This year, a campus-wide debate has emerged following the erection of Clasp. This 4.5 metre-high art installation was created by Sir Antony Gormley, who was knighted in 2014 and is best known for the Angel of the North statue. Installed in July last year on King’s Walk - sat between the Students’ Union and the Northern Stage – as a five year loan to the University as part of Sir Antony’s Blockwork series, its eighteen constituent iron blocks were intended to rust, and throughout the year students have watched the oxidisation process turn the sculpture orange and, later, a reddish brown.
At the time of its installation, Dean of Cultural Affairs Eric Cross praised the statue, saying that the sculpture presented “an opportunity to reflect on our relationship with others and our environment”. As Gormley himself put it: “Two stacks of blocks find mutual support and together, they make a concentrated, single sculpture that is both body and building”.
As anyone who’s recently been on campus will tell you, though, the journey of Clasp features a few more twists and turns than originally intended by its creator. In May, it was covered in graffiti in broad daylight, and soon after small silver lines joined the larger blue and yellow swathes of spray paint.
This was by far the piece’s most visceral piece of criticism, but certainly not its first. Soon after its installation, an online petition was launched which branded the sculpture a “piece of driftwood” that “ruined the aesthetic of campus”, and has since garnered close to eight hundred signatures. This includes Fine Art students attempting to place a white gnome on top of the statue as a “symbolic gesture of reclaiming campus spaces”. A Fine Art student at Newcastle, who wishes to remain anonymous, said that, despite seeing Gormley speak about the sculpture, “I’m still ultimately drawn to my original conclusion of “meh””, going onto explain that “I know plenty of reasons to like it, and I don’t actively dislike it, but it doesn’t mean I like it either”. They espoused that it did have some artistic merit, though, especially “once you know what it depicts”, namely two people ‘clasp’ing each other, which becomes much clearer when the sculpture is viewed from the side. Other students have echoed these views, worrying that the sculpture’s predominant location on campus will ruin graduation photos. Concerns have similarly been raised over accessibility issues caused by Clasp.
In response to the first concerns over the sculpture, a spokesperson from Newcastle University explained to the Courier: “The sculpture was approved by a steering group that includes representation from the Students’ Union. Sir Antony chose the location of the sculpture carefully and this was agreed by the University’s Art Group and Executive Board. Planning permission was granted for its installation on King’s Walk. We are honoured to have the sculpture here on campus.”
The first unauthorised physical marking of Clasp, however, occurred on 13 May, when the statue was graffitied by Newcastle graduate and local graffiti artist Jamie Evans in full view of many students. At the time, Evan claims that the work was carried out in collaboration with the artist himself, announcing on Instagram: “Painting meets sculpture. A collaborative piece I did today alongside no other than Antony Gormley RA OBE. Incredibly happy to be able to work at such a level…As someone who hails from the North East it was a real honour to work with the artist responsible for the iconic angel of the north.” Evans used blue and yellow spray paint to decorate the statue with lines and dots.
A few weeks after the incident took place, plastic sheeting was put up around the sculpture. A spokesperson for the University told the Courier on Monday 17 May that “specialist cleaners are on site this week to return the piece... to its original state”. They added that “When the work is completed the sculpture will resemble how it appeared when it was first installed on campus”, with the University working with Gormley’s studio to allow “the surface colour to naturally evolve over time back to a red oxidised finish”. Students speculate that this may involve sandblasting, though some argue that this would affect the colour of the sculpture too much. The graffiti has since been removed, however the process has left the statue blemished (see image below). Whether this is how the statue would appear should the natural oxidisation process have taken place is unknown.
Response to the graffiti has been mixed. The same Fine Art student quoted above remarked that “something has been put into public space and the public replied: I think there is some value in that”. They also said that “I do appreciate the vigilante feedback public art on campus is receiving, at least from a practicing artist’s standpoint, because it helps build a better idea [of] what is acceptable and wanted in the public space”, and that “it is a mistake to treat public space the same way you would a gallery or personal exhibition”. However, they also noted that “I wish [the graffiti] was a bit smarter and aesthetically pleasing... it definitely had the opportunity to be”. Others on-campus have been far more supportive of the sculpture, such as the Estate Support Services Director, who last year discussed the “honour” of having Gormely design a sculpture for the university.
Regardless of one’s opinion on the sculpture, and how much spray paint one needs to express it, Clasp continues to command a domineering presence on campus, and should continue to do so until its five year loan from Gormley expires.