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Art group dreams up a new nation with a new anthem

Newcastle-based Skimstone Arts has been considering the First World War and its links with the modern world

A Natural Anthem is a specially commissioned, poignant and humorous anthem led performance and multi-art form installation from Skimstone Arts
A Natural Anthem is a specially commissioned, poignant and humorous anthem led performance and multi-art form installation from Skimstone Arts

A new nation will be born tonight and, naturally, it will have an anthem... A Natural Anthem.

This, in fact, is the title of the latest, project from Skimstone Arts, which describes itself as “a multi-disciplinary arts organisation which produces collaborative, socially engaging artworks, performances and exhibitions”.

What with nation-building and an anthem – to get its first public airing at a procession tonight to which all are invited – you might think Skimstone has arrived at its finest hour.

But artistic director Claire Webster Saaremets smiles and says no, actually Skimstone Arts does this sort of thing all the time. She was in Hungary only recently, working in accordance with Skimstone principles of social engagement and creativity.

This project, involving the procession, the anthem and an exhibition at Newcastle Arts Centre, came out of the company’s research into the First World War. Delving into the archives at the Discovery Museum, they were looking for something to spark their collective imagination.

A Natural Anthem is a specially commissioned, poignant and humorous anthem led performance and multi-art form installation from Skimstone Arts
A Natural Anthem is a specially commissioned, poignant and humorous anthem led performance and multi-art form installation from Skimstone Arts
 

“We were all interested in the centenary year but we wanted to take a contemporary view rather than look just at the tragic event itself,” says Claire.

“We wanted to be respectful of the war but to look at some of the issues that are still relevant today.”

As so often happens with this sort of project, one thing led to another. Or, rather, several things led to several other things.

Claire recalls the Skimstone eye alighting on “some wonderful photographs of people growing vegetables in a park”.

The photos were taken on the home front during the First World War but they struck a chord, reminding the Skimstone researchers of the way people pull together in times of hardship and austerity (a word in common usage recently).

It also put a century-old spin on the modern healthy eating message.

A poem also came into the equation. This was Isaac Rosenburg’s Returning, We Hear Larks, a famous and moving poem written months before the poet, a private in The King’s Own Royal Lancaster Regiment, was killed after a night patrol on April 1, 1918.

Larks, which brought joy to Rosenberg’s soldier, also returning from night patrol, are in decline across the country. Fired up by the vegetable growers and Rosenberg’s larks, the Skimstoners started to assemble the components of this latest artistic enterprise.

A Natural Anthem, they say, “explores the impact of threat, harnessing of community action during World War One and today’s fight to protect the natural world... including the demise of the lark”.

In truth, it is a bit all over the place, for which Claire isn’t about to apologise. She tells me about a failed attempt to access the Grade II-listed ‘sound mirror’ at Fulwell Mill in Sunderland.

This relic of a pre-radar age was designed to provide early warning of German Zeppelin raids on the North East coast. The idea was that the approaching engine sound, focused onto a receiver, would give anti-aircraft defences 15 minutes to prepare.

Claire was luckier in her purchase via eBay of a mighty satellite dish. “It was the only one in the whole country on eBay and it was in Chester-le-Street – and it was green! There’s been a lot of serendipity in this project,” she says.

Gleefully she secured the dish for a fiver. The bemused vendor might be even more bemused to see it transformed into a ‘garden of remembrance’ in the Newcastle Arts Centre exhibition. Visitors will be invited to plant wild flower seeds in it and leave a wish, a poem or a thought about a loved one.

The exhibition, since the project moved on to consider sinister themes such as propaganda and surveillance, also features Lark Radio – set up in a customised garden shed – with coded messages embedded in its ‘programmes’.

Along one gallery wall are modern photos made to look a century old and with rival captions supposedly written from a Government and a community prespective. Is the girl a petty thief or someone who gives food to the poor? As so often, it depends who’s asking.

With funding from the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, Claire was able to assemble a team of arts professionals to work on A Natural Anthem and to contract some of the young people who contribute to and benefit from Skimstone projects.

Tonight’s preview is from 6-8pm at Black Swan Court, 67 Westgate Road, with a procession and first airing of the anthem at 7pm. The free exhibition runs until August 9.

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