Antony Gormley: ‘‘If we lose our curiosity, we become less than human’’

The sculptor takes the NS Centenary Questionnaire.

What is the most important invention of the past 100 years?

I think penicillin, in terms of what it has done for the human race. But my second choice would be concentrated solar thermal generators. I think these are revolutionising our ability to make energy sustainably and I would put alongside them the need for continued research into tide power. We have got to get over our addiction to fossil fuels.

What is the most important scientific discovery of the past 100 years?

The Human Genome Project, as the most recent evolution of the 1953 Crick, Watson and Wilkins discovery of the structure of DNA and the double helix. But we have to put the woman back into that: Rosalind Franklin, who was never given a Nobel prize, was pretty poorly credited within the research that contributed to Crick and Watson’s model. The degree to which we share genetic material with all other living creatures is totally amazing. I think this re-emphasises the central issue facing humankind generally: how much is human nature part of nature?

What has been the greatest sporting event of the past 100 years?

It has to be the Paralympics. They have completely transformed people’s ideas about what a body is and how it can be celebrated.

Which work of art has had the greatest impact on you?

Walter de Maria’s 1977 work The New York Earth Room, in SoHo, New York. The work is a set of white rooms with light bulbs set into the ceiling, filled up to a metre deep in moist soil left simple, ungrowing. As you climb up the staircase, you can smell the earth. You come to a barrier that’s just a piece of glass, halfway down a corridor, from which you look down this gently rolling landscape of moist humus. 

Here we are confronted with this: the base material of all life, not as a picture, but as a reality. It is the most radical landscape painting that was ever made.

Who is the most influential artist of the past 100 years?

As a sculptor myself, and feeling that sculpture is the most profound way in which our prejudice about the world can be challenged, I think Richard Serra. His structures invite first-hand, somatic, haptic, direct physical experience, bypassing our way of constantly reading things.

And business person?

It would have to be Muhammad Yunus, the Bangla­deshi microfinance pioneer. If we believe in social justice and the sharing of resources, we have to believe that all people should have a chance to share the fruits of their labour.

And sportsperson?

Jesse Owens, because of the whole story of the Berlin Olympics, the way he dealt with that – and the fact that Franklin D Roosevelt didn’t ever acknowledge his extraordinary four gold-medal victories. He was an incred­ible man, an exemplar of sport as a bridge across cultures.

What is your favourite quotation?

Constantin Brâncusi: “When we are no longer children we are already dead.” I think it is true. If we lose our curiosity, we lose our ability to play, to want to be picked up, to have a race and be the first into the sea, to see things as if for the first time. We become less than human.

What is the most significant change to our lives you envisage over the next 100 years?

It’s got to be climate change. I think that we are going to see more than 100 million climate refugees by the end of the century. The most significant change to our lives will be the degree to which we are able to change our core beliefs, because economic growth has been the engine for the west’s industrial, city-based civilisation.

What is your greatest concern about the future?

That we won’t face these things and that we will be extinct in the next few hundred years – or sooner.

What will be the most dramatic development in your own field of work?

I think the most fantastic thing that has happened in art is that it is becoming everyone’s. That there is the taste for participation in art as a space of possibility, as a place where human things can be discussed and felt.

The tearing of fine art away from money and privilege, and the remaking of it as both a collective expression but also as a place of collective reflection – this has been the biggest change, I think. And the way in which museums have changed from being treasure houses to producing houses: places where things that had never existed before, never been seen or experienced before, are now being shared.

This article first appeared in the 04 December 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Burnout Britain

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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.