As you cross over the dunes and first glimpse the beach, you pause
wondering what caught the attention of the man standing so attentively on the shore. It is then you notice that it is an iron man, silently watching out over the sea. There is something deep-rooted which tugs at you as you watch these observers, some standing on the sand, others further out to sea. You wonder what they are looking for, what they might be thinking. You then realise you are standing staring at the horizon in the exact way the iron man is.
These ironmen have a very different feel to those that were scattered briefly across the London skyline in 2007. Event Horizon, 31 iron men cast from Gormley’s own body and placed across city rooftops, coincided with his major exhibition Blind Light at the Hayward that summer. I was working at Somerset House at the time, and every morning I would see the statues peering out over the city looking at me. They were watchers. Out of place moments of silence in the incessant rush of the city; a figure where it did not belong.
But the men at Crosby Beach belong here.
They all look out in the same direction, feeling the salt winds rushing across the Irish sea and the daily rise and fall of the tide. Installed in 2005 and originally only meant as a temporary exhibition, the 100 ironmen of Crosby are becoming of-place. They have begun to gather local knowledge – the flow of the tidal waters across the sands, the ravages of the weather, the changing seasons. A constant slow evolution echoing our own nature.
Gormley said of the work: “…time is tested by tide, architecture by the elements, and the prevalence of sky seems to question the earth’s substance. In this work human life is tested against planetary time. This sculpture exposes to light and time the nakedness of a particular and peculiar body, no hero, no ideal, just the industrially-reproduced body of a middle-aged man trying to remain standing and trying to breathe, facing a horizon busy with ships moving materials and manufactured things around the planet.”
Crosby Beach itself is rapidly changing by nature; the flat stretch of sands see tides race in at a ferocious pace. You will never get the same view of the ironmen twice. The few people there when I visited each interacted with the ironmen differently. Some pausing to contemplate, others taking an obligatory selfie then walking on. This is perhaps the greatest benefit of public art: each of us can communicate with the work from within our own nature; it is not about comprehension of someone else’s ideology.
Gormley himself described the work as “a response to the individual and universal sentiments associated with emigration, sadness at leaving, but the hope of a new future in another place“. To me it spoke of the place man has within nature, as part of nature, our constantly evolving cycle through existence. Sometimes we must stand alone at the horizon to understand ourselves.
I look up from my notes and can almost feel myself holding my breath as the waves begin take the ironmen ahead of me under the surface.
The tide is coming in, it is time for me to move.