In November 2021, sculptor Laurence Edwards completed and installed a 26ft bronze sculpture named Yoxman which stands next to the A12 in Suffolk. For a bronze male sculpture 26 feet tall, Laurence Edwards’ Yoxman (the Suffolk Colossus) is a reluctant landmark. Notably unheroic, his is a wounded body clustered and cut with growths, burrs and splinters.
Unlike other monumental sculptures old and new, the artist conceived him not to to draw attention to himself, but to his context. And the context, globally, has been an accelerated sequence of watersheds that have recently transformed discourses around white masculinity and its cultural conspicuousness, a growing acknowledgement of the implications of man-made climate change, and a pandemic that has confronted us with absolute frailty and mortality more starkly than at any other period in living memory.
Edwards feels the final work has absorbed and integrated the moment of its making into its fabric. A keen walker, he speaks passionately about the ancient reverberations of the Suffolk landscape which has been his home for most of his life, with its constant reminders of human activity spanning back to prehistoric times. There, coastal erosion reveals fragments and relics: mammoth bones, shells, and ancient shards of wood emerge from cliffs freshly carved out by the encroaching sea.
But everywhere you go, you will find entropy, in many cases hastened by the effects of human activity; and the very notion of timelessness is called into question. Edwards made the Yoxman to reflect this process. Describing the sculpture as like a revenant, ‘a visitor from the past that’s come back, musing on an unrecognisable environment and contemplating its future’, it simultaneously epitomizes and bears witness to the ravages of our time.
Edwards invokes the axis mundi, the meeting point of the earth and the heavens. Mountains and trees, as well as man-made structures such as pagodas, steeples, minarets, totem poles and maypoles, have all been cited as examples of axis mundi. The artist sees this monumental figure as a focal point in the landscape, tapping and drawing out meaning wherever it lands.
Bronze, with its history spanning millennia and across cultures, has predominantly been a material of commemoration and celebration. Yoxman is also a proposition for both, and for what it means to make a monument, at this moment in time.
Isabel de Vasconcellos writes:
‘Isabel… it will be muddy!!!!’ Laurence Edwards cautioned the night before my trip to Yoxford for the long-anticipated installation of his commission at Cockfield Hall in Suffolk.
Conceived as part of Kim Wilkie’s ambitious scheme for the re-landscaping of the Wilderness Reserve, Edwards’ monumental Yoxman was finally to take his place on the churned banks of a newly-dug lake.
At 26ft tall, the challenge was for the work to hold its space in dialogue with the surrounding panorama of fields, ancient trees and the nearby A12: distinct, yet integral; monumental, yet unheroic.
This last aspect was particularly important to Edwards, aware as he is of the accelerated sequence of watersheds that have recently transformed discourses around masculinity and its cultural conspicuousness. The four years of gestation of Yoxman, set against a simmering background of gender debates, the MeToo and BLM movements and a growing acknowledgement of the implications of man-made climate change, deeply informed Edwards’ intentions for the work. Describing the sculpture as a revenant, he imagined it awakening from an ancient watery grave to bear witness and atone. This was to be a figure facing up to consequences, more sober than exultant. Little did he know in those early days that these reflections would be further harried by the divisive fallout from Brexit, and a pandemic that has confronted humanity with absolute frailty and mortality more starkly than at any other time in living memory.
Edwards feels the final work has absorbed and integrated the time of its making into its fabric. A keen walker, he speaks passionately about the ancient reverberations of the Suffolk landscape, with its constant reminders of human activity spanning back to prehistoric times. Coastal erosion reveals fragments and relics: mammoth bones, shells, and ancient shards of wood emerge from cliffs freshly carved out by the encroaching sea. ‘You feel very tied to a land that’s disappearing fast,’ he says. ‘You set out for a walk you’ve done many times before, and wonder if it’s even still there.’
He made Yoxman to reflect this process, a wounded body clustered and cut with growths, burrs and splinters, ‘like Saint Sebastian’, standing with dignity and defiance in the face of pain. Profoundly elegiac, it embodies the earth and humanity at its most faltering and vulnerable.
Fortunately, Thursday 18 November proved crisp and bright, a propitious day for the artist and the crowd of curious locals, supporters and national press who gathered for Yoxman’s arrival. Anticipating the vagaries of local weather, there were shelters and firepits, as well as vans packed with fish’n’chips and hot drinks to keep us stoked and warm. There was the inevitable sense of anticipation and buzz that rises when some new piece of public art comes to land anywhere, be it country or town. There are always the well rehearsed arguments between dogged proponents of continuity for continuity’s sake (even when the status quo appears to serve no one in particular) and those more optimistic souls, who welcome transformation and change as a galvanising force. Judging by the people I spoke to, the former had stayed at home that sunny afternoon. One woman said the area could do with a good news story, mentioning the controversy around the projected construction of Sizewell C, due to start nearby next year. She hoped the sculpture would bring much-needed tourism to the area.
We first glimpsed the 8-tonne colossus on his back, on the bed of the huge lorry that conveyed him from Edwards’ foundry at Halesworth, where he had been cast in bronze and assembled from 52 separate sections. A creature of the Suffolk soil, his sediments and layers read like an emanation from the bare fields around us.
And then, as if by magic (and with the agency of a 300-tonne crane), he was rising and floating with ease over the ground, and gently lowered to meet the 8-metre deep concrete foundations that will secure him in place, braving the Suffolk elements for what passes for posterity. In time, the scarred earth around him will spring back to life as part of the progressive rewilding of the Wilderness Reserve, and he will be surrounded by grassland and joined by longhorn cattle for company. An instant landmark in a changing landscape, and somehow timeless, as though the land never existed without him.
Isabel de Vasconcellos: Writer of Fourth Plinth: How London Created the Smallest Sculpture Park in the World, curator and cultural producer.