This exhibition might almost be called British Art Show 9/11 . Certainly, its twin towers are modernism and the Muslim world. But in a show that is intended to be a wide-ranging survey of recent developments in British art, can this be justified? Well, let’s see.
There are 50 artists included, just as there were 50-odd in BAS 5 in 2000. There is no overlap between the artists for BAS 5 and 6, which is why certain artists who have figured prominently in the last five years aren’t here this time. Curators, Alex Farquharson and Andrea Schlieker, have taken the laudable approach of selecting artists who haven’t yet benefited from Turner Prize levels of exposure. Having said that, there are plenty of Beck’s Futures finalists included.
OK, tower one: modernism. The catalogue brings together four of the exhibiting artists (Mark Titchner, Enrico David, David Thorpe and Daria Martin) for a fascinating round-table discussion on how their practices relate to aspects of modernism; and why certain modernist tropes might be important to their post-postmodern generation. In the gallery, among many others, Goshka Macuga’s ‘Arkhitectony— after K Malevich’ continues this debate.
It’s within this ‘tower’ that Scottish-based artists—those of two commercial galleries in particular—deserve to be mentioned. The Modern Institute (through Eva Rothschild, Toby Paterson and Richard Hughes) and doggerfisher (via Lucy Skaer and Claire Barclay) present work which is sophisticated, historically aware and exquisitely finished, though a bit on the dry side. Without question, it leaves space for an art with a completely different take on what it means to be alive at the beginning of the 21st century.
So, to tower two. If you walk into BAS 6 and watch the films by Ergin Cavusoglu, Rosalind Nashashibi, Alia Syed, Zineb Sedira, Marine Hugonnier once through, you will have been in the building for a couple of hours. If you add to that Phil Collins’ ‘they shoot horses’, a film of a disco-dance marathon featuring a group of young Palestinians that just goes on and on, then it will be time for you to go home without having seen anything else. For various reasons—but basically because my curiosity was more stimulated by things I already had a handle on—I spent just a few minutes in total with these works. But next time I am within striking distance of the Baltic I will definitely be giving more time to them.
The Western world—or at least many of its artists—is intensely questioning about Muslim society right now, for a number of pressing reasons. And those artists from an ethnically mixed background would seem to have been quickest off the mark in acting on that interest. (Although all the artists in the show now live and work in Britain, about half of them were born abroad.) It’s a healthy movement, surely; not in any way ‘giving in to terrorism’; more like surrendering to cross-cultural curiosity.
The two works that—on a personal level—I most warmed to are among the few that feature the artists themselves, and each can be related to a major theme of the show. First, in ‘Journey to the Lower World’, Marcus Coates sits in a domestic room in a condemned Liverpool tower block, watched by a group of residents, wearing a stag head, antlers and skin. In a kind of trance, he goes on a mental journey. His prim audience looks confused and uptight as he sways about, eyes shut, antlers probing, groaning. Afterwards, he takes off his costume, and explains that he went down in the lift-shaft, and wild birds guided him to the conclusion that the residents had to stick together—like feathers on a wing—if the individuals in the community were to survive. The piece is funny and weird, but good-hearted.
Second, Breda Beban is on a raft floating along the river Danube. There is a gypsy folk band sharing the raft, and its singer duets with the artist. His singing is deeply moving, and she does her best to respond. Apparently, the words of the song translate as, ‘Who doesn’t know how to suffer doesn’t know how to love’. As the artist rises to the challenge of the song and onlookers on the banks respond, you feel—I did, anyway—all the people of the Balkans attempting to rise from the ashes of a devastating war.
So there is one artist, Coates, teaching—however tongue-in-cheek—a Western audience how they might live more fulfilling lives. And there is another, Beban, showing herself able and willing to learn from a fringe-Western tradition. However, when I told a well-informed colleague whose sensibility I trust, the gist of my reaction to the show, his response was: ‘I don’t remember what Marcus [Coates] did and couldn’t be bothered to watch all of the [Breda] Beban, as I felt disconnected completely. My favourites were the Daria Martin, Phil Collins, Heather & Ivan Morison, and Chris Evans.’ So you really have to go along to make your own mind up, because this is close to that rare thing, a ‘must-see’ show. Alas, the Baltic (ten minutes’ walk from Newcastle station) is the nearest the jamboree gets to Scotland. Next year it gradually moves south, to Manchester, Nottingham and Bristol.
In the excellent catalogue, the curators identify a third focus of interest, which they refer to as ‘new collaborative and participatory models for creating alternative artistic interventions’. This is epitomised by the work of Carey Young. For his piece ‘Win-Win’, all those from the Hayward and the Baltic who were involved in putting together the show attended a course in negotiation skills, run by a commercial organisation. A display of A4 forms filled out by those who took part demonstrates how the course was put to practical use in the making of BAS 6. On one form, we learn that an organiser renegotiated the positioning of the work of four artists, including Adam Chodzko.
This process must go some way to explaining why the Chodzko piece, a slide projection of 81 images, is just about unwatchable in its present location. In other words, the Young piece, by letting the visitor see under the surface of the curating process, performs a service for both her fellow artists and the audience. Win-win, indeed!
BAS 6 fills four floors of the Baltic. There is a viewing balcony on the fifth floor from which you can gaze down on the work on level four. It’s a stunning vista. You look directly onto a wall of Toby Paterson’s art: several layers of modernist-influenced works presented with scale and panache. But from this high vantage point you can see that above the perfect edge of his work, there is the rough roof of the space in which Alia Syad’s ‘Eating Grass’, a film revolving around five separate stories, each relating to one of the five times of day prescribed for Muslim prayer, is showing. So, that dichotomy again…
Let me conclude on this by way of historical parallel. In 1896, Lord Leighton was given a Princess Di-style funeral. The streets of London were lined with mourners as his coffin homed in on St Paul’s Cathedral. That’s how famous the Victorian classical painter—now largely forgotten—had become in his own lifetime, through his constant referencing of Greek pillars and the ancient world.
Meanwhile, a certain Vincent had been rotting in his grave since 1890, still almost totally unknown in Britain and Europe, waiting for the coming of the 20th century before his spirit would rise up to dazzle everyone. In other words, perhaps the emphasis on modernism, articulate as it is, is getting stale. Its great to see other artists feeding on fresher fare, though too soon to say how appetising that will be for the rest of us.
Oh, I nearly forgot to say—there is hardly a single literal image of the UK in this show. Neither its grim streets nor green fields nor TV programmes. Little Britain this isn’t.
Duncan McLaren is an arts writer