Baltic

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

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The North Sea coastline is sparsely populated for much of its course and consequently has been an attractive landing spot for invasions from mainland Europe. The Angles, Jutes and Saxons that rushed to Britain to fill the void left by the collapse of the Roman Empire supplanted much of Celtic culture (the Celts being earlier invaders themselves).

Then came the Norsemen, vikings who struggled for supremacy over Britain for a couple of centuries, giving us a Danish King (Canute), and a potential Norwegian monarch in Harald Hardrada, who was defeated at Stamford Bridge by Harold Godwinson. Weakened by this Harold went on to face the Norman invasion across the English Channel and the rest, as they say, is history.

For the thousand years that have followed we have been free of further naval incursion, though we had our moments when the Spanish Armada reached our shores and more recently when in 1940 German forces planned Operation Sea Lion.  The precautions we took against this last threat are still visible up and down the coast in artillery platforms, tank defences and pillboxes. One of the houses in Whitburn still incorporates a gun embrasure in its garden wall.

Nowadays the threats to national security don’t emanate from Europe; we’re told to be on the alert against Islamist threats to our infrastructure, while the cultural invasion of America continues in our headphones and on our TV and cinema screens.

During another extremely low tide this morning, when the fishing boats were left high and dry, another vessel came ashore.  I spotted some kayak anglers for the first time a few weeks back, but today a lone figure dragged his boat ashore.  It hadn’t been the most productive of days, but I spotted a couple of beautifully iridescent mackerel in a compartment to the stern.

His name was Norbert, a name that in this country conjures up images of a World Cup winning footballer with no front teeth; the inimitable Nobby Stiles.  Ironic given that this Norbert was German.

This was no invasion landing though – Norbert had launched here, paddled about a mile offshore and fished from there.  I can imagine that you must have a totally different perspective on angling from the very surface of the water, and the paddling gives a different dimension.  All the same the hundreds of pounds of investment for one of these craft and the ancillary equipment required to use it safely surely need more than a couple of mackerel in repayment!