She is curvaceous, monolithic and mysterious: “Northumberlandia”, the latest addition to the UK’s growing canon of public art, is certain to arouse strong opinions once she becomes accessible to the public for the first time from next Wednesday.
For decades, mining companies have gouged out landscapes in northern England to extract coal by opencasting, then reinstated the sites by remoulding them into bland hills. “Northumberlandia” is different: large-breasted, sensual, a quarter of a mile long and 100 ft high at her loftiest point, the world’s largest human-shaped artform – according to its makers – shows just how dramatic land reinstatement can be when an artist conceptualises it.
Designed by Charles Jencks, the American landscape architect, designer and architectural theorist, the work invites reaction ranging from the cerebral – “It’s a ritual landscape for a pluralist age,” Jencks explains – to the practical – a great, if slightly bizarre, spot for a family picnic, with outstanding views.
Sections of this massive grassy form, a few miles north of Newcastle in south Northumberland, can be suddenly glimpsed from nearby major road, rail and air routes. She has been created, during more than two years of on-site work, from 1.5m tonnes of rock, clay and soil discarded from the neighbouring Shotton surface mine.
As with Antony Gormley’s “Angel of the North” in Gateshead, 12 miles to the south, the people who have delivered the artist’s concept are unsung workmen, in this case the excavator and roller drivers employed by Banks Mining, co-funders of the £3m project. The cost has been borne jointly by the mine operator, the Banks Group, a north-east-based mining, energy and property development company, and the Blagdon Estate, the landowner. The estate is owned by the Ridley family, gentry and landowners for centuries and now headed by Matt Ridley, the science writer and ex-Northern Rock chairman.
“Northumberlandia”’s grassy banks are reminiscent of some of Jencks’s arresting works in Scotland, where he lives, such as “Landform” at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. It has the same interplay of dramatically swirling, but sharply delineated, grassland and water. But “Northumberlandia” is recognisably female, with facial features including eyes, nose and generous lips, as well as those breasts, which the workmen were whizzing around on their rollers to complete last week, before Monday’s official opening by the Princess Royal.
Jencks suggests that the landform, taller than an eight-storey building and more than seven times the size of the pitch at Newcastle United’s football ground, invites response on three different levels. First, it can be appreciated, he says, as a “pure, abstract, pleasurable landscape, the yin and yang of water, earth and grass”. Then, there are its human, sensual qualities, with its allusions to ancient fertility symbols and its walkable landscape of ankles, knees, legs, breasts and head. Third, one of her hands, which points westward, invites a hunt for meaning. What is she pointing to? He promises hints for visitors.
Jencks’s interest in “ritual landscapes”, such as Stonehenge and Northumberland’s ancient cup and ring stone markings, may elude some visitors as they navigate “Northumberlandia”’s four miles of pathways and steep slopes. But many will relate to his idea of “destination art” – accessible structures such as “The Angel of the North”, which people travel to see. Destination art is, says Jencks, a little like the landmark cathedrals of Europe in past centuries. In fact, while the past 15 years have seen a burgeoning of public art in north-east England, the region has a long pedigree of very visible landmark structures, running back from bridges and castles to Hadrian’s Wall.
The big question now is what the public will think of “Northumberlandia”. Initially this “Goddess of the North” aroused some opposition. But so did the now much loved “Angel of the North”.