Northern Ireland

Sculptor Antony Gormley's Derry 'baptism of fire'

Angel of the North
Image caption The Angel of the North, one of Gormley's most famous sculptures

Sculptor Antony Gormley is studying plans to recreate one of his early works in Londonderry, where it was publicly attacked and burned more than 20 years ago.

Gormley has made an art form of the human form and is famous for his "Angel of the North" and his "One and other" living sculpture in London's Trafalgar Square.

Now, as Derry prepares for the limelight as UK City of Culture 2013, Gormley shared his memories of 1987 for BBC Radio 4's Broadcasting House.

Antony Gormley's grandfather was born in Londonderry and his "Sculpture for Derry Walls" was produced for the city as part of the UK-wide public art project TSWA 3D.

He said at the time that he wanted the scultpure to be a "poultice, and a benign piece that related to the feelings of the people in that place and their situation".

Putting the statue in place in the city's Fountain estate proved a "fairly hairy" business, he said.

"It was right in the middle of the Troubles. We were surrounded by a sullen group of Protestant kids.

"They were throwing stones and sticks and then spitting on the sculpture. The sculpture came over the top dripping with saliva, the missiles kept coming," he said.

The work had a baptism of fire.

"We had big props to keep it vertical while the concrete it was set in went off overnight," he explained.

"They set the bonfire around it. The final act was throwing a tyre around its neck and then pouring petrol on it. Then throwing the petrol can onto the fire.

"There was this splendid vision the next day of this totemic object that had really been made into a fetish... Red melted plastic was running like blood over the totally black charred head.

"This was excellent. This was the work as poultice throwing violence and evil onto itself that would otherwise be experienced in other ways."

To Gormley, the fact that his work immediately provoked such a strong reaction was proof that it was working.

"The sculpture from Derry walls was not my first attempt, but my first successful realisation. I guess you can say that this was my baptism. I realised that art could have a social purpose and it could engage with real issues and real communities."

Image caption Gormley has made an art form of the human form

The Londoner's best-known work is the Angel of the North, a public sculpture which towers over Gateshead.

Last year in Edinburgh, he created a work of six figures which begin at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, a setting Gormley found inspiring.

The first is buried chest-deep in the ground and the next four have been lowered into the Water of Leith as it winds its way through the city to the sea.

The final statue is at the end of an abandoned pier.

The figures in the river are so realistic, police have had calls from worried passers-by.

The artist said the high-pressure density of modern urban life made it "vital to take the time and space to open up our minds to the elements".

He said: "We are all aware that we are coming to the point where there will be 10bn human beings on this planet.

"The big question that I'm asking with all of these works is, 'where does the human project fit, in the scheme of things?'."

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