The British North, in Art

“Is it possible to make a work with purpose in a time that demands doubt?,” Antony Gormley wrote of his iconic work Angel of the North (completed 1998), a 20-meter-tall (66 ft.) corten steel angel that is perched on a hill overlooking the A1, the central artery that connects the southern and northern regions of the British Isles. “I wanted to make an object that would be a focus of hope at a painful time of transition for the people of the north-east, abandoned in the gap between the industrial and the information ages.”

Despite the artwork’s fair share of requisite naysayers, Gormley’s stoic figure has become a beloved landmark and a symbol of the fraught recent history of Britain’s North—that part of Blighty synonymous with Geordies, Scousers, Brummies, boy racers, lads & lasses, Happy Mondays, Joy Division, and the Madchester rave scene, as well as the tumultuous onslaught of riots, strikes, and abject poverty that followed in the wake of Thatcherite policies. Built on the site of a former colliery, the Angel marks the plight of the northern coal miners when Thatcher’s conservative government, in an effort to modernize Britain’s industries, dismantled the unions and crippled the North in the process.

Gormley wasn’t the first to address this charged history. Britain’s answer to William Eggleston, Paul Graham approached the country’s social and cultural landscape through the lens of that same cement corridor in “A1—The Great North Road” (1981-2). Graham trained his eye on bleak roadside diners visited by out-of-work miners; an area of scorched earth lit up in flames, a “Hotel” sign nearby suggesting its former life as the site of a business; and perspectives of the great British highway shot from above, uniform suburban houses and industrial chimneys visible on the horizon. Later, in “End of an Age” (1996–8), Graham’s series of anonymous portraits of youths hanging out in clubs and bars, he focuses once again on states of flux, here in the form of twentysomethings on the cusp of transformation, their body language capturing the birth pangs of a new age. These individuals could be from anywhere—the British North? America? It doesn’t matter; they tell a story of vulnerability, alienation, and escapism from an uncertain future.

Liverpudlian sculptor Tony Cragg, in his Britain Seen From the North (1981), reimagined a map of the UK, composed of weathered plastic detritus and other odds-and-ends, turned on its side in a gesture that invites viewers to see the country and the turbulent politics of the ’80s through an inverted perspective. Years later, Turner Prize-winner Jeremy Deller would reflect back on that era of post-war British history, when its northern region was in the throes of transformation, in his epic re-staging of the Battle of Orgreave, a 1984 clash between northern miners and the police. Fascinated by Britain’s folk traditions, as well as its landscape and history, Deller has also delved into the arcane northern tradition of gurning competitions—a bizzarro spectator sport in which contestants compete to pull the most contorted facial expressions—as well as acid house culture.

Other artists of the British North have turned their eye not on the region’s social and political life, but on its natural life, drawing inspiration from its wild moors, woods, and lakes—the landscape that played the muse to poets like Blake, Wordsworth, and Coleridge. David Hockney, born in Bridlington, Yorkshire, and now spending his time between there and his adopted home of Los Angeles, has recently begun to render the brooding Yorkshire woods, its winding lanes and seasonal changes, not with the paintbrush he is known for, but instead using apps on his iPhone and iPad. “It’s just like the ’50s really,” he has said of the region he grew up in. “West Yorkshire is crowded with cars, but out where we are you can drive for hours and not see another soul.” Cragg, meanwhile, invokes the somber tones and earthy materiality of the wild North in abstract concrete and wooden forms, and juxtapositions of steel, rubber, glass, wood, and plaster.

Newcastle-born identical twins and YBAs Jane and Louise Wilson also invoke some of that abandon and romance, homing in on the site of a decaying pavilion in Peterlee designed by the artist Victor Pasmore, in their four-monitor installation Monument (Apollo Pavilion, Peterlee). A neglected vestige of the utopianism of the ’60s, whose name refers to the first moon landing, this brutalist concrete structure now serves as a relic of that forward-looking hopefulness, embedded with one of numerous narratives of the British North.

Tess Thackara

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