A Devil for the South West? On Antony Gormley’s LOOK II

For a while my morning routine involved walking down to the Hoe here in Plymouth, passing along the balustrades, and taking in the quiet atmosphere of a seafront at dawn. There is a beauty to the natural light, the sun just rising, which would often surprise me, as the light cast on the rocks of Drake’s Island, or caught the harbour wall, or got absorbed in the sea mists and low hanging cloud over Mount Edgcumbe to the west. But it was an impression slightly tarnished by the sadder elements of the area, the chinese restaurant hanging over the sea, it’s “Wet Wok” sign battered and missing parts (it currently reads just “FT WO”), tea towels hanging in the breeze out the kitchen back door; or the huge new glamorous block of flats sitting empty for months on end, despite a housing crisis and high levels of homelessness across the city; or the faded glory of the ornate victorian architecture; the dirty sink of the lido, turned grunge brown by seagull shit, mouldy bits of seaweed and the flotsam and jetsam of the dirty seawater tossed in on the waves. 

I don’t go down to the front as often anymore, but I did head back there recently to see the new Antony Gormley sculpture, LOOK II, which is down past Wet Wok Chinese restaurant on a small harbour wall outside The Waterfront pub. You can see the statue from quite far off as you walk down from the lido, but you could mistake it for a very tall person if you didn’t know it was there. I went to see it with C. in the afternoon, which meant the light was in the west. The sun was in our eyes, and we could only see a silhouette of it walking over from the east. But as we rounded the corner we saw the other side bathed in the afternoon light, and the effect was brilliant. The rusty browns and oranges of the iron blocks shone effervescent against the clear and constanting blues of sky and sea. These blocks, piled up in a complex, Jenga-style arrangement brought to mind old ship yards, scrap heaps, the metal of industry that our society today has discarded in favour of the sleek lines of glass and brushed concrete of meeting spaces and offices. Far from the conceptual or digital, and despite its almost pixelated appearance, LOOK II is a very real thing, it looks heavy, and quite rough-surfaced up close, and full of its own thingness. The 22 blocks are all made up of right angles. There are no diagonals, as far as I could see. They really do sit on each other like in an endgame phase of Jenga. The lowest two blocks are on their own, one on top of the other, then the structure expands and complicates with two and three block combinations, cutting through and separating at different levels, until all comes together again with single blocks for the second highest and highest. It is that top block, on its own, an upright cuboid, like a chunky, foam swimming float, that somehow really makes it human. It is a head looking out to sea. It leans forward off the edge of the rest of the structure, and the precise position Gormley has chosen gives it a suggestive ambiguity, an ambiguity that he calls “an invitation to human curiosity”. 

The broader context of the piece is the Mayflower 400 commemorations, a large-scale programme of activity sponsored by Arts Council England, the Department for Culture Media and Sport and the Royal Navy (among others), and incorporating various related sites across England, and Leiden in Holland. LOOK II is one of the big show pieces, a permanent feature that is meant to act as a monument for Plymouth. The humanoid shape is looking out to sea, and I think we can take from this a sense that it is taking another look, looking out not as the Pilgrim Fathers might have looked before they set off on their voyage, but now, long after them, we look again. Beyond that we are relooking at what the Mayflower represents and the colonialism that it was the harbinger of in America. As we look out from these same shores as the pilgrims might have looked from in 1620, we see a world that is by and large accounted for, known, discovered. As such, I guess the statue is designed to help us stop and ask, what was lost as a result of the great project of empire? What other cultures, peoples, ecosystems, were destroyed as a result of that voyage (and many others)? In this context I do think the sculpture fits. LOOK II is melancholy, the slight stoop of the figure suggests a tiredness with life, even shame or remorse, and the gaps within the torso imply a hollowness of thought, or inability to identify, an emptiness inside. That feeling is identifiable for us in the world we live in today, a world that is inauthentic, mediated by digital cameras, video links, and data capturing software, measured by online reach and engagement numbers, and where those things we are offered for free (apps and platforms like Facebook, Instagram, even Twitter, and Google’s search engine) are now to be treated with suspicion. The statue also embodies the sadness that we feel as we continue to learn and acknowledge that it was British culture more than any other that arrogantly laid claim to the lands and lives of others.

As is inevitable with public artworks, the cost of the project has been the subject of much debate. From what I have read, Plymouth City Council deemed it not in the public interest to divulge the cost of the sculpture, even after a freedom of information request submitted. But I have since found, admittedly only in a comment on a Plymouth Live article, a suggestion that a second FOI request got the number at £425k. But no details seem to be publicly available of the breakdown of that, or verification in official statements. The wider debate about the statue is reported divisively online. Plymouth Live and ITV have both referred to disgruntled locals, tying it into a broader narrative that pits elitist contemporary artists, and the commissioners of public art, against down-to-earth locals who do not get it, and wouldn’t want to get it. The emperor, or in this case the Council Leader, Tudor Evans OBE, has spent all this money on new clothes, but the new clothes are nothing, and everyone is laughing at him. But that is a condescending narrative that seems to persist in almost all public art commission stories. I suppose that is partly because making public art is expensive; an outdoor sculpture needs to be very durable, it needs generally to be quite big, or at least big enough to be easily visible to the public, it needs to defy vandalism or attempts at theft. Plus, if it is tied to a major campaign looking for national impact, it needs to be by an artist of considerable repute. The argument is fraught because it is paid for partly through local public funds. Even before the pandemic, the public services in Plymouth and beyond were regularly described as stretched, and struggling with a gamut of growing social issues. Why spend all this money on a statue when that money could go into health and care, support for people with disabilities, improvement of infrastructure, the housing crisis etc.?

Gormley’s response report on Plymouth Live: “I think the issue of preserving and making life function is one thing, but having succeeded in keeping your schools going and your hospitals working, to then ask ‘what is the quality of life that you have saved and educated these lives for’, is the necessary balance.[…] This commission is a kind of love letter to the future, to people who are not yet born or people who are just born who are asking ‘what kind of life can I lead in this place’.”

The idea that a point in the future exists in which schools and hospitals are sorted is surely a fantasy. But I do like this idea that art has a role to play in shaping our future. It is not enough to keep fighting one fire after the next, when the cause of the fires could be addressed and future fires avoided. Visiting an artwork, being confronted by its playfulness, experiencing the absence of definite meaning, opens up a space in the mind for playfulness too. It allows us to think, however unwillingly, outside the parameters of our normally busy lives, outside the to do list, where it is possible to question what is important, and rethink our relationship with the world around us. That does seem valuable to me.

If there is a dark side to LOOK II, it has nothing to do with the position of the sun. It is more to do with the question, why Gormley? An internationally renowned artist, yes. A connection with Plymouth, no. It turns out he had only ever visited the city once before the commission. Does this matter? I think about this as I walk away from the statue, back up the steps onto the Hoe. Are there artists with a connection to this place who could have been commissioned for a piece in such a prominent location on the waterfront, whose work would have had the effect of bringing the spotlight on the city in the same way? Perhaps not. I don’t know. But still there is a touch of art imperialism to the choice. It sort of had to be a household name. There was an open call, but in the end, the proposals received were overridden in favour of Sir Antony’s package:

“A public advertisement for artists to be considered resulted in a shortlist, who each then submitted more detailed proposals. However, no-one was commissioned, due to issues of balance between quality and cost. […] Subsequently, The Box’s Head of Contemporary Arts was asked to invite a number of artists to make a proposal for a public art work in the city to commemorate Mayflower 400. […] The Box advised that Sir Antony Gormley would be the best-placed artist to deliver an internationally recognised work of art within the budget available.” Link to full article about this on Plymouth Live.

No doubt people will come and see the sculpture from far and wide. But it snags at me that the commission was not democratic, that the choice was a calculation, a compromise between quality (whatever that means in relation to a work of art) and cost. Someone estimated the artistic value of each artist proposal on a metric scale, then subtracted from each the cost of making and installing it (and maybe future upkeep), and the one with the highest answer got chosen. At the same time, the prominent placing of the permanent statue, being made by an older, white, male artist, is not exactly a step in the direction of diversity that rethinking colonialism through art demands.*

Nevertheless, it is a coup for the city to have a work of art by Gormley. I really liked seeing it there on the front. It felt like a gift to the place, a thing of beauty that adds to the experience of walking along the waterfront, and makes a genuine attempt (decide on its success yourself) to address the complicated context of remembering the Mayflower voyage, rethinking our post-colonial situation and complimenting the landscape. As I got to the top of the Hoe, near Smeaton’s Tower, I could just about make out the tall, thin figure, silhouetted against the bright sunshine, standing head and shoulders above the fishermen on the harbour wall. From there, the only way to look is out over the blip in the Sound of the breakwater and then on up to the horizon. Where now, should we look to yearn for a better place. The bottom of the Atlantic? The Moon? Mars? Something about the melancholy of the statue says that there is no better place, that the yearning itself is enough. The arrival alone of LOOK II is not going to make me stay in Plymouth any longer than I would otherwise. It is just a statue. But I think what it could do is come to symbolise the act of questioning my wanderlust, my ambition, my desire for progress. When we look again, we often find the grass is not necessarily greener, and there is more we could do on our own doorstep to solve the problems of our society, than if we travel to a new place to start all over again. The days of grand imperial gestures are over for both the collective and the individual. As I turn after a last glance at LOOK II, I walk towards the statue of Sir Francis Drake which today has bird shit splattered across his face. This comment on public art from an unwitting seagull seems to deserve the last word; it’s a more poignant comment on the impacts of colonisation and the statues that commemorate it than any I could put into words, and probably in the end it’s a more fitting response than Gormley’s too.  

* I should add that there are other artworks commissioned by Plymouth as part of Mayflower 400 that do bring in other voices, including Sequences, Inversions and Permutations, by internationally renowned artist Leonor Antunes and an exhibition at The Box that explores the Wampanoag culture in collaboration with indigenous Native American contemporary artists. Hoping to be able to write more on these soon.

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