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British sculptor set to unveil 'Habitat'

Mike Dunham
Joe Johnson and his brother Mo Johnson of Johnson Crane will transport British sculptor Antony Gormley's statue "Habitat" from Steelfab, where the 18.5-ton piece was fabricated, to the Anchorage Museum, where it will be erected at Sixth Avenue and C Street at 7 a.m. on Sunday.
BILL ROTH / Anchorage Daily News
British sculptor Antony Gormley tours the Anchorage Museum expansion project.
BILL ROTH / Anchorage Daily News
Peter Macksey helps move British sculptor Antony Gormley's "Habitat" statue from the fabrication shop at Steelfab on Wednesday, April 21, 2010. The statue is laying on its back and will be transported from SteelFab to the Anchorage Museum, where it will be erected at Sixth Avenue and C Street on Sunday morning.
BILL ROTH / Anchorage Daily News

British sculptor Antony Gormley should get his first look at his newest artwork this morning. That's presuming his flight here from London hasn't been further delayed by the volcanic ash that shut down most European and trans-Atlantic air travel for a good part of the past week.

Starting Sunday, everyone in Anchorage can see the piece -- and most probably will. It will be hard to miss an 18.5-ton, 24-foot high stainless steel depiction of a human form squatting in the middle of town at Sixth Avenue and C Street.

The monumental statue titled "Habitat" will likely draw more reaction than any public sculpture in the history of the state, not just from Alaskans, but from the art world at large.

Gormley, 59, has achieved international fame for work that often pushes boundaries and stirs controversy. Some of it, at least, has managed to gain the affection of the public.

For instance, fans of the Newcastle United soccer team once dressed his best known piece, the 66-foot tall "Angel of the North," in a giant facsimile of the team shirt of champion striker Alan Shearer. Authorities initially insisted that his "Another Place," a display of life-size bronze statues set along and in the tidelands of Crosby Beach near Liverpool, be removed after a brief stay, but people became so fond of the things that the politicians reversed themselves and made the installation permanent.

Last month another outdoor arrangement of statues, "Event Horizon," went up in New York City. "There was some silly stuff in the press," Gormely told the Daily News. "But on the street, the response has been very good. People are genuinely intrigued."

Most of Gormley's work has taken the form of temporary installations, often consisting of many smaller pieces. "Habitat," in contrast, is a single, immense structure. It's also the artist's first permanent large scale work in America. Conceivably, it will be in place for centuries to come.

Earlier this week, the press had a peek at the gray metal statue at SteelFab, the Anchorage fabrication company where the piece was assembled.

Alaska steel workers spent 1,700 hours to create 57 giant box forms from 342 plates of stainless steel. Draftsmen at BBFM Engineering used advanced computer programs to produce sequenced drawings that broke Gormley's complex design into 11 steps detailing how to attach five or six blocks at a time.

The components were welded together with the figure on its back until the top was added, said Peter Macksey of SteelFab. Then it was set upright and, after the head was put on, returned to the reclining position for transport to the museum site.

"Habitat" was commissioned through the municipality's 1 Percent for Art program as part of the Anchorage Museum's expansion project. It cost $560,000, most of which went into materials and labor according to a press release from the municipality.

At 7 a.m. on Sunday, part of Sixth Avenue will be closed for the erection of the statue. The process will require two cranes, said Macksey, and must be completed by 9 a.m.

The public is invited to watch. Refreshments are promised and the first 100 people to arrive will receive a special commemorative lanyard. At 10 a.m. Gormley will present a talk at the museum.

While the volcanic cloud from Iceland disrupted his plans to arrive in town earlier, he remained determined to get here in time for the installation of the statue. He spoke with the Daily News by phone from his studio on Wednesday and expressed his eagerness to be in Alaska when "Habitat" goes in place.

"I'm really privileged to be making my first serious, permanent work in the (U.S.) in the state that could not be more relevant for the future of humankind," he said. "We all know the arctic wildernesses are the first to suffer from global warming. In a way, they're the gauge for the rest of us. I don't mean the statue as anything apocalyptic at all, just the materialization of a kind of question about the human place in the scheme of things.

"This is an amazing gift to me."

Find Mike Dunham online at adn.com/contact/mdunham or call 257-4332.

Blog: Art Snob
By MIKE DUNHAM
mdunham@adn.com
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