Text by Rachel McDermott
AV Festival 14 has transformed the cultural landscape across the North East this month. Themed ‘Extraction,’ the exhibitions, events and screenings look toward the relationship between man and the raw materials on which we depend. Of course, the potency of ‘extraction’ in this region is not forgotten, as the closure of the coal mines and the gradual decline of other industrial trades such as steel working is still felt by communities almost two generations on.
Lara Almarcegui’s presentation does not shy away from this cultural legacy. The Last Coal Extraction in Newcastle (2013-2014) is an exploration of a particular site in central Newcastle. The Central Science Development, situated next to St James Park, was throughout 2013 a Surface Mine. Whilst in operation, Almarcegui organised tours of the site for the public, exploring the coal seams and the geological layers of earth and rock. The mine is now backfilled.
At The NewBridge Project, Almarcegui presents the conclusion of her research into this site. A large sculptural presence fills the floor space of the gallery. Steel, rust and harsh geometric lines, the construction is a medium sized mine cap, a device used to cap a mine before it is backfilled. This large structure is 6.5m square, and stands half a meter tall, a replica of the one used on the Central Science Development, it stands as a reminder of the last coal mine in Newcastle.
Alongside this structure are two photographs of the site. Void of figures or industrial equipment, the focus of the imagery is the raw earth itself. Rubble and strata, and the colours of heavy industry: rich orange, grubby brown and grey create a painterly beauty from an industrial scene.
Walking around the mine cap, and observing the photographs, there is a deafening quiet. Thirty years ago, men, women and even children across the North East stood shouting in defence of the mine workers, whole communities went on strike and brothers became enemies as so-called ‘scabs’ went back to work. Almacegui’s work though, does not concern itself with anger or intervention.
The Last Coal Extraction in Newcastle makes no social or cultural comment, it simply serves as a reminder of an event. Almacegui treats this sensitively, the significance of this act is left unsaid but enough is implied. More than once whilst in the gallery, I overheard conversations, and took part in one myself surrounding the history of mining in the area. It serves not only as a literal marking of an end of an industry, but also the continual ensuing time of reflection.
Image by Colin Davison courtesy of AV Festival.