Making waves

Curators and prize committees love him. Yet Antony Gormley's critics accuse him of arrogance and com

Crosby Beach, on the estuary of the River Mersey, is a volatile and potentially dangerous area. Visitors are advised against bathing there, and warned about soft sand, mud and the risk of changing tides. Hence the alarm felt by some people who, at the start of July, noticed dozens of figures submerged in the sea. They were neither shouting nor waving for help, but the local coastguard station was soon bombarded with false alarms from members of the public convinced that bathers were, for some unaccountable reason, venturing into the waves and drowning.

The coastguards provided a reassuring explanation: the figures were cast-iron sculptures by Antony Gormley. It is surprising that so many visitors to Crosby had not heard about his immensely ambitious installation. Families and school parties had frequented the beach to watch the intricate, demanding process of erecting the bodies there. But maybe nothing could have prepared people for the sheer visceral impact of discovering these silent figures immersed in the water. Although visitors are told to stay within 50 metres of the Crosby promenade at all times, some of the pieces are placed almost a kilometre out to sea.

Life-size, they have all been made from casts of the artist's own body. Gormley took 17 individual moulds, recording a range of points in his breathing cycle. As a result, some of the figures are rigid and vigilant with expanded chests, while others are relaxed, with cupped hands and chests deflated. All of them are upright, yet the ones nearest the promenade are partly buried in the sand. Others vanish underwater as the tide rolls in, and at high tide the works farthest out become submerged under eight metres of water. When the tides are especially high, all the bodies disappear from sight. Anyone watching it happen must feel they are witnessing some gradual, remorseless extinction. But as the water recedes, the process of re-emergence is a revelation.

When I visited the site at the beginning of July, the tide was out. The nearest figures were fully visible, and I noticed the organic, weathered surface they had acquired during three previous installations in Germany, Norway and Belgium. Such prolonged exposure had given them an ancient aura. The bodies looked as if they could have been lodged at Crosby for thousands of years, stubbornly withstanding winter storms. Resilience seemed their overriding quality. And this spirit of defiance became still more remarkable when I realised the epic dimensions of their setting.

Crosby Beach is the opposite of an intimate haven. Gormley's figures are spread along three kilometres of flat, bleak foreshore, while the nearby scrap-iron depot, radar tower, windfarm and the sewage drain outlets announce their removal from any fantasies of sublime seaside idylls. Super-tankers and container ships pass regularly, and Crosby is often used as a beaching site for trading vessels if they lose power when approaching or leaving Mersey docks. It is a gritty industrial location. A Land-Rover transported me right to the water's edge, where I watched contractors lift one of the figures into place and drive it down on a foundation pile drilled three metres deep in the sand. It took a long time to complete the installation. The body had a long-suffering air as it underwent the careful operation needed to secure it properly in this ever-shifting context. After the figure finally settled into the pile, the driver of my Land-Rover struggled for some time to accelerate out of slippery, waterlogged cavities in the beach. The setting is treacherous, and when at last we moved off, the figure looked even more vulnerable as it dwindled into the remote distance.

Only a supremely confident artist could master the complexity of such an operation. Gormley possesses artistic self-belief in abundance, and he has become equally adept at handling the media interest generated by his major projects. Back on the driest expanse of beach, I watched him posing for a crowd of photographers. He has attained celebrity status, and he relishes this as much as Henry Moore did half a century ago.

Gormley's critics question whether he deserves his extraordinary level of success. As well as winning the 1994 Turner Prize and the South Bank Prize for Visual Art, he was awarded an OBE in 1998. In Gormley's custom-built London studio, designed by David Chipperfield, assistants work on a prodigious num- ber of pieces. The influential dealer Jay Jopling regularly holds exhibitions of his work at the White Cube gallery in Hoxton, east London. Having watched Gormley develop as an artist over the past quarter-century, however, I do not believe that he can be accused of complacency.

Far from lapsing into smugness and empty repetition, he is always restlessly searching for new ways of defining humanity's relationship with what he calls "the elemental world". His fascination with beaches stretches right back to 1982, when he installed three body-cases in various poses on a vast expanse of sand. The work's title, Land, Sea and Air II, conveyed the sense of release he felt when placing this trio of figures in such a panoramic locale.

Water seems to bring out the boldest and most surprising aspects of Gormley's imagination. Critics may complain that he is high-minded and devoid of humour, a man who has never recovered from his time at Ampleforth, the Benedictine boarding school, yet Gormley has an anarchic sense of humour. Last year, he told me that he had just propo- sed, for the Seattle waterfront, a 12-metre-high figure of a man ejaculating. "They thought I was taking the piss," he said. "The figure was meant to give an 11-second ejaculation of sea water every five minutes, so there would've been a lot of people standing around waiting for it."

Whether or not the inhabitants of Seattle would agree, Gormley's work is firmly rooted in the specificity of place. He recently stressed that "you cannot ignore, in my view, the social dimension of site: no more non-sites, no more escapism: make work about the world in the world and see what it can do". Hence his readiness, late in the 1980s, to produce double figures on the walls of Londonderry. Simultaneously facing in to the city and out over the land beyond, these ominous guardians summed up Gormley's response to the political and religious turmoil of Northern Ireland. A more beneficent feeling dominated Angel of the North (1998), the winged colossus erected on a hill- top near Gateshead, yet even this sturdy angel is an ambiguous presence, embracing his surroundings and yet possibly frustrated by an inability to fly.

A similar richness of meaning informs the cast-iron figures now assembled on Crosby Beach. Their collective title, Another Place, conveys Gormley's fascination with the theme of emigration. The work was initially produced for Cuxhaven in Lower Saxony, where many fearful Germans embarked for the United States during the Nazi era. The naked men at Crosby may also be yearning for a new world as they stare out at the horizon. The Atlantic beckons, holding out the prospect of an alternative life. For the moment at least, they cannot move: a profound melancholy permeates their stillness. But they seem strangely expectant as well, and their obstinate determination to survive must be rooted in hopes for a different future elsewhere.

Another Place will be on Crosby Beach for the next 18 months

This article first appeared in the 08 August 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Islam: the tide of change