One rule for you…

The north wall of the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art is currently draped in a vast poster depicting several figures in dance like poses, much like you may see from an artist’s mannequin.  The figures are a uniform yellow in colour and each possesses a huge head of hair so that the impression they create to a casual glance is of  group of oversized dolls.  Closer examination reveals them to be real dancers, but given a somewhat surreal appearance by their single colour, for skin, leotards, and even their afro hair is painted gold.

The image is a still, captured from Lorna Simpson’s video piece Momentum, a work which recalls her discomfort at being on stage, in gold, as part of a dance performance at the age of 12, and is one of a number featuring in a retrospective of her 30 years as an artist being shown at the Baltic.

Initially a photographer, her work now includes video and water colours, and deals with issues of gender, race, memory and more, with subtle undertones of discrimination.

Which is ironic.

One of Simpson’s works on display here is entitled LA57 NY09, and comprises of a couple of hundred similar small black and white images.  She bought a collection of these photographs at auction on ebay.  Taken in the 50’s (hence the first part of the title) they depict a fully dressed black woman in a series of what might have been glamour or pin-up poses of the era.  Simpson has taken these and inserted amongst them shots of herself in similar pose and attire.

The irony is that whilst she has taken the work of another and used it to produce her own, the Baltic boldly forbids any photography in the exhibits.  APW_9295 I’ve grown accustomed to this restriction, though I’m sure it hasn’t always been so.  What surprised me was when an older man turned and bumped into me distractedly, because he was viewing the shots he’d just taken on the back of his camera, a DSLR too so nothing surreptitious in his act of defiance.

Perhaps this emboldened me to take a couple of images of my favourite in the exhibition, another video exhibit entitled Chess in which a man and a woman play on screens set side by side.  They don’t play each other, because close observation reveals them both to be deliberating and then making moves with both black and white pieces.  Both players are in fact Simpson herself, and each player ages during the playing of the game, though at first it’s easy to miss this, distracted by the hand movements of the players, rather like the selective attention test devised by Daniel Simons.  What makes the video work even more interesting visually is that on each screen the players are multiplied by the use of mirrors, so that each move in the game takes on a sense of choreography, which is heightened by a piano soundtrack, provided on another screen by a similarly duplicated Jason Moran.

I didn’t quite get away with my small act of rebellion.  Shooting at a high sensitivity in the darkened room required me to adjust my camera settings quite significantly, and so when stepping outside onto the viewing platform to photograph Jane I ended up with much grainier images than was really necessary.  I think she managed to rise above my limitations though.


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Beyond First Impressions

On our drive home my daughter Meg was expressing her passion for conservation, and at snow point questioned the value of space exploration when we have so much work to do to preserve our own planet. On the face of it, a reasonable question, but the issue is more complex.

For me, exploration of any sort is about pushing into new territory and learning from the experience, both from what we discover on achieving the goal, but also from the journey itself. Consequently we have so many products and technologies in our lives that would not exist without that striving to achieve the impossible or improbable. How would Meg be as aware of the extent of global deforestation without satellite monitoring and communication technologies for example?

I have a similar view about modern art. I don’t always appreciate it or understand what the artist was trying to achieve, but the reflection that it provokes is enough in itself.

Yesterday I visited the Baltic again, and viewed the work of three artists. Salla Tykkä had shot and edited a number of video works; the one I viewed being about Romanian gymnastics. I could write in detail about the architecture of the training facilities, the disproportionate investment, the rigours of the training and the messages they conveyed in a country beset with huge financial challenges so in that respect the artwork had an impact. Did the video constitute art or was it documentary? The lack of commentary perhaps rules out the latter, and my response to it suggests it achieved a goal as the former.

On another floor a large construction predominantly of glass and metal, represented a collaboration between artist, Sara Barker, and a firm of architects Ryder Architecture. It left me completely cold, and though on a greater scale, reminded me of a piece if sculpture that I produced without any thought whatsoever as a piece of homework back in my schooldays.  I smiled wryly at a book title in the gift shop later; Why Your Five Year Old Could Not Have Done That: Modern Art Explained

APW_5304-EditThe final artist, Thomas Bayrle, was for me the most interesting, not because I’d be rushing to give a home to much or indeed any of his work, but it was the work that he had put into his art that inspired me. I was fascinated by his techniques more so than his subject matter, which ran the gamut from quirky portraits to graphic sexual imagery, building both images and sculpture from small pictures and objects into larger pieces that occasionally resemble the component parts, but at other times are transformed completely. Portraits for example that are made up of distorted photographs of church interiors. Very different to my approach to portraiture as in this image of Pauline.

I was clearly inspired in someway by the experience, looking more closely at some of the mundane details around me.

Ultimately however, despite my reaction to Sara Barker’s piece, it was an architect working with glass and steel that gave me the image I was seeking.

Sage, Gateshead
Sage, Gateshead


Baltic: Pronunciation: /ˈbɔːltɪk, ˈbɒlt-/

Origin: late 16th century: from medieval Latin Balticus, from late Latin Balthae ‘dwellers near the Baltic Sea

It’s funny how the brain responds to certain stimuli.  Earlier this week I received an email from my friend Anna in Sweden telling the tale of a lucky escape when her home caught fire.  (Luckily she’s fine).  I’ve only been to her home city of Stockholm once in my lifetime, and even then it was a flying visit when the SS Nevasa docked there during a school cruise in the 1970’s.  I’m sure it’s changed a lot in the 40 years since, but whenever I think of Stockholm my first thoughts are of that cruise around the Baltic which included Helsinki, Copenhagen and a jellyfish infested piece of Norwegian rock among the many outcrops near Kristiansand (Dybiggen? Island rings a bell).  Of course in those days many of the Baltic ports were off-limits.  These were the days of the iron curtain, so Gdansk, Riga, Tallinn, and St Petersburg weren’t options.  I’d love to repeat the experience and fill in the gaps.

The tensions in this area have a long history, including both World Wars, and the sea covers the broken wreckage of over 5000 aircraft and warships, to which the governments of the US, UK and former USSR have added dumped chemical weapons.  The brackish waters are a living monument to man’s inhumanity.

I referred earlier this week to the freezing temperatures during the photo shoot with Bananastudio, and several times during that evening I heard Baltic used as an adjective to describe the bitter cold.  During the winter this is very true of course, but many forget, or are ignorant of the fact, that Tallin for example, though further North than the UK mainland can experience long periods of 30 degree temperatures in the summer.  Stockholm similarly enjoys better summers than we do, with sea temperatures warmer than the English Channel.

So when deciding where to spend Easter Sunday I should not have been surprised that these subconscious hints drew me to another Baltic.  The contemporary art centre in Gateshead.  I’m no aficionado of modern art, but I go with an open mind and have regularly found inspiration there and enjoyed the work of artists such as Yoko Ono, Anthony Gormley, Martin Parr, George Shaw and Vik Muniz.  You can no longer take photographs in any of the galleries, but the building itself can create some interesting imagery.

Yesterday however, was one of those days when I just didn’t really get it.  Fabrice Hyber’s Raw Materials contained many ideas – probably too many to fit into one space. His huge rain cloud for example deserved to stand alone with some more interesting lighting to accentuate the crystalline rain drops that dash the floor below.  The maze like rows of hanging fabrics, akin to the washing line sequence from Monty Python’s Meaning of Life were good fun though (and I did sneak one shot when concealed within it). _MG_0981

Very little of David Jablonowski’s Tools and Orientations  or David Maljkovic’s largely film based Sources in the Air help my attention, but that’s fine.  The creative process will throw up things that stimulate and appeal to one mind and not another.

Returning to the ground floor we found a more conventional gallery of oils on canvas.  These had a photographic quality, with many of the figures outlined in the thick black shadows that you often see in photographs taken with an “on camera” flash unit.  This light is harsh and flattens figures into cardboard cutouts with two dimensions.  Appropriate for a painting, but of course many of these images originated as photographs, for Polish artist (another Baltic connection) Marcin Maciejowski takes his inspiration from images in current affairs and the media though frequently with the facial features removed.  Nevertheless the scene from Godfather II where Michael Corleone tells his wife Kay “Don’t ask me about my business” was still recognisable.

So four exhibitions but none that really wowed me.

Perhaps I was just looking in the wrong place.

Portrait on Car Roof