Gormley on the Beach
Antony Gormley’s Another Place, 1997, has become the focus of extensive media attention centring on recent decisions made under UK planning law that will require his public artwork to be removed from its current and temporary location on Crosby Beach, just north of Liverpool on the Merseyside coastline.
Completed in 1997, Another Place comprises 100 cast-iron, life-size, naked male figures installed at intervals along three kilometres of the foreshore and one kilometre into the sea, which are fabricated from casts of Gormley’s body; each of them faces seawards and is embedded into the sand to varying depths of the torso. Gormley: ‘The seaside is a good place to do this. Here time is tested by tide, architecture by the elements and the prevalence of sky seems to question the earth’s substance. In this work human life is tested against planetary time. This sculpture exposes to light and time the nakedness of a particular and peculiar body. It is no hero, no ideal, just the industrially reproduced body of a middle-aged man trying to remain standing and trying to breathe, facing a horizon busy with ships moving materials and manufactured things around the planet.’
The work is owned by Gormley, who previously installed it at Cuxhaven in Germany, Stavangar in Norway and De Panne in Belgium. With funding from the Mersey Waterfront Programme, the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company and Arts Council England, the installation at Crosby Beach was completed in July 1995, having been given temporary permission under planning law by Sefton borough council, which is the local planning authority. The council warns visitors that it is a non-bathing beach, with areas of soft sand and mud, and changing tides; and to stay within 50 metres of the promenade at all times and not attempt to walk out to the furthest figures.
The work has been enthusiastically received by the general public, attracting around 600,000 visitors in 18 months, who have positively engaged with the figures by dressing them variously with wigs, bikinis, hula skirts, Liverpool and Everton football shirts, seaweed dreadlocks and superhero costumes; some people dressed the figures as shepherds and wise men, and enacted a nativity play: a ballet was performed around some of the figures; jet-skiers conducted slalom practice around them; and BBC Radio broadcast a play inspired by them.
Under UK planning law, the work’s installation required permission from the local planning authority, Sefton, which gave it for a temporary fixed period ofi6 months. This was due to expire in November 2006. A second planning application was made earlier this year seeking to extend that planning permission for four months, to allow time to raise the £2.2m needed to buy the work from Gormley and maintain it thereafter. The application was rejected because of representations made to the authority that ‘several people had had to be rescued after being caught by the tide when walking out to see the most distant figures. Anglers feared that their boats could be ripped apart by submerged figures.’ One member of the authority is reported to have argued: ‘I have to ask every member [of the authority] whether, if it came to a compensation claim following a serious injury or a fatality, we would be happy to support our decision to keep the figures in the light of the evidence we have had presented to us.’ Gormley’s response was: ‘How can the interests of five illegal potential cod fishermen overturn a clearly articulated democratic and collective decision that this beach is better used as an extended public art work than a fishing beach? I don’t understand how any of the arguments are logically sustainable. If there was this degree of human risk, why were we granted planning permission in the first place? We have submissions from coastguards and others to make it clear that the number of people who have had to be rescued from quicksands or waves is in absolute proportion to the extra number of people coming to the beach. There has been no exponential growth of endangered people.’
Gormley’s reference to a ‘clearly articulated democratic and collective decision’ is apposite. UK planning law empowers elected local representatives to be the local planning authority, against whose decisions appeal can be made to central government’s Planning Inspectorate (who may conduct a local public inquiry and overturn or confirm the first local decision), and against whose decision further appeal may be made, ultimately to the secretary of state (whose final decision may be reviewed by the courts, in certain circumstances). The democratic element in planning decisions is therefore quite strong, tempered by the appellate role of neutral professional civil servants, and possibly the independent judiciary.
The recent and extensive media coverage was stimulated and encouraged by local and regional campaigns both to gain planning permission, and to raise the money to buy and maintain the work. These campaigns have naturally targeted and enlisted support from elected politicians – local, regional and national – and have largely succeeded. Crosby’s local (Labour) member of parliament, Claire Curtis-Thomas, has been very vocal in her support: ‘This decision is about petty local politics led by a Conservative councillor who is standing as a candidate for the area in the next general election. No one came here before and no one will come in the future if the figures go. The figures gave Liverpool identity and recognition. We are going to lose millions of pounds as a result of this. We were talking to developers about developing the area around the figures and that was potentially a multimillion-pound programme. How can I expect people to invest here when I now have nothing?’ As an MP she was able to press Tony Blair during prime minister’s question time: ‘At this precise moment, I have 100 rather attractive naked men outside my front door … This internationally-renowned exhibition by Antony Gormley has attracted 600,000 visitors to the Sefton coastline and much-needed money … We don’t want to lose this exhibition but, unfortunately, local Tory councillors last week threw out the planning application … [The arts are] a driver for economic renewal.’ She asked the prime minister to ‘do everything he can to enable Merseyside to enjoy this exhibition during our [European] Capital of Culture year ’. To which the prime minister responded, ‘It’s a lot better than what’s outside my door, which is the media every morning. But I suppose we should be grateful that at least they are clothed. The point my honourable friend makes is absolutely right.’ Thousands of signatures have been given to a petition to keep the work: www.ipetitions.com/petition/SOS_Gormley.
By November 2006, the tide of support in favour of the work’s retention was substantial, so much so that the chief executive of Sefton borough council formally announced that the figures would not be removed before spring 2007 pending a planning appeal (and possible public inquiry). A conditional offer of a grant of £1m (towards the retention and maintenance fund) was made by Northern Way, a partnership of the three Northern Regional Development Agencies. The conditions are that remaining funds are found, and that planning permission is (eventually) given. A not-for-profit company, Another Place Ltd, has been established by the broadcaster Lloyd Grossman and Lewis Biggs, chief executive of Liverpool Biennial, to coordinate the campaign and manage the planning appeal process.
© Henry Lydiate 2006
NOTE (added November 2009): In March 2007 the planning committee granted planning permission on the basis that 16 of the statues were moved back away from an area used by small sailing craft, and three others from bird feeding areas.