Wednesday, July 16, 2003

Baltic: cool

As hoped, I got to see the newly completed work by Antony Gormley at the Baltic in Newcastle at the weekend. Although local people initially had reservations about Gormley’s giant Angel Of The North sculpture in Gateshead, I think it’s fair to say that it’s now widely and fondly regarded by most as an instantly recognisable marker of regional identity and community, even though to many initially it felt like an imposition on the community.

‘Domain Field’, by contrast, actively involved the local community (250 people) in its production, and in fact the production process was equally as important as the finished installation. Visiting the Baltic back in April, I was able to look down from a viewing gallery and watch the artistic team at work, cutting up vertically the casts they’d made and beginning the process of welding together the short steel rods within the cast halves so as to create an army of dense jagged sculptures. In this way, the participants were intimately involved in the project, and once all the casts had been made, the wider public were able to view the production process almost as a work of art in its own right, evolving day-by-day.

The finished work, though, is naturally still the main focus of interest. In the exhibition guide there is an essay by Darian Leader called ‘Drawing On Space’ which discusses ‘Domain Field’ and its creation in the light of Gormley’s other works and in relation to their characteristic themes – belonging, identity, bodily boundaries, bodily presence and absence. Although this essay makes for a very absorbing and informative read (and incidentally made me realise that I’ve eaten my lunch several times whilst unwittingly sitting in the middle of a Gormley sculpture called ‘Planets’ at the British Library!), inevitably it doesn’t capture everything about the work or everyone’s personal experience of it.

I loved walking around in amongst the work, discerning and distinguishing the figures in what initially seems like a dense sea of metal, and looking at each one individually. They reminded me of 3-D models of chemical structures, or diagrams of constellations. It was intriguing and disorientating that they have very definite shape from a slight distance (to the extent that many participants have been able to recognise themselves), but seem to lose this definition close-up. Why were some figures incredibly dense and “thick” in terms of the number of steel rods used, while others are painfully thin and almost not there? By striking contrast with the apparently solid block-like concrete and wood figures of ‘Allotment II’ (also on display at the Baltic, on the floor below), though, all those of ‘Domain Field’ seemed to be fragile, almost ethereal and literally insubstantial. In some strange way, they also seemed more human.

The ‘Domain Field’ exhibition, which also includes the earlier works ‘Earth’, ‘Fruit’ and ‘Body’, runs until 25th August, and if you have the opportunity to go along, I’d thoroughly recommend it. And if you enjoy the experience, afterwards you can buy the T-shirts, postcards, bags, books, videos, notebook… I’m sure it must be fairly unique and unprecedented for an artist and a gallery to have so much branded merchandise, but then I don’t begrudge them capitalising on Gormley’s involvement and using merchandising as a means of promotion and raising revenue, given that entry is free to all.

All this talk about and focus on ‘Domain Field’ has meant that the Baltic’s other exhibition at the current time is being unfortunately overshadowed – I say unfortunately, because it’s excellent in its own right and would, I’m sure, at another time have been the gallery’s star attraction.

Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen’s ‘The Coal Coast’ is a collection of photographs taken over a three year period on the coast between Seaham and Hartlepool in County Durham. At the turn of the last century the area was thriving industrially, its pits producing vast quantities of coal, but now all the mines are closed and the beaches littered with mining paraphernalia and refuse.

What’s brilliant about Konttinen’s photos is that she has managed to turn what might initially appear to be unsightly industrial waste (concrete, rusting girders, pit ventilation tubes, red pools of iron oxide) into aesthetically engaging subject matter. I was struck by how powerfully she has captured the way in which nature appears to be reasserting its dominance and primacy over the artificial and the man-made, at the same time as she implicitly acknowledges the damaging environmental effects that the mining industry has had on the beaches. And despite this damage, the picture of a miner’s boot half-buried in the white sand is on its own a remarkably eloquent and poignant epitaph to the demise of a once-thriving industry, and one which will no doubt strike a chord with many of those from the region who visit the exhibition.

A few words about the Baltic itself. It was really pleasing to see that it’s evidently fulfilling its remit and attracting those who are unused to visiting art galleries – myself included. No doubt this is due in the main to the fact that it’s in the city centre and completely free. It’s also worth noting that both of the current exhibitions are of immediate relevance and interest to local people, and consequently it’s admirably promoting a genuinely populist idea of art as something that need not be utterly abstract and removed from the lives of ordinary people. As one participant in the ‘Domain Field’ project has said, “It was nice to be part of this scheme and I shall boast to friends and family for many years. I was born in Gateshead and wanted to remain part of the city”. Another has said, “It was so exciting to be involved in such an arts project – it isn’t often that an opportunity like this one is afforded to the general public”. This level of involvement and lack of elitism is healthy and refreshing – long may it continue.

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