Wednesday, October 18, 2006

As on a darkling plain

The cumulus clouds are piled high in a Delft-blue sky and a stiff breeze is blowing. A perfect Indian summer day for a bracing stride along a long, wide beach. You dump your car and, with the sound of the sea growing louder as the wind whips at your hair, you cross the dunes. Wind farm and cranes to the left. Lighthouse across the estuary. At sea, a passing container ship. And in front, 100 barnacled cast-iron figures of naked men scattered for three kilometres along the sands and gazing out towards Ireland. Some are all but submerged beneath brown waters flecked with white; some are merely paddling; others are high and dry.

This is Another Place, an installation by Antony Gormley on the beach at Crosby, just north of the docks in Liverpool. The iron men, as they are known round here, have, since they were installed in July 2005, proved as popular with the people of Merseyside as Gormley's Angel of the North has with the people of Tyneside.

In the early days, they were fitted with wigs, bikinis, hula skirts, football shirts (both Liverpool and Everton) and seaweed dreadlocks. Then Christians dressed them as shepherds and wise men, brought in a live camel and staged a nativity play. A ballet group mounted a performance with the figures as a backdrop. Fathers4Justice dressed 40 in purple superhero costumes. Christian Aid and a local hospice enlisted their help in fundraising. Jet skiers used them for slalom practice and BBC Radio 4 broadcast an afternoon play inspired by them.

But nothing special is happening on this quiet weekday, just people down on the beach, wandering from man to man. The women tend to touch, the men to take pictures

...The figures are due to move to New York in November after a 16-month stay. But such is their popularity that a campaign is under way to keep them at Crosby.

Conceptual art will also be popular art if it is good. Most conceptual art is unpopular because most of it is rubbish. But that applies to all art forms.

Another Place looks like an irresistible combination of the Easter Island moai statues and Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach. Perhaps with a dash of Morrissey chucked in.

Conceptual art is not a new invention by postmodernists: it is the most primal art form. Tate Britain is the most popular museum in the world, because people will always look for something beyond pretty.

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