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Preview: Geological Etiquette at Mining Institute, Newcastle

One of Newcastle’s oldest institutions has inspired new artwork to be unveiled this weekend as part of the Late Shows.

Artist Mair Hughes, with some of her work at the Mining Institute in Newcastle
Artist Mair Hughes, with some of her work at the Mining Institute in Newcastle

One of Newcastle’s oldest institutions has inspired new artwork to be unveiled this weekend as part of the Late Shows. BARBARA HODGSON had a preview

IF you visit the Mining Institute in Newcastle this weekend during The Late Shows, you will be greeted not only by the sight of the beautiful stained glass windows, panelling and carvings, but also pineapple-shaped “lamps” hanging from the vaulted ceiling and quirkily patterned sculptures on the table tops.

These new additions to (and inspired by) those rarefied surroundings are the work of two artists, Mair Hughes and Bridget Kennedy, and, under the title Geological Etiquette, they will make their debut on Saturday night as part of the annual Late Shows event which will see the Victorian building join other venues across the city centre and Gateshead opening after dark.

On display in the upstairs library until June 21, these sculptures are the latest chapter in a joint project between London-based Hughes and Kennedy, who lives in Allenheads, Northumberland.

Kennedy, who did her fine art degree in Newcastle and has lived here more than 20 years, met Hughes while studying for an MA at Glasgow School of Art.

Their project, Utopian Realism, has personal connections for both. In Hughes’ case, past work has been influenced by social reformer Robert Owens, who came from her native Newtown in Wales.

Kennedy, meanwhile, has found inspiration in 19th Century mining engineer and philanthropist Thomas Sopwith, from Allenheads, whose family ran a furniture-making firm in Newcastle.

That influence is reflected here in her flamboyant and playful white and black-pattern sculptures.

Positioned on one of the library’s 12ft long tables made by the Sopwith family firm, they’re shapes based on the wonderfully elaborate font exemplified by the word “strata” which appears on the front-plate of a geology book by Sopwith.

Constructed by “layers” of plaster over polystyrene, their patterns echo that of rock strata. At first glance, visitors might not realise the letters are split, sitting half on top and half below the table.

“I want to be quite ambiguous,” says Kennedy, “and I like that idea of a formal appearance above the table when anything can be going on underneath.”

She’s also come up with an imaginative take on a miner’s treasured “spar box”, a huge collection of which is housed at Killhope Lead Mining Museum where Kennedy works as an information assistant.

Her box, with the addition of animation to the sparkling lead ore and fluorspar, finds a natural home at the Mining Institute. Suspended above are Hughes’ pineapple sculptures, that in fact echo the long-gone set of 12 crystal pineapple lamps which lit the library when electric lighting was introduced (eagle-eyed visitors will spot them in one of the photographs on the wall).

One of the originals remains in storage and Hughes took a cast from it to create her five variations.

Pineapples, she explains, were a regular feature of Victorian architecture and art.

“They were a great status symbol, they were exotic and sometimes shown with leaves more like an oak tree.”

Accordingly she features both types of leaves – some gold, others spiky silver metal – on her resin pineapples. Also inspired by our coal-mining history, she’s made all but one of them a shiny coal-black.

“I see the series as a swan song to coal as we’re in an entirely different era now.”

One sculpture will feature real ferns growing as its leaf crown, representing the biological origins of the carbon process.

“That’s a little nod to the beginnings of coal,” says Hughes. “These are all different types of memorial to coal in a way.”

The final one is red and pomander-like. On Saturday night it will burn spices and “coal” incense, linking too with the cathedral-like space beneath the 39ft high arched ceiling. Staff wore harnesses to secure the pieces to original fittings in the roof space.

The Mining Institute will also be hosting a bar on the night.

And visitors will also be able to see more new artwork in the lecture theatre and in stairwells of the building – and in next door’s Lit & Phil – by Dawn Felicia Knox.

The artist’s exhibition and memorial honours the 92 men and boys killed at the John Pit in Felling in 1812. The disaster led to the development of the miner’s safety lamp which is the Mining Institute’s logo.

The Late Shows opens tomorrow with a warm-up event in the Ouseburn Valley before the main event on Saturday which will see more than 50 venues offer free access from 7-11pm.

Among many attractions, the new Toffee Factory, its chimney transformed into a giant version of the Late Shows glowstick, will host a vintage tea party and short tours and turning its chimney into a giant glowstick, while Newcastle University promises a tropical rainforest. There’s something for everyone and the full programme can be found at www.thelateshows.org.uk

After Saturday, you can see Geological Etiquette in the Mining Institute, Neville Hall, Westgate Road, Newcastle, until June 21 (Monday to Friday, 11am-4pm. For more information on the Utopian Realism project visit www.utopianrealismproject.blogspot.co.uk


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