Art review: Antony Gormley: 6 times


MOST great cities are built on rivers with proper names. Thus Paris is on the Seine, London on the Thames and Glasgow on the Clyde. Built on a rock, Edinburgh is an exception. It does have a river, but you could spend a long time in the city and never see it. For much of its length, it is in a deep glen and, closest to the old city, this further deepens to form the Dean. This gives its name to the Dean Gallery and so reminds us that the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (SNGMA) too is built on the banks of the Water of Leith.

Edinburgh's little river is so modest, it doesn't even have its own name. It is called the Water of Leith because of the harbour it runs down to. Although small, the river has played a significant part in the city's history. It provides its port and powered numerous paper mills, built where the river tumbles rapidly down from the Pentlands, which once produced the raw material for the books that made Edinburgh a world centre for publishing.

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But now the mills and factories are gone and instead the river provides a wonderful green artery. Indeed it has reverted so much to nature that the installation of 6 Times, Antony Gormley's iron men sited along the river between the SNGMA and the sea, had to be timed so as not to upset the otters or interfere with breeding waterfowl. When I walked down to look at these figures, sand martins were chasing each other below Bonnington Bridge and dog-roses tumbled down the banks in 20ft cascades of pink and white.

I approached 6 Times with some scepticism. I do not like the Angel of the North. It is a lumpish figure with ridiculous wings stuck to its back. Their angle ignores the wind that permanently blows around them where the figure stands, planted on a hilltop, and so aerodynamically they look so very wrong that the effect is quite uncomfortable. The wings are out of scale with the figure, so the figure itself actually seems too small for its site.

Nevertheless the Angel of the North is a huge success. It is not simply that my opinion is of no more significance than what a pigeon might deposit on the Angel's head. It actually does not matter at all whether it is good or bad as a piece of sculpture. That is not how Gormley operates. His stunt with the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square where, instead of putting a piece of sculpture there, he invited members of the public to take their place for an hour, shows how successful he has been in reaching that layer of collective consciousness where reality shows like The X-Factor or Big Brother flourish and dim authors like Dan Brown sell many millions of books.

Neither talent nor critical assessment has any relevance to the mysterious processes that bring this kind of success. It seems to be the product of a combination of luck and good PR management, and Gormley's success is enormous. His website lists dozens of projects, many on a scale that makes the Water of Leith undertaking look trivial. Success on this scale brings a special sort of artistic licence and so breeds more success too. Given the number and size of the public works that Gormley has now executed, the SNGMA project does look a little bit like "me too, even though I can't afford very much", although in fairness this project has been a long time in the planning. In fact it seems to be a modest revisiting of the project called Another Place where Gormley set 100 figures in the sea. This was originally off Cuxhaven in Germany, but is now permanently sited off Crosby Beach, near Liverpool. Even if it is modest in scale, the Water of Leith project cost 400,000. Of this, 150,000 came from the Art Fund, and 100,000 was money awarded to the National Galleries by the Gulbenkian Foundation. Other sources were the Patrons of the National Gallery and the Henry Moore Foundation.

So is it worth it? In keeping with the zeitgeist, Gormley's subject is himself. Each of the figures is a cast of his own naked body. The first one, buried up to the chest, emerges from the pavement at the entrance to the SNGMA. I don't quite know what this signifies. He is emerging, but is clearly not an emergent artist in that dreadful phrase. The half-buried figure is a device he has used elsewhere. Generally it registers some other level, of the tide, or of history, but that is not the case here. Getting close to it does, however, give you a chance to examine it. Made of solid cast iron, each figure weighs more than 600kg, or considerably more than half a ton. The finish is rough. The joins of the original plaster mould of his body are clearly visible, as are the marks and projections left from the casting process. The iron is already rusting and will no doubt stabilise into a rich dark brown.

To find the second figure you go down to the water by the steps behind the gallery. The river here is broad and smooth and the figure is standing, facing upstream, eyes slightly cast down and ankle deep in the water, close to the steep bank you have come down. It is framed, both actually and in its reflection in the tranquil water, by the tall trees behind it.

The next figure is at Stockbridge. It stands just upstream of the bridge, facing downstream, but head raised up as though looking up at the bridge. Its feet at the moment are on a little island of stones. It is best seen from below the bridge, looking back and framed by the arch.

The next figure is just above the footbridge which crosses from Powderhall into St Mark's park. The river here is straight and smooth and the banks are open and quite low. Body slightly turned, the figure looks almost anxiously straight downstream towards Bonnington Bridge.

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The fifth figure is sited some way below this latter bridge, closer to the very ugly bridge at Anderson Place. Standing beneath a willow tree, it is partly screened from this eyesore by hanging branches. Again, it looks directly downstream.

The final figure is looking out across the water from the end of a tumble-down pier in Leith Harbour, just beyond Britannia and Ocean Terminal.

I can't be sure it was not just the cool green beauty of the Water of Leith in June, and I certainly won't change my opinion of the Angel of the North. Nor have I seen Another Place, and if I had I might have felt he repeats himself. Nevertheless, the whole effect of this procession of figures is strangely poetic. The fact that it is Gormley's own figure, its nakedness, and also the way the minor shifts in attitude suggest attentiveness, don't read as ego but rather as vulnerability, as an actual, responsive human presence. The rough finish works too. Anything at all prettified would look trite in the face of the ravishing beauty of the June flowers and the foliage reflected in the water. Drawing attention to this beauty, however, does have a downside. It makes you realise how awful much of the building is that has been allowed along the Water of Leith, right down to the soulless outrage of Ocean Terminal itself and the dreadful Legoland flats that deface the Newhaven shore. We've had Edinburgh's Folly. These are surely Edinburgh's Disgrace. It is not much comfort, but as Gormley's project draws our attention to the quiet beauty of the Water of Leith, it does also rub that in.

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