I was visiting Newcastle last weekend and decided to take a trip across the Tyne to The Baltic Flour Mill gallery.
The space has kept it’s industrial feel while remaining calm, bright and spacious. We took the glass elevator to the top floor and took some time to appreciate the view over the quayside.
Moving down to the floor below we came across an installation by artist Fiona Tan. We were confronted by a vast articulated lorry with the words “Jonah The Giant Whale” printed on the side. Upon walking around the vehicle we found the side canvas to be open with steps to enter. Inside there was a collection of curiosities; a huge narwhal tusk in a case on the wall, and several glass-topped cases housing tiny glass sculptures of marine flora. These beautiful models were crafted by Leopold & Rudolf Bruschka, in 1870, from glass, plaster and wire. The detail and intricacy of their construction was breath-taking and I was surprised the pieces were so old as the colours were so vibrant. I appreciated the concept of a 3D version of a botanical illustration.
At the far end of the truck was a viewing area for a video installation. The images were of bell jars containing ancient animal and plant specimens. The narration spoke in the third person of man questioning how he viewed the world but I did not watch enough to gain more insight.
The work was titled DEPOT and was a re-imagining of the ‘Jonah the Giant Whale’ travelling show, a preserved whale exhibited inside a lorry which toured across Europe from the 50’s-70’s. This was inspired by the largely forgotten fact that Newcastle was once a major whaling port.
Level 3 housed another installation from Tan. The gallery statement read as follows:
“Disorient2009 juxtaposes fantasy and the reality of the trade route between Venice and Asia, with a voiceover comprised solely of evocative quotes from Marco Polo’s 700-year-old book The Travels. Inventory 2012 was filmed at Sir John Soane’s Museum in London and presents intimate details of the celebrated architect’s personal collection, which is housed in one of the most extraordinary public museums in the world. A contemplative visual essay, Inventory explores Tan’s preoccupation with time, memory and place, and is as much a meditation on the human impulse to collect as a reflection on Tan’s artistic practice to date”
Walking into the vast room displaying the two films was at once impressive. It was a huge dark space, with a few bean bags for viewers scattered in the centre, while two projections played simultaneously at opposite ends of the room. The effect of viewing both films was, as intended, disorientating. At one end we were taken on a quiet, fluid tour of a museum depot with the gentle narration of Marco Polo’s memoir. But when you turned to the other video the images were disjointed, fast paced and gritty. Depictions of war, poverty and bustling streets.
I see how the artist was trying to draw links between a romanticised history and a contemporary reality of a place. By presenting the viewer with these two examples of experience and memory we are encouraged to consider that neither is ‘correct’, that both are real and valid but also disparate.
I can appreciate the message behind this work however I did not find the delivery particularly skilful, engaging or imaginative. Despite understanding I did not enjoy.
On Level 2 was an exhibition of works by Jack Lavender. The artist makes use of found and commercial imagery in collage and assemblage work. Some of the pieces were site specific sculptures making use of the height of the space. Enormous pieces of vinyl printed with grainy repeat patterns were draped from the ceiling or ‘screwed up’ and attached to the walls. Much of this work washed over me however there was one idea which caught my attention. Lavender had used a wide range of media – sand, paint, glue, stickers, toner and more – to adorn the inside of glass window casings. This concept was in reference to a childhood ritual whereby Jack would walk past an abandoned industrial area on his way home from school. Each day he would add some kind of new trinket or decoration to the battered windows. The thought of this interested me as it were as though his ritual was being revived so that others may finally view it and know the man behind it.
The final installation is a site-specific permanent piece by Mark Wallinger, entitled “Heaven & Hell”. It consists of two huge mirrors positioned at the ceiling and floor of the spiralling staircase which travels through the centre of the building. This creates the illusion of the staircase continuing forever, warping into the distance and conjuring a sense of dizziness in the viewer. This incredibly simple idea adds a sense of magic to an otherwise plain space.
Article images – primary observation
Gallery statements – http://www.balticmill.com/
Featured image – http://exo.org.uk/photos2/i139