An outdoor artwork installed for a single blustery day in August might not normally be the subject of a review in these columns, but Blue Flag holds a wider story.
In itself it made an arresting spectacle. Nautical cyanotype designs on sailcloths, atop a mini-forest of six hundred waving poles, whipped this way and that in a sandblasting wind as the tides rose and fell on Blyth beach, Northumberland.
It might have been an artistic coast defence experiment, some kind of artificial reedbed planted to abate the rise of the sea. But this temporary intervention was a signal of the more enduring significance to Blyth of both a legendary son of the town (William Smith, who discovered Antarctica in 1820 but never got the credit) and a remarkable community arts venture (Headway Arts, a Blyth-based international award-winning project hub, noted particularly for serving this economically-challenged area’s young people and artists with learning disabilities).
The one event, many weeks in preparation through a series of popular printing workshops, was organised in partnership with Blyth Tall Ship, a project which has restored a sailing vessel to undertake an anniversary expedition re-tracing Smith’s journey. The ship itself sailed majestically past on the day of Blue Flag.
There was apparently no intention to make an ironic allusion to the ‘Blue Flag’ emblem of the international certification award for beach quality – ironic because although Blyth scores ‘excellent’ under EU bathing water standards, the local authority seemingly no longer applies for the award.
Laid out on the sand in the shape of a wave, the kinetic sculpture of six hundred flags looked and sounded different from every angle and over every hour, as it re-calibrated the shifting wind, tides, sun and crowds of onlookers. This suggested some long-lost mariners’ measuring device; each flag marking a day of Smith’s epic voyage, perhaps.
One can only wonder how it was viewed from offshore. But the passing crew of the Tall Ship would have missed the spellbinding up-close sound of the thing, rushing and crackling like a junction where earth, air, fire and water all battled to overcome each other.
The most resonant evocation, therefore, was with Blyth’s newest reason for iconic status, as the home of the National Renewable Energy Centre. Not far from the Blue Flag experience, the same winds could be heard groaning out the otherworldly whoosh-roar of Catapult’s giant rotating turbine blades. That juxtaposition in itself made this project a significant artistic statement.
Headway Arts’ programme of activities continues throughout the year – for details see their website.
Dave Pritchard is an independent consultant based in Northumberland.