for some time, ever since first stopping off on a journey to Newcastle to get an up close and personal communion with the Angel of The North, at the side of the A1 near Gateshead. Admittedly, I sometimes find the nude castings taken from his own body in 1995, then recreated in cast iron in 2007, as rather narcissistic, potentially bordering on exhibitionism by proxy. However, when placed in situ they are tranformed into a statement of purpose that is often quite beautiful. And this, having seen the three figures at the UEA, was genuinely the artist's desire.
I approached the main campus from the path that runs alongside the lake, and the first figure that you see is 'Another Time VII', spotted atop the junction of two of the four blocks that form the zig-zagging backbone of the main campus buildings. It appears to be staring out, away from the concrete concentrate of intellectual pursuit towards the wide open spaces of the world beyond. Even when approaching along the elevated walkway to get a closer view there is little that suggests of pressure or desperation in the figure.
Similarly with 'Another Time IV', much more accessible and approachable on the library walkway, yet inherently close to the seat of learning that is the library. Life size, and unashamedly imposing in its nakedness, one does wonder just how many drunken 'dicks-out-for-a-selfie' this particular Gormley is liable to inspire over the course of an academic year. But it still has a statement to make, and this is unmistakably about removing oneself from the intensity of pressure and being able to look towards the bigger picture.
Which is why I have my reservations about 'Another Time II'. I have never had to deal with a 'jumper', or been in a position where I could have intervened in a potential suicide situation, but even so I have to say that, looking up from the library to see a solitary figure positioned perilously close to the edge of the roof is always going to be somewhat unsettling. In contrast to the figure on the Biology building which looks out with optimism for the world and life, this one appears pensive, and in stark relief to the angular lines of the structure on which it stands. It is silent and introspective, thinking of what?
I believe Gormley knew exactly what he was doing in selecting these three sites. Like many artists, he feels he has a mission to communicate with his audience, and wanted the three figures to represent a narrative theme, just as he did when he placed his figures for 'Another Place' in the path of the tide on Crosby beach, or 'Stay' in the Avon River in the centre of Christchurch. He chose the UEA as a location because he was impressed with Sir Denys Lasdun's iconic architecture, and in so doing perhaps failed to consider the sensitivities of a population of young and impressionable students. Provoking a debate, which is what he is now trying to claim to be doing, is an honourable sentiment, but it does tend to come across as a knee-jerk reaction to the students' concerns rather than a planned and pre-meditated intent.
We will all have an opinion, but it is the students that will have to constantly pass these figures on their way to and from the library over the course of three years (the statues are on a 'long loan' from the artist to the Sainsbury Centre). As those who have completed an undergraduate degree course will testify, those three years can be an emotional roller-coaster of a ride. Let us hope that 'Another Time' will be seen by them as a providential opportunity to share their feelings rather than propagate dark thoughts in the recesses of their still impressionable minds.
Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts website - www.scva.ac.uk/