Director of Sainsbury Centre responds to criticism of Sir Antony Gormley sculptures at UEA

The new statue above the library building at the University of East Anglia, Norwich.
PHOTO: Nick But

The new statue above the library building at the University of East Anglia, Norwich. PHOTO: Nick Butcher - Credit: Nick Butcher

The director of the Sainsbury Centre has entered the debate over the controversial Sir Anthony Gormley sculptures at the University of East Anglia, saying he is proud to have brought masterpieces by the acclaimed artist to the region.

Professor Paul Greenhalgh, director of Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts

Professor Paul Greenhalgh, director of Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts - Credit: Andy Crouch

Some students at UEA have criticised the figures - specifically one placed on top of UEA's library - saying they resemble people considering jumping off.

A petition has been set up urging the removal of that sculpture, with the petition author expressing concern it has been placed at a 'time of intense stress for students with xams and dissertation work'.

MORE: Petition launched to get 'unsettling' Antony Gormley statue removed from UEA library roof

The figures are part of a wider plan by the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts to create a sculpture park at the university.

And the centre's director Paul Greenhalgh has explained the thinking behind them and revealed that Sir Antony, who was also responsible for the monumental Angel of the North sculpture near Gateshead, positioned the works himself.

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Prof Greenhalgh said: 'The three standing figures by Sir Antony Gormley are part of an initiative by the Sainsbury Centre at the UEA to create a Sculpture Park on the campus for the enjoyment of its students and the general public.

'The campus contains examples of important modern architecture and superb stretches of natural landscape - much of it protected and listed by English Heritage - and the aim now is to place masterpieces in and around these 350 acres, over the coming years, as part of the university's aim to support and enhance our region with a wonderful new amenity. We want everyone to join us on our campus for a day out.

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'These sculptures are the first in this new initiative. Sir Antony positioned the works himself, and the positioning is very much part of the idea.

'The best way to approach the whole thing is to walk the route between the figures, and to think about what they might mean, and why the artist placed them where he did.

MORE: UEA faces backlash over 'tactless' decision to put Antony Gormley's human statue on the roof of library

'Sir Antony is universally recognized as one of the greatest sculptors at work today. His work can be found in public sites and museums in the greatest cities in the world.

'In Britain perhaps he is best known for his monumental Angel of the North, of 1997, a dramatic standing winged figure, sited on a hillside in Gateshead. We are so proud that we now have major works by him on display in our region.

'Much of his work over the years has been concerned with the human figure, and he has often used his own body as the model for works placed in interiors, in the landscape, and on buildings.

'Another Place, for example, consists of 100 iron figures placed along the coastline at Crosby Beach in north western England.

'All of the figures are looking out to sea. Incidentally, a superb iron figure was shown in the Sainsbury Centre's exhibition Masterpieces: Art and East Anglia in 2014. It was one of the most popular works in the exhibition, which was a celebration of the culture of our region.

'Everyone sees works of art in their own way. For me personally, when I look at the three figures staring out from their surroundings - enhancing the sparse beauty of Denys Lasdun's architecture – they make me ponder on what it is to be human.

MORE: Antony Gormley's rooftop sculpture at UEA is offensive, clumsy and dangerous

'They are a strange mixture of natural and artificial elements, which perhaps is indicative of our times. They have a sense of hope and wonder about them, of celebration, and yet also an aura of amazement at the condition of the world they inhabit.

'They seem to be urging me to think about the complexity of modern life; and they suggest that while each of us is a complete individual, there are billions of us on the planet, all members of a vast species.

'The figures are at once very contemporary but somehow ancient. They connect to a grand tradition – going back to the ancient Greeks and before - of the human figure interacting with architecture. Walk around Norwich, London, Athens, Rome, Paris, New York, Rio, Seoul, or any city in the world, and you will see figures in the urban landscape, on skylines, in niches, on walkways, carved in stone, cast in metal, and modelled in clay.

'The Gormley figures offer a powerful twist – and an ironic commentary possibly - on this grand heritage of people made by artists, that decorate our world.

'Thanks to the wonderful generosity of Sir Antony, and the Sainsbury Centre's fantastic supporters, Norwich has three masterpieces of modern sculpture for its citizens to enjoy.

'Each of us sees art in her or his own way. This is how it should be. Allowing artists to make art without constraint, and all citizens to interpret art as they wish, are the marks of any free society.

'Please come and see the works by Sir Antony Gormley, then join us inside the Sainsbury Centre to have a cup of tea – or something stronger – and enjoy our other works by some of the greatest modern masters of art.'

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