The sun was shining and that has to be the best way to enjoy Daniel Buren’s transformation of Baltic with coloured light and mirrors.
Waiting to interview the Frenchman in the contemporary art centre’s Level 4 gallery proved a pleasurable experience.
It was like being inside a giant kaleidoscope as the sun, filtered through the freshly tinted skylight windows, threw pretty patterns on the floor.
You don’t have to be an expert to understand that ‘pretty patterns’ is not a phrase normally bandied around in the contemporary art world. But here, surely, was an artist whose purpose was to make us all feel happy?
Daniel Buren – “considered to be France’s greatest living artist”, according to Baltic – smiled generously while choosing his words carefully.
His work, he said, was about “a relationship with colour where, I think, the effect can often be a kind of joy.
“But my first interest is to play with the colours and to use the quality of the colour as a very important material.”
If the result was an antidote to “the pretty dark world in which we live”, then he reckoned he could live with that. But light, he suggested, could also be used to the opposite effect, just like any other art material.
The artist said his purpose here had been to respond to the space. He had made a site visit 18 months ago, casting his eye over the challenges or opportunities it presented (Daniel Buren, I quickly deduced, is more of an ‘opportunities’ man).
“It was essential, especially for a large exhibition like this,” he said. “If I had not seen the place, I certainly would not have got the idea for something like this. I wouldn’t have known to use the skylights.”
Some artists seem to shrink in the beautiful but vast spaces at Baltic. Here is one who clearly did not.
In Level 3 the skylight windows are covered in film – what the artist calls ‘gels’ – in seven different colours, applied to the grid of glass panes in alphabetical order.
In other languages, he explained gleefully, the sequence would be different.
On the ground he then placed a series of mirrors, angled to catch and reflect the light. Memorably, he described this new and improvised artwork as “a huge ping pong of colours”.
Glancing up at the vividly decorated window panes, his face darkened briefly as yet another pigeon threatened to add its own unwanted daub. The birds had failed to be sufficiently deterred by plastic bags tied up to flap in the wind and frighten them away.
Not only has the artist transformed Level 3 but he has also coloured the windows of the Tyne Bridge-facing wall of the building with huge coloured shapes, meaning the stairwells and passages of Baltic are bathed in similar washes of coloured light.
You can understand why Daniel Buren has been on Baltic’s radar for a long time. Regarded as one of the most influential figures in contemporary art for the last 50 years, he has exhibited no fewer than 10 times at the prestigious Venice Biennale exhibition.
The 50-year reference drew a humorous grimace of disbelief. “That’s half a century!” he said.
In all that time, he said, the only thing that had remained the same was his fondness for the stripe – and, to be specific, a stripe that is precisely 8.7cm wide. This has been his signature mark since the very early days and you will see it Baltic, too, notably as a border around those specially constructed mirrors.
It was born of pragmatism rather than some whim. “That was the dimension of the first linen I used when I did printing. I had some left and kept it for other things but it has a rhythm to it, one white stripe and then a coloured one, and it has become a visual tool.”
He likened his use of the recurrent stripe to a pianist sitting down to perform. It was always a piano he played but the results could be very different
Daniel Buren is also that rare creature, an artist without a studio. “I quit,” he said, “in the second half of the 60s, for economic reasons. It was so difficult to find a place and I realised that most artists have, maybe, this habit – they think if you’re an artist, you need a place to work.”
Having struggled with a place in Paris that was expensive and dingy and depressing, he decided to break the habit. “I threw open the door and I never went back.”
For a while he worked in the outdoors, sometimes as a street artist, and soon he realised he didn’t need a studio at all. As he put it: “Little by little, I didn’t see any more the necessity for a specific space.”
Since his art is about transforming places rather than hanging his work in them, it makes sense to work in the space. At Baltic, with its vast resources, this proved to be a particularly sensible and rewarding approach.
Level 3 is devoted to new new, wall-mounted works and others created during the last seven years.
In an offshoot gallery at the back you can see pieces made with a new type of material woven with optic fibre. The artist explained that this was the invention of a French company which also makes the fabric which covers the nose cones of rockets.
“The the only application so far of this material is in my work,” he said.
Daniel Buren’s exhibition, Catch as catch can: works in situ, is at Baltic until October 12. www.balticmill.com