Learning from exhibitions
Updated: Aug 1, 2019
A trip to the Baltic and the Side Gallery at Newcastle proved valuable. The intention was to look at installation ideas and techniques. How to use immense space like the fourth floor and its mezzanine. Heather Phillipson’s The age of love has to be one of the best uses of that space I have seen so far. Anthony Gormley's 2003 Domain Field is a close runner though.
Heather Phillipson, Age of love, 2018. 22 tonnes of black basalt gravel and a huge steel grain silo on the floor. This helps underline how anything can be done.
Ingrid Pollard's show exploring race, ethnicity and public spaces cleverly seemed to fill quite a large space with relatively little. The tour de force was probably the plinth, apparently missing an object on top. Two small doors were not easily seen, but when opened they switched on a video and music. A clever idea. Her white on white (a kind of 2-D Ben Nicholson going on) impressions into paper were inspired, requiring close attention and scrutiny to get a sense of what was going on. The work won her a Baltic Artists' Award.
The Baltic’s technical manager, Thomas Newell, is one of those people that one can’t help but envy. Much of what the Baltic shows is commissioned by the Baltic, thus Thomas Newell and his freelance team (who can afford a whole permanent installation team anymore?) get to work with the artists from scratch on whatever is needed – see the epic Heather Phillipson installation above.
Smaller museums, such as Tullie House in Carlisle, will use local joiners and other contractors for bespoke work like plinths of unusual shapes and sizes. MDF has usurped marine ply as king in modern museums. Where the Baltic commissions much of the work it shows, a museum like Tullie relies heavily on a steady flow of touring shows on various scales, and many of these arrive as a huge kit of parts to build the environment for the exhibits themselves. A fine example of that was the War Games 2015 exhibition from the V&A Museum of Childhood which used literally tons of scaffolding to provide a M*A*S*H-like network of green canvas tents and walls to show how children have been able to play at increasingly detailed war for many decades. The completed exhibition was effectively shown but was a constructional challenge beyond the usual for the installers.
Jim Mortram’s 8-year epic Small town inertia, at the Side Gallery, was beautifully conceived and executed. The jet blacks in the printing by the gallery co-ordinator Lee Hart gave the McCullin feel that I love so much. I suppose I'm saying that they felt like real documentary. I can’t imagine anybody not being touched by the intensity of the images and their associated stories (although Jim manages to keep a distance that somehow makes him more of the unseen observer than usual; suspect it worked so well because of the timescale of the project, and him already being part of the community, allowing an otherwise rarely achievable level of acceptance).
J.A Mortram Small town inertia, 2006-2014.
The prints are simply framed in black with no mounting boards. The broad white borders on the prints were more effective than adding mounts. Mounts tend to shout ‘this is an exhibition’ where unmounted helps give the viewer a feeling of deeper involvement. (Personal taste note: in framing, I tend to lean towards the narrow-top deeper-bottom look when the frame has a different aspect ratio to the image).
The pasted wallpaper is Colourbyte's 'Graffiti' 180gsm smooth matt. Despite its light weight, Lee says it is remarkably durable.
A forthcoming show at Side, Alys Tomlinson's Ex-voto will be printed on a Hahnemuhle bamboo paper, which has a distinct off-white background. Much of the visual success of an exhibition relies on the gallery/printer/photographer working together.
Walking from Newcastle station to the Baltic takes you past the castle and down to the quayside. Drew Rennie (https://www.facebook.com/DRenniePhotography/) and I were half an hour ahead of the pack and photographed all the clichés along the way. It was rather liberating to do some ad hoc snapping and talking about taking the pictures at the same time. Working alone can sometimes be quite dispiriting.