For better or for worse, Clasp is back

Unless you hardly pay attention to your surroundings (understandable) or really haven’t gone to a single seminar this semester (not so much), it’s pretty certain you’ll have seen the tall, brown, blocky construction on King’s Walk between the Students' Union and Northern Stage.

Emma Hunter
1st March 2023
Unless you hardly pay attention to your surroundings (understandable) or really haven’t gone to a single seminar this semester (not so much), it’s pretty certain you’ll have seen the tall, brown, blocky construction on King’s Walk between the Students' Union and Northern Stage.
Unless you hardly pay attention to your surroundings (understandable) or really haven’t gone to a single seminar this semester (not so much), it’s pretty certain you’ll have seen the tall, brown, blocky construction on King’s Walk between the Students' Union and Northern Stage. It was installed in January after the exam period as an addition to the various other pieces of public art on campus. But this isn’t just any old artwork: it’s Clasp, a sculpture by the famous artist Antony Gormley. As sculptures go, it’s got it all: it looks good, it’s meaningful, and best of all, it’s controversial. Clasp and the university go back years, and they have beef.

Clasp represents two bodies holding each other – hence the name. If you look carefully at it, especially from the SU side, you can see it. The modernist work is 4.5 metres high, made of cast iron, and is part of Gormley’s 'Blockwork' series, where blocks replace anatomy. According to the Turner Prize winner, “the two stacks of blocks find mutual support and together, they make a concentrated, single sculpture that is both body and building”. The intention is for the blocks to rust naturally, going from grey to orange to reddish-brown.

Clasp has been graffitied twice, first in 2019, after which the perpetrator was taken to Newcastle Crown court, and then again in 2021

Students who have studied here for some time might already know this though - they might even have noticed the blocks gradually go rusty. This is because it first came to campus in 2018 as part of a 5-year loan. Poor old Clasp didn’t make it that long though; it had to be removed for maintenance in 2021, ironically because months of rainfall had over-oxidised its surface. Isn’t that the same surface that’s supposed to evolve naturally? No matter, it’s back now, with a protective coating applied.

Even before it was removed however, Clasp’s time on campus didn’t go smoothly. Soon after its installation students launched an online petition to remove it, mainly because it didn’t keep to the aesthetic of the other university buildings. Fine Art students then climbed it and placed a white gnome on top in support of “reclaiming campus space”. It was also graffitied twice, first in 2019, after which the perpetrator was taken to Newcastle Crown court, and then again in 2021.

The embrace is striking and beautiful - a clever contrast between brutalist and affectionate

Despite this, Clasp has defied the haters and is standing proudly at the heart of the university once more. In my opinion, campus is better off for it. Its presence is a display of pride for the wonderful North East, given that Gormley is the sculptor behind the piece of genius that is the Angel of the North in Gateshead. He also has an honorary degree from Newcastle University, and his drawings are on display in the Hatton Gallery. As someone who appreciates a good hug, I think the embrace is striking and beautiful - a clever contrast between brutalist and affectionate. And even though students were opposed to it for spoiling graduation photos, to me the rusty hue blends in well with the red brick buildings that dominate central campus. You can’t complain that the university spent unnecessary money on it either, given that it’s being kindly lent out. All in all, a fine piece of art.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Gormley statue on a university campus without being controversial in some way. Imperial College London came under fire when it installed another 'Blockwork' series sculpture that from the side resembles a man with a giant erection, and the University of East Anglia faced calls to remove Gormley’s life-sized human statues on top of buildings because it looked like they were about to commit suicide. In comparison, ours is pretty innocuous. Half a semester in, Clasp 2.0 has yet to face much criticism. Let’s hope it stays that way.

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