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Baltic exhibition offers a crazy travel experience

Head for Baltic and be reborn into the curious world of Heather Phillipson. David Whetstone made the trip

Colin Davison The Heather Phillipson exhibition at Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art
The Heather Phillipson exhibition at Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art

The little girl at Baltic gripped her mother’s hand and said: “Mummy, what’s that?”

It’s a question that puts every   parent on the spot. On the threshold of a contemporary art installation – particularly one with a sign warning of some adult language – it’s particularly challenging.

Alas, I didn’t catch Mummy’s answer. At Baltic, as in every modern art gallery, even adults are not guaranteed to know exactly what’s what.

Heather Phillipson’s ground floor installation is called ‘Yes, surprising is existence in the post-vegetal cosmorama’.

But I don’t imagine the little girl would have been satisfied with: “Well, dear, that is ‘Yes, surprising is existence in the post-vegetal cosmorama’.”

As we entered the psychedlic entrance to the Phillipson artwork – a twisty, ascending passage with red walls, blue floor and subdued lighting – we all (me, the little girl’s family and a few others) fell silent and let the artist do the talking.

Heather Phillipson, who was born and lives in London, is not an artist of few words. Her titles are lengthy – as in ‘immediately and for a short time balloons weapons too-tight clothing worries of all kinds’ – and her film voiceovers are poetic but persistent. She lulls you in a soporific style before administering a vocal slap to wake you up.

The twisty passage opened out into a sort of holding area with cushions below and a screen above. Some teenagers were lounging on the cushions. I don’t think they were part of the installation, but they seemed very happy to be there.

On the screen the words of the  very long title appeared in sequence over footage of a hand turning the pages of an atlas and various idealised holiday scenes. Occasionally cartoon balloons would float up the screen. On being delivered into comparative light and looking back, it became evident we had been reborn – spread “thighs” on either side of the exit door represented by two jolly big bananas.

And what kind of world was this where a speedboat equipped with yet another screen rode the crest of   a large consignment of bottled   water?

Heather Phillipson’s world, that’s what. She has, I deduced, a thing about travel. I would imagine she has mixed views about holidays, ever sensitive to the good and the bad.

She must also have a thing about hygiene – much footage here of hand washing and teeth cleaning. After the speedboat, the motorcar. “That, my dear, is a Peugeot 406 saloon.”

Indeed it was, painted bright yellow and equipped with yet another screen, which happened to be the front windscreen. Sit in the car and watch (and listen to) the artist’s account of a very personal and not at all enviable trip to France.

The teenagers, if they left it too   late to transfer their lounging to the car, would kick themselves, I reflected.

The Peugeot is central to the artwork called ‘A is to D what E is to H’. Out of the torrent of words one phrase stuck with me: “The world is full of abandoned meanings.” It seemed apt.

So often at Baltic it seems the meaning was the bit that got lost when the art was being taken out of the crate.

That’s not to knock Heather  Phillipson’s installation, which sits below two floors devoted to the  prolific German artist Thomas Scheibitz. It packs a lot into a  small space, provides a comfortable refuge for young people with time on their hands and engages all the senses.

See it at Baltic until September 22 and check www.balticmill.com for details of summer activities.

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