London has its Gherkin and now Gateshead has one too – as the centrepiece of an art exhibition opening today at Baltic.
But whereas The Gherkin beside the Thames is really a skyscraper and could be likened to lots of other things, the gherkin beside the Tyne looks like... a gherkin.
It was made by artist Graeme Durant out of chicken wire, tennis balls and other materials and it rotates on a plinth at the centre of his debut exhibition at the centre for contemporary art.
Graeme doesn’t call it a plinth, though. He calls it a ziggurat after the massive, pyramid-like structures to be found in the ancient land of Mesopotamia, incorporating parts of modern Iran, Iraq, Syria and Kuwait.
Often in fast food outlets, he says, it’s the hotdog or burger that gets pride of place. “But the gherkin is the unsung hero and that’s why I’ve put one up there.”
Graeme, who grew up in Whitley Bay and lives in Newcastle, is one of a select group of North East artists who have been granted an exhibition at Baltic, which prides itself on showing the best from across the world.
He is also the latest to have graduated from Baltic 39 – formerly known as Waygood – on Newcastle’s High Bridge and which Baltic now runs as a gallery for up-and-coming artists and those who wish to experiment.
Graeme’s work was in a group show there last year. Part of his contribution was a rough-and-ready version of a famous war memorial designed by Romanian artist Constantin Brancusi.
He draws his subject matter from the sublime to the ridiculous and accepts that some people might judge his art to be one or the other.
“I like my work to be accessible to people on one level but there are also quite a lot of references here to art history and architecture,” he said at Baltic.
“There are puns, too, which I like. Some of the things I do are a pastiche of work by artists I admire.
“People might like the circular entrance to the gallery but it is meant to be like a Chinese temple. They believe that if you go through a circular entrance it makes you open minded. I hope people will be open minded when they come in here.”
A multi-coloured column from floor to ceiling references Roman architecture, as does the exhibition’s punning title, When in Roam.
“It’s because I roam through my practice with various lines of inquiry and using different materials,” Graeme explained.
As well as the rotating gherkin, there is a wall-mounted exhibit made from a Venetian blind which repeatedly flicks opens and closed to reveal different paintings of a lucky cat – a common image across Asia, according to Graeme.
High on the opposite wall there is a flashing eyebrow which references a work by the octogenarian American artist John Baldessari who “finds photographs and manipulates them”.
Graeme finds things, too. According to Baltic’s literature, he “appropriates everyday materials with a collage mentality” and gives them new meaning through a process of “recycling, improvisation and low-tech construction”.
One of the most startling examples of his recycling is the old rug that has been stiffened into a shape resembling a very grand vase.
“This was a lucky find,” he said. “I found it in a back lane in Heaton, an old Persian rug. It was next to a pair of pretty decent trainers.
“I didn’t feel right taking the trainers but the rug was perfect because of the thousands of years of tradition it represents.
“It sort of stunk of cigarettes – I think it was from a house clearance. But I aired it out in the studio before covering it in resin.”
Other exhibits feature casts of Graeme’s hands making Italian gestures, rubber brains and a baseball cap, this slung over a painting done in homage to Van Gogh’s famous painting of a chair.
Graeme, who studied art at Newcastle College and Northumbria University, was delighted to be offered the Baltic show.
“It is really brilliant for me,” he said. “I hope it will make other things happen.”
When In Roam runs in Baltic’s Level 2 gallery space until February 22 next year.