The countryside around the British Ironwork Centre is big and fair. There are immense blowsy trees that stand watching almost regally, from the shores of great expanses of slanting pastureland. The British Ironwork Centre is a sprawling, mostly outdoor space. It is laid out in loose concentric circles, with the innermost being a café, the next a showroom for interior decorations, the next a kind of garden centre department of lawn ornaments, and the outmost spreading into an anarchic asteroid belt of jumbo statues and public art.
Out in the farthest zone, there are life-sized and oversized gorillas, lions, crocodiles, eagles, cyborgs, herds of red deer, a fairy of human proportions and a monster horror-spider. All of them are dropped about in the grass in no apparent system. We hire bikes and clatter about amongst them. It feels sometimes as though we have magically frozen a safari park in time, so that we can approach the animals without any danger and inspect them properly.
You meet the Knife Angel at the very beginning, beside the entrance. It was built between 2014 and 2016 by the sculptor Alfie Bradley. One might think from looking at it that a sufferer of supernatural magnetism had walked past a cutlery store and attracted a sudden wave of incoming kitchen utensils. It is a twenty-five foot humanoid, with its face and hands individually wrought from metal, and the rest of its body comprising over 100,000 blunted knives that have been harvested by police forces around the UK in various amnesties. It seems that some of these knives might have cut up more than carrots. It has been reported that around 30% were contaminated with human blood.
Like the rest of us, the Knife Angel has big ape ancestry. In 2013, a year before its assembly, the supposed psychic Uri Geller had hatched a scheme to fabricate a gigantic gorilla out of spoons. Spoons were duly sent into the British Ironwork Centre from all around the country, though not, presumably, from crime scenes. The Knife Angel is therefore the sequel in a franchise of major cutlery sculptures, with Bradley being the sculptor in both instances. There are now only forks remaining – what could be raised from an equivalent tax on the land of forks?
Bradley had intended for the Knife Angel to be installed on the Fourth Plinth at London’s Trafalgar Square. The application was rejected, however, and this explains why the Knife Angel has been banished to Shropshire and why it is lurking here sourly like a pretender to the throne. The Mayor’s office apparently believes that the Knife Angel will reflect badly on London, in drawing attention to its catastrophic rates of knife crime. The Knife Angel is in effect dirty linen and not meet to be displayed in a prominent tourist centre.
Yet as I study the Knife Angel, I begin to doubt that it is artistically coherent or surefooted enough to deserve a gig at the Fourth Plinth. The heart of such a huge horror turns out to be inhabited by a trivial image of cartoonish pathos. If the same figure had been carved entirely from marble, and on a smaller scale, it would be an unremarkable piece of Victorian cemetery art. Its sorrowful, pleading posture – its craggy, sorrowful face – almost inspire laughter, at the obvious emotional manipulation of the design. Incidentally, this lack of subtlety is a characteristic that is shared widely all about the statue park. The sculptures here are often so matter-of-fact that it is as if they are missing an important dimension that artworks are normally supposed to have. Behind their fresh and striking poses there is never any ambiguity or anything that necessitates a second glance. They are not artworks that you have to read but exhibits that you are meant to simply admire.
The sentimentalism of the Knife Angel contrasts with the sheer savagery of its raw material. Some of its weapons are nearer to machetes and meat cleavers than to kitchen knives. Of course, a gigantic display of any collected object will appear impressive, but these knives are too evocative. Indeed, they look almost excessively murderous. With the things that its knives must have seen and done, the Knife Angel is like a book that is filled with unreadable secrets. How many fatal slashings are remembered in the pleats of the Knife Angel’s robe and in its frenzy of feathers?
So what should all of these knives have been woven into? You sense that Bradley has somehow plumped for the wrong motif, though it is not clear how he could have ever made his sculpture a success. Unleashing something howling and demonic through these knives, or raising a totem of Guernica-eqsue despair, would have been altogether more aesthetically credible, but it would have surely also undercut support and sponsorship from the project. A memento mori would have been too bleak. Thus the retreat into fakeness and sentimentalism and the rather unlikely idea that these knives can between them recruit a piteous angel as their presiding spirit.