Antony Gormley says he hopes his “iron men” on a Merseyside beach will still exist in at least 1,000 years as “industrial fossils”, after helping to excavate 10 that had been subsumed by Irish Sea mud.
One hundred cast-iron statues modelled on Gormley were installed in 2005 at Crosby beach, spread across 3km (2 miles) of the foreshore and stretching almost 1km out to sea.
The installation, Another Place, was only supposed to last 16 months in Crosby, and the men were almost sent packing early amid safety complaints including cases of the coastguard being called out to “rescue” them.
Sixteen years on, the artwork has become a tourist attraction for the Sefton borough of Merseyside and a beloved local institution.
But unnoticed by all but the keenest eye, 10 of the men have been missing in action for the past few years after their concrete support piles disintegrated, plunging them face-first into the mud.
A rescue mission was mounted in 2019, which reset 51 of the statues back in place. Covid then got in the way, and the operation resumed last week with Gormley himself in charge. Ever the perfectionist, he insisted on overseeing the job after noticing to his considerable displeasure that the 2019 team had not reset the 51 statues at exactly the right angle.
“I was just very, very concerned that they all face west, between 247 degrees west and 275 degrees west,” said Gormley in an interview on his way home from Liverpool on Monday. “I also wanted them all to share a common plane, which was 0.4 of a degree of inclination on the horizon. When I went to check the 2019 job I just didn’t feel those instructions had been followed closely enough, so I wanted to do whatever I could to tune the work.”
Although the statues were only envisaged as temporary visitors, Gormley, now 70, said they would now far outlast him and would “turn slowly turn into Giacomettis”, reduced to skeletons by centuries of tides.
“I think of them as industrial fossils,” he said. “They’re artificially made indices of a species at a particular moment. Whether the geologists accept the Anthropocene as a geological era or not, these are fossils of our species – … I think they will still be around in 1,000 years and maybe longer.”
Rescuing and resetting the 650kg figures was not easy, said Gormley. Some of the GPS coordinates marking the spots where the statues were supposed to be were wrong, and the team had to deploy a metal detector to find them again.
“With a mixture of geolocation and quite strong metal detectors and probes we found them all and brought them back up to the surface,” said the artist. Some were said to be four metres below the mud, but he believes it was more like a metre.
All of the barnacles were then removed carefully so that the men could be repositioned at the right angle and welded to their new, sturdier bases.
Working on the quicksand-prone beach made the operation very difficult, he added. “There were a lot of places and times and situations where I wondered whether we were ever going to succeed because there are areas of such instability.”
The last of the statues to be found – number 49 – remained elusive until last week. “We had the wrong GPS position for it, so finding it was a wonderful moment. When it was pulled to the surface it had been quite low down in anaerobic mud, which is black, and so it was completely black. As it appeared out of the mud it was this black profile coming out of the black mud,” Gormley said.
He insisted it was not strange to see his own form exhumed like a muddy mummy. “I don’t see them as statues of me. They are the place where a particular body once was and anybody could be. Particularly in the evening, like last night, you see them in the western sky simply as silhouettes, dark holes in human form. And I think they’re really points of meditation, contemplation, just thinking about time, our time, our relationship to the elements, our relationship to the horizon.”