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‘Stepping Softly on the Earth’

This exhibition brings together work by twenty artists from around the world, intending to prompt reflection on how humans interact with the natural world.

Two installations particularly stood out to me.

This is Kaal (Time), a 2023 work by Kamruzzaman Shadhin and the Gidree Bawlee Foundation of Arts, which Shadhin founded. It’s a striking collection of seven hand-woven jute sculptures on aluminium frames. They are captured performing Bishahari Pala, a folk theatre work.

The work effectively combines a representation of the land and the people it sustains. There is something quite endearing about the characters; they look like they must have taken many hours to weave.

This is part of a dynamic water installation called Templo del agua, río Tyne by Leonel Vásquez of Colombia. Drops of purified water from the River Tyne fell through the complicated apparatus and created musical notes, which were both audible and physically sensed through the vibration of the benches.

Rocks from the Tyne hung around the space, which Vásquez describes as a ‘temple’.

Despite being in the middle of a crowded gallery of works, the combination of water and acoustics made this space feel quasi-religious or meditative. It was a quite captivating piece.

Stepping Softly on the Earth continues at Baltic until 14 April.

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‘The Waiting Gardens of the North’

Having recently seen Connecting Histories, This botanical art installation by Michael Rakowitz ought to have held particular resonance. Like Connecting Histories, there’s a plant-based exploration of colonialism. However, The Waiting Gardens of the North intends to reflect current, rather than historical, experiences.

By planting a ‘garden’ in which different plants are at different stages of the life cycle, Rakowitz intends to explore the strange ‘pause’ in life caused by waiting for asylum applications to be processed: a time when people are caught between the past and an uncertain future.

The central feature of the installation is a collage made of food packaging from local West Asian, South Asian and African grocery stores.

But honestly, I’m telling you most of that from reading the interpretation panels. I don’t think I’d have derived it for myself in a month of Sundays. Wendy commented that it felt like wandering around a particularly good garden department in a branch of B&Q, and I find it hard to disagree.

The nature of art means that, sometimes, the artist’s vision for an installation won’t meaningfully connect with some viewers. This was the case for me with this one. I don’t think I would ever have appreciated that Rakowitz was aiming for ‘a metaphorical space where the potential for growth, transformation, and resistance can take root.’

But that’s okay because I’m sure some viewers will love it.

The Waiting Gardens of the North continues at Baltic until 26 May.

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I’ve visited the Chris Killip retrospective

Before I visited this exhibition, I had no idea who Chris Killip was: perhaps that makes me too ignorant to have an opinion on this major retrospective of his work.

If you are as clueless as me, then I should explain that he was one of the most celebrated and important post-war documentary photographers of the UK. He was especially known for his 1980s photography of Tyneside, published in a landmark book called In Flagrante in 1988. His work intended to show, as he put it, ‘not those who made history, but those who had history done to them.’ He was born on the Isle of Man in 1946 and died from lung cancer in 2020.

Killip was a co-founder at the original creator of the Side Gallery in Newcastle, which—with unbelievable timing—closed due to a lack of funding in April 2023, while this major retrospective exhibition was running just a stone’s throw away.

When I visited last week, a couple of months into the run, the exhibition was heaving. It was like something at the British Museum. The place was packed.

I’m waffling. And I’m waffling because I’m trying to minimise the fact that this sort of photography does very little for me. I don’t feel any emotional connection to it, and I don’t feel drawn to it. It just isn’t my kind of thing. I much preferred the personality and humour on display in Mark Pinder’s retrospective earlier this year. I also wasn’t keen on the decision to display the photos in glass frames in a brightly lit environment, which meant that reflections made them—in a very practical sense—quite hard to actually see.

I’m trying to minimise that because I don’t want to put you off. Even The Telegraph—the newspaper least likely to enjoy photographs of poor people from the North—gave it four stars. The interest and joy that the photographs in this exhibition inspired in other visitors was greater than anything else I’ve seen this year, bar Vermeer. I don’t to hold back anyone from having that kind of experience… even if it didn’t have that effect on me.

The Chris Killip retrospective continues at the Baltic until 3 September.

The picture at the top is my photograph of Killip’s photograph called Bus Stop I. I chose this entirely because the name reminded me of Diamond Geezer’s detailed coverage of Bus Stop M. This probably says something about my level of engagement with the work.

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I’ve been to see ‘Wayfinder’ by Larry Achiampong

This is a massive exhibition by the British-Ghanaian artist Larry Achiampong, including everything from a feature-length film (showing five times daily) to a collection of (I think) twelve computer games, even a shelf of books to sit and read. One could easily spend days in this exhibition and still not see all the work. My brief visit barely scratched the surface.

Achiampong’s work explores our sense of identity. The scope is broad, incorporating everything from the way our identities can entrench inequality through class or cultural displacement, through to digital constructs of identity.

The most immediately arresting bits of work in the exhibition are from Achiampong’s Relic Traveller series, which includes a series of life-size space suits throughout the gallery. The narrative behind these is that they represent African travellers collecting the relics of their colonial past, found in the West.

I was also taken with a video installation in this series, Reliquary 2, which reflects on Achiampong’s separation from his children during the covid lockdowns. It features edited drone footage of Brighton’s ruined pier, among other sites, with cartoon space people overlaid. The audio features Achiampong directly addressing his children.

The installation Detention, shown in the photograph above, also caught my eye. This is partly inspired by the opening titles of The Simpsons, and partly reflects the way that politicians and social media posters repeat certain key phrases endlessly.

Yet, from the whole exhibition, the thing that struck me most was the atmosphere. Achiampong’s work is personal, he features his family in several pieces, and his work invites visitors to sit on beanbags or benches to watch video installations, to play computer games, to sit on maps, to take books from a shelf and read them. Somehow, whether it’s the work or the curation, the impression is unusually inviting, oddly warm-hearted. I thoroughly enjoyed my visit.

Wayfinder continues at The Baltic until 29 October.

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I’ve been to see ‘The Art of Disco’ by Mul

Alex Mulholland is a Newcastle-based street artist, known as Mul, who is perhaps best known for his famous ‘running heart’ character. There is a vibrant, cartoonish, playful aspect to his work, which he has coined ‘disco style’. His work is seen in many locations in the North East, and he also has pieces in Rome, Berlin, and Amsterdam.

I’ve been to see his very short-run ‘pop-up takeover’ exhibition, which is as playful as you’d expect from his work. There was a mobile interactive element to the exhibition—one could point one’s phone at pieces, and they would ‘come to life’. I’m afraid I didn’t engage, preferring to look at the work with my eyes rather than through a phone screen.

Perhaps because I didn’t engage with that element, I’ll confess that the whole thing felt a tiny bit flat to me. It’s great to see Mul getting recognition, but seeing a load of his work collected together in a gallery isn’t nearly as fun as happening across it in ‘the real world’.

I did, however, enjoy the video installation showing the creation of one of his street works, and I enjoyed the way he had brought the ephemera of the real world—signs, tyres, etc—into the gallery.

The three-day pop-up of ‘The Art of Disco’ continues at the Baltic, but only until tomorrow.

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I’ve seen Hew Locke: The Procession

Wendy and I went along to see this 2022 Tate Britain commission which is currently being exhibited at the Baltic. It’s an installation made up of over 100 life-size figures, each elaborately dressed, waving flags or wearing masks or carrying banners or playing the drums or riding a horse or any number of other protest- or procession-like activities.

The first impression is one of overwhelm: there is just far too much to take in, even as you wander around and between the groups of figures. The more each figure is considered, the more startling details meet the eye: a share certificate here, a colonial map there, prints of troubling artworks in between, topped with some imagery of royalty. It’s a lot.

And really, that was as far as we got with it: there were too many ideas all at once to really feel like it was saying anything in particular. The work that has gone into the piece is astounding, but we didn’t really have any profound reaction to it. We didn’t leave the exhibition with a different view on the world.

In the Baltic setting, unlike in Tate Britain, a balcony allows visitors to consider the work from above. This has the secondary effect of visitors considering the figures appearing to become part of the procession themselves, when viewed from this angle. This probably changes the work in an interesting way, but it’s hard to know for sure when this is the only setting I’ve seen it in.

The Procession remains at the Baltic until 11 June.

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I’ve been to visit ‘Hinterlands’

According to the blurb, ‘Hinterlands is a group exhibition that invites us to consider our relationship with the land and its ecosystems’. It features work from Michelle Allen, Uma Breakdown, Jo Coupe, Laura Harrington, Emily Hesse, Alexandra Hughes, Mani Kambo, Dawn Felicia Knox, Sheree Angela Matthews, Anne Vibeke Mou, Sabina Wallis and Foundation Press.

There were two installations which particularly struck me, neither of them featured in the picture at the top of this post, demonstrating that I’m not a brilliant blogger.

Laura Harrington’s Fieldworking was a 2020 video installation featuring a group of artists spending time with an ecologist in the Upper Teesdale National Nature Reserve. Something about the combination of the familiarity of a rainy walk in the middle of nowhere with the meditative pace of the video gave it a slightly trippy quality. It made me think about the passage of time, and how the human perspective on time is bounded by our experience and the length of our lives. To the extent that they have one, the perspective on time experienced by much longer-lived organisms like trees or bogs would be vastly different. It was a novel way of reminding me of the need to ‘zoom out’ sometimes from everyday concerns, and see how trivial they really are in the wider scheme of things.

Dawn Felicia Knox’s The Felling was a 2022 installation, which included a video component. She had taken videos of different parts of the local suburb of Felling, once very industrialised, showing the natural succession of plants on the industrial sites. Two of these films were projected simultaneously onto makeshift screens and sheets at odd angles, meaning that the images were broken over multiple surfaces and the two films were, in part, overlaid on one another in interesting ways. This made me think about perspectives on the natural world. It reminded me of how nature isn’t static, but is constantly shifting and changing, even if we can’t always see it.

The exhibition is presented in its own typeface—Hinterlands—designed by Foundation Press. I wasn’t initially very taken by this, until I realised that each letter form has multiple versions, each progressing from a fairly traditional letter form to one covered in extensive plant growth… which is clever.

’Hinterlands’ continues at the Baltic until 30 April.

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I’ve been to visit ‘Mythmachine’ by Sahej Rahal

On Christmas Day, Wendy and I caught a few minutes of Big Hero 6, a Disney film that was new to both of us. In the part we saw, the main character Hiro unveils microbots he has invented, which can cluster together to form impressive machines.

Rahal’s installation reminded me of that. The main room contains three large animalistic sculptures, which look imagined and lumpy, as though they may be made of microbots. The walls have projections of similar animals / machines which respond in unexpected ways to the ambient noise in the room, and music syncs to their movement. Weirdly shaped beanbags litter the floor, on which ‘players’ are invited to sit and fully immerse themselves in the ‘biome’. Reader, I did not.

The second space contains some printed artworks and six tabletop sized sculptures in similar forms to the large ones in the first room. Touching these produces sounds from hidden speakers.

According to the blurb, ‘Mythmachine is a site for the rehearsal of cohabitation between human and non-human systems through speech, song and rhythm.’ I didn’t get any of that from it, or really much of anything else, but then I’m obviously no good at art galleries.

’Mythmachine’ continues at the Baltic until 12 February.

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I’ve been to visit ‘Land of Friends’ by Carolina Caycedo

I wasn’t familiar with Caycedo’s work before visiting this survey exhibition. Her practice considers the connections between nature and humankind, with a particular focus on drawing parallels between natural forces and human protest movements.

The exhibition is mostly beneath Plomo y Brea, an arresting set of nine traditional circular fishing nets suspended from the ceiling. The title—translated as lead and tar—reveals some commonly used components. Caycedo reflects that these can be used responsibly and endlessly recycled—as by the fishermen—or as sources of conflict, or weapons in those conflicts.

A large triptych video installation, Patron Mono, illustrates the relationship between a community and its river, with the extraction of both fish and gold but only at a rate which preserves the river’s natural beauty. There was something physically representative about the way in which it wasn’t quite possible to turn one’s back completely on any of the three videos, helped by the integrated soundscape.

I also found inspiration in the video installation Spaniards Named Her Magdelena, But Natives Call Her Yuma, which juxtaposed imagery of rivers and dams with urban protest marches. Just as water will always win over dams on a planetary timescale, perhaps society always progresses in the end, too. At least we can hope it does.

I was less taken by Caycedo’s inclusion of Durham Gala Banners and the like. I had intended a short rant in this post about a pandering connection of the exhibition to its location. It turns out that I’m just an idiot: I missed the fact that these artefacts were represented in Caycedo’s Tyne Catchment, exhibited exactly opposite them. I’m obviously no good at art galleries.

’Land of Friends’ continues at the Baltic until 29 January.

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