Gormley statues unveiled: Stephen Fry weighs in on debate

UEA unveiled the much debated ‘3X ANOTHER TIME’ exhibition on campus during a star-studded reception at the Sainsbury Centre, attended by Stephen Fry, Charles Clarke, the Bishop of Norwich and Sir Antony Gormley.

The gallery unveiling featured speeches from Vice Chancellor, Professor David Richardson, Centre Director, Paul Greenhalgh, and Sir Antony Gormley. Sir Antony spoke to the crowd about his decision to bring the sculptures to the UEA. Guests were then invited to walk the path of the statues and consider the art in context. The statues have been placed on top of the Science building, on top of the library and close to the library entrance.

Over the past few weeks campus has been divided over the decision to place one of the statues on the library, and  many have called the decision ‘insensitive’ in light of exam season and the pressures placed upon students at the end of the year. Many have likened the figure to someone about to commit suicide.

Concrete spoke to Stephen Fry, broadcaster, mental health advocate and suicide survivor, about his take on the statues.  Mr Fry admitted he was “a big fan” of Sir Antony’s work.

He said; “I remember when he had them in London and some people of course, there’s always… wherever there’s public art there is controversy, which is a wonderful thing. Usually British people will always find a reason to disapprove. They don’t want to be thought of as Philistine and against public art so they’ll find some other excuse.

He continued, “As President of MIND, the largest mental health charity in Britain I don’t mind saying that I don’t think they’re an offence to the idea of suicide. We know how serious suicide is. The fact that he has put art on the roof is not in any way disparaging, taking lightly the idea of suicide.”

After walking across campus, Mr Fry said: “I think they’re magnificent, very touching. There’s an emotional quality to them which is quite surprising.I think they’re wonderful.

“All of this nonsense that’s been spoken about them somehow being contemptuous or trivialising or ignoring the issue of suicide is just people trying desperately to find something to be angry about in that sanctimonious British way that is so repellent to us all.”

Paul Greenhalgh, Director for the Sainsbury Centre, said, “There’s an irony that a large part of our collection is about the human figure and some of it is incredibly challenging.” He told Concrete his intention was not to upset students on campus.

The Vice Chancellor also spoke to Concrete to address student concerns. He said: “We hope that this artwork can inspire students, that it can make them think about pieces of artwork in juxtaposition with these iconic buildings of ours, saying ‘the world is our oyster’.”

“There have been mixed views, but I hope that students today will have listened to Antony Gormley and understand what he was trying to say, and maybe changed their views on what we’re trying to achieve.

“I understand there have been some sensitivities and we’re taking those sensitivities very seriously and we will try to respond to them in a way that will hopefully reassure students with that view that we take those issues very seriously.”

Emily Shorter, an Western and non-Western MA student, said at the opening:  “I’m not sure really, I can understand all the controversy. I think Gormley himself is an important artist though, because we all study non-Western art and he’s been quite vocal about the lack of representation of non-Western artists in museums and his focus on the body is related to that, like he’s just said in his speech about [the body] being a universal theme.”

The university confirmed that the statues will remain in place for the next five years.

The man behind the metal

From Crosby Beach to the South Bank in London, Sir Antony has spent decades experimenting with sculpture across the country. Almost all his work focuses on the human figure, with his own body providing the basis for his now infamous metal casts.

I caught up with Sir Antony at the unveiling of his work to find out his thoughts on the controversy around the recent installation of his work and what he made of the student reaction.

He said: “They are uninscribed. They’re pretty well void in terms, they’re not representing a hero, or a narrative or a particular person. So they’re waiting for the projection of the person that comes across them. It’s not surprising that people project all sorts of things on them and they wouldn’t be working if that didn’t happen.

“I think if they raise issues about mental health and vulnerability of students in an institution like this under the pressures that are under in a globalised way. I’m very glad that they do.

“They are not about suicide. They are about, I hope, something very different. I hope that the attitude of the work is about a body that is in space but open to that space. Open, aware, alert. But, silent.”

I asked him why he chose this particular campus to be home to his work for the next five years. He said, “I think that this is an incredible campus built at a time of real utopianism in terms of architecture. The idea that architecture is an engine in which minds and lives can be changed. That wall, the teaching wall, the Ziggurat architecture, is a very, very severe example of the built environment. It’s done with such an inspiring idea about where human thought can fit in the scheme of things.

“As evening falls and you see those lit rooms and you know that within them are people that are in a way, thinking. Thinking new thoughts. But they are doing it in relation to nature: to a body of water, to a forest of trees, to a big open sky. There aren’t many places like that.”

He continued, saying that he agreed that his work was “highly sensitive”: “This is about human vulnerability. It’s not an illustration of somebody trying to jump. It’s an object that expresses the fact we inhabit that we inhabit an object that is exposed to space. They are masses that indicate where a body once was and a body could be.”


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3 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To “Gormley statues unveiled: Stephen Fry weighs in on debate”

  1. UEA has failed to produce support for suicidal students, maybe they need to consider why so many students are feeling so vulnerable and trying to make their voices heard.

  2. How will UEA match availability to student demand in providing adequate mental health support when the university has mindlessly decided to continue the MA in Counselling course? I large number of the annual cohort of students do Placements in the Student Support Services, providing counselling for fellow students. Generations have benefited from this valuable therapeutic service. Effectively UEA has destroyed a valuable part of the its social heritage – 25 years of prestigious input into person-centred counselling. UEA prides itself on student satisfaction which could well deteriorate without this input. The decision to discontinue the course was made without consultation with current students, leaving an aggrieved group who are worried and confused about their futures. Is this another example of thoughtless political penny-pinching with massive human costs?

    • I am in complete agreement with you, as are many others, as you may have seen there has been a petiton launched as well as a facebook page against these cuts. Im not sure i’m allowed to put links in the comments but if you search keep counselling into facebook or twitter the page and petition should come up! Thankyou for expressing so eloquently on this article what lots of us are thinking!

May 2021
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