Presented as BALTIC’s response to The Great Exhibition of the North, this ambitious fourth floor show brings together a large selection of works, projects and commissions. It is easy to spend several hours here and still feel there’s more to explore within the show’s expo-style zoning of ‘pavilions and architectural constructions’.
The exhibition’s title presents the North as something ambiguous or contested, and the selection of works presented here may well cause visitors to reflect on their own personal understanding of the North of England. As such, and in comparison to other group shows at BALTIC, Idea of North has no unifying aesthetic principle, its large collection of distinct voices ultimately speak to this contested subject. Each area is a separate commission, project or guest-curated installation, and each of these zones is a magnetic spectacle ready to envelop the viewer in a particular communion with its own concept of North.
You can sink into race-car like seats to watch Larry Achiampong and David Blandy’s videos, in which Hadrian’s Wall is suspended alongside the Skyrim game world. The iconic Sycamore Gap is recognisable straight away, and the slow drone-work mirrors the movement of the Skyrim landscape slowly building and glitching ahead of us. The two visuals work on each other so well – the real and the unreal emulating and undermining one another. A patchwork of texts accompanies the videos, the anonymity of each ensured by the unbroken monotone delivery, with odd phrases catching more urgently at the brain: ‘Our myths became their myths’, ‘Scorched by the cruelty that the outer world brings.’ This disembodied female voice accompanies you unobtrusively round the rest of the show, undercutting any feeling of glib celebration that an expo might conjure up in the more cynical visitor.
Chris Killip provides a rare glimpse into the DIY music scene of 1980s Gateshead via enormous black and white photos taken at gigs. You can hear music by the bands on headphones, and listen in to conversations between South Tyneside punks, recorded on VHS – conversations that still take place today, bemoaning the lack of venues, and the success of more commercial bands who want to ‘get into the system’.
There’s something bewitching about seeing shots of our oh-so familiar streets and spaces, captured ten, twenty, thirty years ago. Looking at a photo of a market on the undeveloped quayside, there is so much that feels contemporary, and yet the stalls are selling cheap clothes, and not artisan baked goods. The remove is slight, yet seismic.
Women by Women is a collection of incredibly important photographs taken and curated by the female members of Amber Film & Photography Collective, documenting women and girls in the North East from the 1970s to the present day. Vitally important, these are windows into lives and living conditions that would otherwise go unrepresented. Following Killip’s wall-dominating pictures of (mostly) men, these are quietly powerful domestic scenes behind glass, respectfully captured and memorialised. Any lingering concerns about the ethics of this form of documentation are quelled by the news that Amber Side will present a film that revisits some of these women (as part of About The North: Imagined Dialogues at Side Gallery, open from 22 June 2018), indicating an enduring relationship and care on the part of the photographers.
Another stand-out piece is ‘Young Gateshead’ (2018), a collection of contemporary photos by Kuba Ryniewicz, of residents and visitors to Trinity Square shopping centre. This piece faces BALTIC’s location head-on, forging a connection with people who might never otherwise step inside the building. The collection will evolve throughout the exhibition as Ryniewicz captures and develops more images.
Alessandro Vincentelli, the exhibition’s curator, said he wanted the show to be open, generous and literary. And indeed, the space is bursting with written texts to explore – from related books on tables, to specially commissioned responses from local academics and artists, as well as the MP for Newcastle Central, Chi Onwurah. Even the mounted interpretation texts feel personal, offering deeper insight. An unobtrusive video screen reveals a conversation between Pauline Murray (Penetration) and Paul Smith (Maxïmo Park), who both have a lot to say about the particularities of being northern and a musician.
Despite the depth of exploration here, the room still manages to feel spaced out and airy, with each work given ample space to breath. From the housing experiment ‘Protohome’ (2018), to Matt Stokes’ stunning investigation of a little-known cave rave scene in Cumbria; from the geodesic dome of crowd-designed triangles by TILT Workshop and MaterialDriven, to the thought experiment of the ‘Tyne Deck’ (2018) proposal.
This is a free refill cup of an exhibition. Every time you think you’ve got to the bottom you spot another enticing detail, or brightly coloured screenprint, or photographic glimpse of another Northern life, space or time.
Idea of North, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, 11 May 2018 – 30 September 2018.
Grace Denton is an artist based in Newcastle upon Tyne.