REVIEW: The BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art

Really quite weird.

The Baltic of early 2018 had been an impressive proponent of contemporary art that, to my disappointment, utterly failed to explain itself. The gallery’s old injunction on verbal details left me confused and disinterested. I am not opposed to more enigmatic works of art per se: less (can be) more. But with formal displays comes a different situation. To hang an artwork on a wall is a social act as much as an aesthetic choice. It is one for which any visitor, not to mention the wealth of talented artists without a place on the wall, deserve a justification. In an art world that too often credits status over skill, the stakes are simply too high.

How things change. If the twenty minutes it took the Baltic café to make my cappuccino felt more like an hour, the full year since my last visit to this famous gallery seemed closer to a decade. For today’s visit, each exhibition I enter puts the visitor firmly at its core. Digital Citizen – The Precarious Subject brings together a diverse collection of artworks that focus the mind around the key issues of our age. In one corner, Petra Szeman’s ‘How to Enter a Fictional Realm’ – a YouTube tutorial on creating a life-like avatar on ‘The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim’ – hints at the growth of a digital humanity, and the subsequent struggle to cement an identity of one’s own. Behind it, the box-cum-potting shed that is Peter Hanmer’s ‘Plato’s Lair Redux’ questions the truth of our world-experience, and the fragility of accepted ‘realities’.

The preface to the exhibition states a clear aim: ‘to inspire a conversation’. The phrasing is apt – Digital Citizen does not eschew information, but revels in it. On a large white table the curators have assembled a collection of books and articles treating various aspects of contemporary lived experience. In one, a Macedonian teenager discusses the ease with which ‘fake news’ articles employed in the run-up to the 2016 US Presidential election could manipulate voters – and the extortionate sums to be earned in the process.

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Each available printout accompanies and augments its neighbouring works of art. But the rehousing of these web-articles carries an artistic point, too. As if answering its own question – ‘Are we still able to form a community or has the fragmentation of the present moment deprived us of the capacity of being active enabled citizens?’ – the gallery reclaims from the internet and its virtual existence a sense of the tangible, and the trustworthy. Looking round to see one’s fellow visitors, it is a timely reminder that art, if not the wider world, retains a definitively communal dimension.

This sense of art-as-action is one that the BALTIC Artists’ Award 2019 exhibition sets out to continue. Speaking to The Guardian last month, Iraq War veteran Aaron Hughes explained how “creativity can push back against the divisions that drive conflict”. Hughes’ own ‘push back’ can be found in his reimagining of Wilfred Owen’s wartime poems into powerful monochrome works that ‘construct narratives and meaning out of personal and collective traumas’. Likewise, Ingrid Pollard’s oeuvre is a laying bare of the intimate connection between race and representation. Her range of photographs, prints, moving image and audio deliver a genuinely shocking exposition of the extent to which British public spaces are themselves littered with prejudice – old hangovers from an era of imperial colonisation. Her own words explictly outline her motive: to make visible ‘what we always knew was there’.

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My personal highlight was Heather Phillipson’s ‘The Age of Love’. Pity the fool that, hearing of every gallery claiming to create a ‘remixed geology’, ‘augmented reality’ or ‘spatio-temporal field’, expects immediately to be welcomed into its purview. The majority of such attempts, beyond a bit of well thought-out interior design, fall sadly short of their mark.

Not Phillipson’s. She transports her visitors beyond the ‘rigidly anthropocentric’ into ‘other worlds and temporalities’; imagine walking on Mars – but with hypnotic screens, a giant rotating foot, and a (psychedelic) black cat unnerving from the sidelines. Such was the disorientating strength of her creation that a friend had to leave after 10 seconds with a headache. Perhaps some will consider that a fault. I, not without pains myself, chalked it up to astronomical art that fulfilled its intention.

Speaking in 2015, a couple of weeks into her tenure, Baltic director Sarah Munro described herself as “a talker”. Perhaps that influence hasn’t always shown, but on the basis of the gallery’s current display, few would doubt. Unleashed from the shackles of pretence, this was probably the most honest and important dissection of contemporary culture that I have seen in a British gallery to-date. Welcome to BALTIC 2019: a reformed space, firmly sat at the nexus of art and ideas. Anyone else best get with the times.