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. 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.