I am Iron Man!

29 06 2008

Has he lost his mind?
Can he see or is he blind?
Can he walk at all,
Or if he moves will he fall?

Is he alive or dead?
Has he thoughts within his head?
Well just pass him there
Why should we even care?

(Iommi, Osbourne, Butler, Ward)

Was Antony Gormley inspired by Black Sabbath? I’d like to think so as the lyrics to Black Sabbath’s signature song Iron Man, although written over twenty years before Gormley’s Iron:Man was created describes him perfectly; blind, rooted into the ground but with an unstable lean and seeing all as we walk past to shop, play, work. Just what is he thinking of?

He looks down the new street

Gormley’s Iron:Man is a large cast iron figure located on the south-west edge of Birmingham’s Victoria Square just by what was the central Post Office (which now contains, amongst others, the Gambling Commission) and on his left the statue of Victoria (which is a 1951 bronze cast by William Bloye of an original marble statue by Thomas Brock from 1901).

The same stark facts about Iron:Man are repeated across the net:

1) That it was given to the city on 2nd March 1993 by the Trustee Savings Bank which had, at the time, its HQ in the city.
2) That it was cast at Bradley and Fosters Castings (now Firth Rixson Castings) in Willenhall.
3) That at the time of its installation it was ‘controversial’ but when TSB moved from the city there was strong support to retain it.

The problem is that these facts appear to have become facts simply by repetition and without any attribution.

Time and the Iron Man

When asked about the supposed Iron:Man controversy in a BBC interview in 2000 Gormley astutely talks about his art in general rather than just Iron:Man:

“Art has to change things, and if it was immediately acceptable it would not be doing the job. The press are the most cynical and re-enforce an outdated attitude that is not actually the way people think. People enjoy challenges, find visual art exciting and do not think all artists are trying to pull a fast one”(1)

We may soon know more about the selection and commissioning process for Iron:Man as Dr Sian Everitt, Keeper of Archives at Birmingham Institute of Art and Design, will be presenting a paper titled If Public Art Communicates, Who Chooses the Message? Birmingham’s Iron Man As a Case Study in Selection Processes for Public Art at next months Third International Conference on the Arts in Society to be held, appropriately, in Birmingham.

Gormley’s works do still cause controversy, for example a proposed installation, Time Horizon, at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire has just been refused planning permission because “the National Park ecologists consider that the lawns in the garden are of national importance for their mycology (fungi), and that this might be negatively impacted by the temporary installation of this work”.

He goes to the climate festival

There is similarly limited further information about the construction of the statue beyond the statement above as both Gormley’s official site and the main fan site have little detail. What is known is that prior to construction at least one preliminary plaster maquette was produced which is now owned by Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. This is not currently on public display but can be seen during the occasional open days held by the BMAG Museum Collections Centre as seen in the picture below:

Bit smaller than I remember?

The information with the maquette explains a little about Gormley’s choice of iron which “alludes to the industrial history of Birmingham, with the natural changes in colour and texture, over time and through oxidation, adding further resonances”. Gormley has also said, in an interview with F. David Peat in 1996, that “when I use iron I’m aware it is an earth material. It has a strong gravity. It has a relationship with the liquid core of the earth”. Although without attribution the Wikipedia article reports that Gormley said the sculpture represents:

“the traditional skills of Birmingham and the Black Country practised during the Industrial Revolution. The raised edges where the different sections of the air-set mould joined [are clearly visible – see the pictures here]. These are common and are usually removed after the casting process. It was said that Anthony Gormley actually asked for them to remain, as it added character”

This last statement, about the normal fettling process to remove the flashings from the casting, is clearly doing the sculpture a disservice as it would be poor casting indeed to have this much flashing (it would be simple for any foundry to create a smoother mould than this). I strongly suspect that this was all part of Gormley’s original vision as the picture below shows how intricate they are, especially in comparison to the main riveted joins between the main sections:

Iron and shadow

As to the first ‘fact’, that it was given to the city on 2nd March 1993 by the TSB, this can be verified as there is a helpful plaque embedded by the statue.

Sabbath vs Beatles

Whatever Iron:Man’s origins and initial controversy he is now firmly established as a Birmingham landmark, one that teenagers use as a meeting place when coming to town on a Saturday afternoon (although if you ask – slightly – older residents of the city you can still get the reply “Iron:Man? What’s that?”). Unsurprisingly Flickr has an extensive selection of pictures, sometimes of variable quality, of which this picture by Troutmask of a bleak, snow-swept square is one of my favourites. The statue is now so well known around Birmingham that his image – real or imaginary – can be seen elsewhere around the city:

Walking to work

More of my Iron:Man pictures can be found here.

Let’s leave Iron Man where we found him, with the prophetic imagery of Ozzy, Tony, Geezer and Bill:

Nobody wants him
He just stares at the world
Planning his vengeance
That he will soon unfold

(1) Although not specifically relevant to Iron:Man Gormley’s replies in the interview are often insightful, for example when asked about the arrest of a man for climbing The Angel of the North he has this to say:

“Anything climbable will be climbed. I was impressed but would not advise anyone to try. The photo of him stretching with his arms out while standing on the head was beautiful.”

— Words and pictures by Paul




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