Art on Aldeburgh beach is not an unknown or uncontentious subject; but a recent episode, local and petty in several respects, involves an internationally-known sculptor, Antony Gormley, defending his art against the ‘villain’ of the tale, a London art dealer called Mrs Wiseman (according to the BBC).
A previous dust up involved, not so long ago, controversial local artist Maggi Hambling and her scallop-like sculpture commemorating the distinguished local composer Benjamin Britten. The local row about appropriateness and setting in that case became national news and indeed, like thunder receding in the distance, still rumbles on. Similarly, the Wiseman/Gormley contretemps splutters on in a form now a long way from the original dispute. It’s all a bit surreal, though fairly standard for Suffolk and especially its seaside towns like Aldeburgh and Southwold, full of articulate, well-off and leisured folk.
‘Quartet (Sleeping)’ on the pebble beach at Aldeburgh with, in the background, the Wiseman residence (blue and ochre) and the South Lookout.
In 2001 Wiseman bought at a Gormley exhibition four cast iron pieces constituting a sculpture called ‘Oval, Peg, Penis, Snowman’. They were copies of the original. In 2020, she arranged them as if at the four corners of a square on the shingle beach outside her house in Aldeburgh, lying each piece down because she said the pebbles would not keep them vertical. She called the whole ‘Quartet (Sleeping)’, and donated the work to the town, saying it would add much interest to the beach for visitors. When Gormley heard of this, he objected strongly, saying the pieces were meant for an urban context and were designed to stand upright (as indeed you would expect of a penis and a snowman). Wiseman rejected this argument, stating that the owner of a bought artwork could do whatever he or she wanted with it, and was in no way constricted by the artist’s intentions or wishes – an interesting argument with widespread implications.
Apparently you need planning permission to put artworks on the beach, and Wiseman, not knowing this, had failed to apply. She said she now would, retrospectively, and the Council indicated it would view the mistake as one made in good faith. But the public now became involved in earnest, with strong views being expressed, both for and against, about the desirability of four lumps of iron on the beach. The sexuality element in the arrangement offended some, perhaps suffering from a vivid imagination, while others found the whole merely challenging.
Suddenly the story changed. The artwork had not, after all, been given to the town – or if it had, it was taken back because, it was announced, it had been sold for a good price. The new owner quickly removed it. Presumably to forestall any thoughts about excessive private gain from a by-now well-advertised work of art, Wiseman said she would use the money from the sale to repaint the South Lookout tower, an erect structure on the edge of the beach outside her house which is central to her artistic activities in Aldeburgh. And indeed, within days scaffolding had enveloped the tower.
But there was another twist to the story. As soon as the art work was removed, a circle of red stones appeared where it had lain. This became a more and more elaborate example of ‘people’s art’ as the days passed, and when I last looked it had been further elaborated. A somewhat wobbly and unconvincing line of pebbles now linked the circle back up the beach to the centre of the base of the South Lookout; the line thickened to become like a path as more stones were added. Encouraged by the provision of pebbles and pens on a table by the Lookout, each pebble carried a personal written message. So the line came to be purposeful; it carried meaning, and almost inevitably was called a ‘ley line.’
Well, if it keeps the kids happy on a cold, stoney beach, so be it; and it is certainly sociologically interesting that, in these uncertain times, people should arrange things of metal and stone in simple shapes on the beach and then give their structure a mystic significance. ‘Twaddle’ was the word that came to mind when I read the new message on the board by the non-Gormley artwork; but no harm in that perhaps when you’re under stress.
I don’t know whether it is meant to be ironic but, if it is not, then calling this circle of mainly baked clay sherds by reference to an iconic Gormley sculpture, ‘The Angel of the North’, is quite sad – and well within the tradition of art on Aldeburgh beach.
Notes: the idea of making lines out of stones has doubtless been re-invented many times but, locally, the best line on a beach, in sea-shells this time, was, maybe still is, at Shingle Street, a few miles down the coast. It began as a short line but the idea soon attracted many others, all adding their own sea-shells until it stretched a long way across the beach. It became quite famous, was recognised as a work of art, and soon enjoyed its own book, The Shingle Street Shell Line.
Echoes of Gormley’s original Oval, Peg, Penis and Snowman, all basically simple shapes, can be seen in a contemporary (2018) installation by Ryan Gander on the sculpture lawn at the Maltings, Snape. Ten black objects, not I think of cast iron, each chained to the ground, lie in a circle with no immediately obvious ‘meaning’.
Its title does not at first appear to help but in fact says what the work is: To Give Light (Northern Aspirational Charms). The whole is in praise of the enormous contribution which one small area of England, the North East, made to the invention and safety of developments in bringing artificial light into daily life. Number 5, for example, outlined as a very basic shape in the key, represents the miners’ safety lamp, the ‘Geordie lamp’, invented in 1815 by George Stephenson, born at Wylam, Northumberland.