Monday, August 27, 2007

Angelic upstart, icon or rip off? A return to the Angel of the North

The Angel of the North has been in place for 9 years. Some describe it as being like a crashed airplane whilst others describe it as an icon. I have however decided to write this post about it because a week ago a survey of visitors to tourist attractions rated the Angel as the 2nd most disappointing sight. It was beaten, oddly enough, by Stonehenge, for the slot of most disappointing location.

Back in the 1990s I was one of the leaders of the campaign against the Angel. I was reminded of this yesterday when a couple of friends of mine who are presenters on Tyne Tees TV came to our house in Sunniside for lunch. They also reminded me that next year will mark its 10th anniversary and I could end up being hauled in front of the cameras again to give me views of the statue 10 years on! That should be fun!

However, my views have not changed a great deal over the past decade. I think it is the product of a 2nd rate artist with a size fixation who has successfully made a mint out of gigantic statues often paid for by public funds. Their attraction is their size and scale, rather than the artistic merit. The Angel in particular was an industrial engineering project build in a factory to the designs of the artist. It is not the manufacture of his own hands.

That said, we simply live with it. It is of an enormous size, and dominates the landscape, but nevertheless, people have got used to it. Indeed, it is simply now just a major landscape feature. Some have grown to like it. Some regard it as an icon. It is sometimes used as a backdrop to photos about Tyneside or the North East generally. I still have memories of having to go to the Angel in 1999 because a local government magazine wanted a picture of me on its cover in front of the Angel. The issue had nothing to do with the Angel (it was about regional government) but the statue was regarded as a good backdrop for a photo about the North. (Interesting to note that many equivalent photos are now taken with the Gateshead Millennium Bridge as the background.) Fiona Hall, our Euro MP, last year opted for the Millennium Bridge as the backdrop to the main photo in her annual report to constituents. This year, Fiona has gone for the Angel!

I am not an opponent of public art. It has its role and frankly, if you were to put a monumental piece of art anywhere, the location of Angel is clearly the place to put it. It certainly gets seen! The issue we had back in the 1990s was not about whether we as politicians liked it (or disliked it!), Instead, I had difficulties with what I viewed as the minimalist approach to consultation and involving the people in the decision.

I personally think Gateshead Council learnt from the experiences of installing the Angel. The public involvement in the design and choice of the Gateshead Millennium Bridge on the Gateshead Quayside was a far cry from the You're-having-it-like-it-or-not approach adopted towards building the Angel.

One point I fundamentally disagree with when I hear the proponents of the Angel speak is the claim that somehow by having the statue here vast chests of development cash have been opened up for Gateshead and the Tyneside area. I think the claim is nonsense but I do hear it said that we would not have got the investment for the Baltic Gallery or the Gateshead Quays if we had refused to take the Angel. Indeed, listening to some supporters of the Angel, angelic powers appear to be the deciding factor in anything successful happening in the region. Get real people!

It is worth remembering that when NewcastleGateshead and Liverpool went head to head for the honour of being the 2008 City of Culture, Liverpool were the winners. They didn't have a Guardian Angel. They simply had a Liberal Democrat council!

And finally, is the Angel that original a design? I'm not so sure. A couple of years ago, when I visited Rio de Janiero, I went to the famous Statue of Christ overlooking this Brazilian city. I was struck by the similarlity of the Angel to this statue that is 70 years older. The photos included above will help you make up your own mind.

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