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The Crack Magazine

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BALTIC: The Fresh Batch

Two fabulous new exhibitions at BALTIC have caught the attentions of Gail-Nina Anderson.

As we hurtle towards the Spring Equinox, looking forward to that blessed day when we can turn off the central heating and prepare to loll about in pale sunshine on great banks of dancing daffodils, an extra pleasure of the season that might get us all anticipatory must be the fresh new programme of exhibitions that make it worth getting out of the house and into vernal mode. It feels as though, in recent years, BALTIC has made itself more user-friendly by including such activities as Behind the Scenes tours, Toddler Time and kittiwake watching, and this spirit is carried through in a changing schedule of exhibitions that display an admirably wide range of approaches to what contemporary art might represent. While a good batch of powerfully themed shows, such as “Hinterlands” and “Conflagration”, continues to the end of April, we’re already being offered something fresh on the palate with “The Procession” by British/Guyanese sculptor Hew Locke (work pictured).

This large installation comes from the Tate and so does a vital part of its history - Tate Britain’s founder was art lover and sugar refining magnate Henry Tate. In the installation Locke says he ‘makes links with the historical after-effects of the sugar business, almost drawing out of the walls of the building,’ while also revisiting his own artistic journey so far, including for example work with statues, share certificates, cardboard, rising sea levels, Carnival and the military. The vibe, though, can’t be pinned down simply to one historic strand. The movement, ritualised yet also potentially changing and chaotic, of a group of people coming together represents a universal social motif - a procession is part and parcel of the cycle of life; people gather and move together to celebrate, worship, protest, mourn, escape or even to better themselves. Here the many brilliantly chromatic figures indicate this as a procession through time as well as place, reminding us that what we see alters as our own viewpoint is changed. “The Procession” invites visitors to ‘reflect on the cycles of history, and the ebb and flow of cultures, people and finance and power.’

And if there’s one chilly image coming up to set against Locke’s dazzling burst of bright patterns and surfaces (and to remind us that whatever the time of year, winter is somehow lurking just round the corner) it must be Chris Killip’s evocative monochrome photograph of a chap trudging head down, coat flapping through snowy desolation. Chris Killip (1946 – 2020) was a Manx-born photographer, initially working commercially but producing images of such quality that Arts Council commissions to visually record everyday life in certain areas opened up a remarkable career in documentary photography. In the 1970s a commission to photograph the north-east of England brought him to Newcastle, where he became co-founder and first director of the much-loved and hugely influential Side Gallery, tucked almost invisibly away along a Quayside alley.

The BALTIC exhibition, which will run from 1 April to 3 September, promises to represent a whole-career retrospective, a worthwhile reminder that Chris enjoyed a huge international reputation, and spent the last part of his life in America, where from 1991 to 2017 he was a Professor of Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard University. Here in the gritty north-east, however, it was those uncompromising black and white images that have been described as  "portraits of Tyneside's working class communities amongst the signifiers of the region's declining industrial landscape" that hit home. This was the other side of Thatcher’s Britain, clearly taken from a point of view that opposed everything she stood for. An irreplaceable record of the ways and means of a community being marginalised by economic stress, they also proffer the human face of dark times and grimly restricted prospects, something of which we always need to be reminded.

Chris Killip: Retrospective. 1 April–3 September; Hew Locke: The Procession.  18 February–11 June; BALTIC, Gateshead. 


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