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Artists seize the chance to experiment at Baltic 39

Exhibitions at Baltic run for months, at Baltic 39 the approach is different as David Wheststone found out

Ella Finer with her “0” sound installation
Ella Finer with her “0” sound installation

Eleven exhibitions in five weeks is the promise at Baltic 39, the little Newcastle cousin of Gateshead’s big Baltic. It sounds like the exhibition equivalent of a flip book - blink and you’ll miss it.

But everyone at Baltic is very excited about Figure One, as this torrent of artistic presentations has been titled.

Assistant curator Will Cooper explained: “We fancied doing a very experimental group exhibition with a high chance of failure. Failure in art can be very interesting.

“We wanted to give artists an opportunity in a public environment to try out ideas.

 

“As a practising artist it can be very difficult to know what a piece of art will look like outside the studio. You might not want to show something for three months if you’re not sure about it.”

So the offer was made to artists everywhere - five days to exhibit and tinker around in a public art gallery with a day either side to install the work and then take it down (assuming, presumably, it hasn’t fallen down already).

It must have touched a chord. As Will recalled: “We had an overwhelming response - 300-and-something applications from all over the world, including quite a few from the North East.

“In the end we had to turn down some shows which we thought sounded really promising. That was sad. On the other hand, it did give us confidence that the projects we picked were potentially very good.

“Because of the split nature of the space (Baltic 39 offers a pair of galleries side by side) we knew we would have two shows running at the same time so it was also about picking projects that would complement each other.”

The fact that Baltic 39 was “newer, less high profile and a little bit less visible” than Baltic - although “still very much open” - suited Figure One extremely well. This was the work - by artists often in the early stages of their careers - that might lead to the big exhibition that makes their name.

 

The three initial Figure One shows opened on Wednesday and the first one you’ll encounter - possibly the easiest to miss - is the only one that will run for the entire five weeks.

It is called O and it is a sound installation by Ella Finer who prefers, she said, to be out of the picture, letting her sound-based creations speak for her.

A little ironic, you might think, since the last time she was in Newcastle she was highly audible and visible, standing on stage at the 02 Academy with The Pogues, singing their famous anthem Fairytale of New York. Ella’s dad, Jem Finer, co-founded The Pogues with Shane MacGowan.

We tracked Ella down to The Stand bistro next door to Baltic 39 where she was having lunch with her baby on her knee.

She smiled at the memory of her Newcastle performance, stepping into the singing role made famous by Kirsty MacColl who, tragically, was killed by a speedboat off Mexico in 2000.

Ella said she had been a bit reluctant to do it. “But I was doing this study of the voice at the time and I thought this was someone I’d known all my life and I loved her voice and I loved that song. I knew what it meant to my dad and Shane, who co-wrote it, and it was very familiar work.

“I’m not famous so I felt as if I was a stand-in for a voice. I was like a channel for Kirsty and I found that so fascinating.”

Part of the appeal of working with the voice, she said, was that “you don’t have to appear or be a presence”.

Graeme Durant, The Gate of The Kiss
Graeme Durant, The Gate of The Kiss

This is the case with O which features the voice of another friend, singer Debsey Wyke who, with new wave band Dolly Mixture, provided backing vocals for Captain Sensible on 1982 hit Happy Talk.

Ella asked Debsey to improvise the ballad of Ophelia as she descends into madness in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. This she did with no pre-planning or rehearsal. The spontaneous performance was recorded on a fragile acetate record which will play repeatedly in the Baltic 39 foyer until it runs out.

Acetate records were made for demos. They were not made to last. Ella said she had no idea how long it would take for O to fade away but deterioration of the sound quality was inevitable.

At a closing ‘listening party’ on October 6, when Will and Ella will discuss the project, you will be able to listen to a condensed version of O’s descent into inaudibilty.

Upstairs, meanwhile, Ben Sansbury and Graeme Durant were working on their exhibitions, not so much putting the finishing touches as fiddling with longer term goals in mind.

Ben, who is very tall, was bending over something you might expect to find in a lab rather than a gallery. It was, he explained, an ultrasonic transducer, a device that converts energy into ultrasound and has applications in industry and medicine.

In his initial submission, he had explained his desire to bring 0 gravity to Baltic 39. “I will do this by producing a standing soundwave using an ultrasonic speaker reflecting between itself and a metallic plate,” he had written.

“When the correct wavelength/frequency is achieved it will be possible to levitate and hold small polystyrene objects in the space between the speaker and the metal plate.”

His plan, he confessed, was “slightly Heath Robinson-esque”. Baltic gave him the thumbs up and here it was, the tiny dancing polystyrene balls filmed and projected onto the gallery’s far wall where they resembled the props of an invisible juggler.

Ben, assisted by computer engineer Peter Mackenzie, was “super-excited” about his experiment. He drew me a diagram showing soundwaves as a series of doughnut-like shapes and Peter explained that the soundwave properties acoustic engineers strive to counter when developing new recording studios or concert halls were crucial to the effect he and Ben were trying to achieve.

Ben told me a story about a German anthropologist who, in the 1930s, had been amazed to see some Tibetan monks apparently causing rocks to levitate by using Tibetan horns and drums.

Ben, with an interest in myth and reality and curious about whether ancient peoples could create effects we assume to be the preserve of modern technology, was up and running.

“I’m very keen to integrate some of this technology into my art,” he said.

“Baltic 39 has been great because I don’t think I’d be able to do this anywhere else.”

Next door, Graeme, who is from Whitley Bay, was surrounded by large sculptures brought from his Newcastle studio as he scrutinised the largest of them, resembling an unadorned, rough-and-ready gate or bridge.

This was, he said, a version of The Gate of the Kiss, one of Romanian artist Constantin Brancusi’s memorials to compatriots who died in the First World War.

Brancusi’s monument stands in the Romanian city of Targu Jiu. Graeme’s is likely to be dismantled over the course of the exhibition as he considers the direction of his artistic practice.

“I’ve read a lot of books on the artists I like,” he said. “I always come back to Brancusi.”

The revered artist lived for most of his life in France where he carved many sculptures and a reputation as one of the fathers of modernism. He died in 1957.

Ben’s and Graeme’s exhibitions can be seen at Baltic 39, 31-39 High Bridge, Newcastle, until Sunday. Admission is free and the gallery is open Wednesday to Sunday, 12 noon to 6pm (8pm Thursdays). The next exhibitions - by Andrew Lacon and the ARKA Group (Ben Jeans Houghton and Matthew de Kersaint Giraudeau) - open next Wednesday.

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