Modern Art is Hyper-Bollocks?

It had been a long time since I’d been back to Newcastle, a town I’d grown up in – and left – nearly a decade ago. Back then I had no idea I would grow up to become an arsey arts journalist with a shock of jet black hair and a neat line in slim-fit waistcoats. Maybe it was the cold I felt, being a soft southerner stranded in the arctic north, but the only culture I remember was the drinking culture. Okay, it wasn’t exactly flat caps and whippets by the nineties, but this was before the regeneration started. The city’s culture mostly revolved around vodka redbulls and those evil bricks of hash that had bits of melted plastic bag in them. Most of my entertainment came from getting drunk and high on plastic fumes and then attempting to recreate scenes from Get Carter around the derelict parts of the quayside.

The quayside has been — in the parlance of our times — regenerated, and the jewel in the crown is the Baltic centre for contemporary art. I remember seeing the Baltic’s very first installation – a giant heartbeat red canvas — stretched across the gutted interior of the derelict mill. It was a powerful statement that said that soon this old warehouse would be filled with modern art. But by the time it was, I had long since left. When I returned a few years later it was to catch up with an old friend. We had lunch in the rooftop restaurant and drunkenly tumbled out into the gallery.

Even under the soak of wine I remember thinking that most of the stuff we saw was shit. Wire mesh, balsa wood and cardboard boxes – it was the kind of art being made in sixth forms up and down the land. Five years and several creative directors later the Baltic has supposedly sorted itself out. I stepped off my train and was immediately blasted by a howl of freezing rain. Some things, I supposed, would never change.

The Baltic wasn’t exactly deserted, but I think most of the people I met in there were just glad to be out of the rain. This is a classic example of a state funded monstrosity: find a derelict area, throw money at it, ask a Primrose Hill focus group what a run down regional area needs, end up with an enormous, over-funded art gallery. A conceptual art gallery, at that. It doesn’t exactly seem like power to the people.

But I couldn’t be cynical for long. The shocking thing is that most of the art, well, it was actually rather good. Yes, at first, I couldn’t understand what this weirdly insular exhibition space was doing in the heart of the North East, but then I realised how much the Baltic changed its character. This place, suddenly, was on the map.

On the ground floor was Bartholemy Toguo’s Heart Beat, an exhibit that, like the rest of the gallery, focused on the classic postmodernist topic of ‘the use and overload of information in an era of global exchange’. But this was more than a 101 in basic Baudrillard: frightening ink blot painitings of the Virginia Tech shootings and the Darfur Crisis were horribly contemporary. You didn’t need a Roarscack Test to know what was on this artist’s mind.

Similarly, Mona Marzouk’s site specific installation in black and gold was quietly understated, the vast empty space of the second floor feeling lightly suggestive of a transnational melancholy: the industrialized world’s reliance upon oil. I stood for a few moments watching the video that accompanied the yellowing walls and felt haunted by the room’s emptiness.

I thought back to the previous week when I had made the journey to the ‘Love’ exhibition, part of the National Gallery on tour in Bristol’s City museum. Crammed into a room half the size of Marzouk’s two paintings was a retrospective starting with the renaissance and ending with one of the figureheads of contemporary British art: Marc Quinn’s ‘Kiss’ statues. Whereas the Egyptian born Marzouk deals with a dramatic subject intimately, Quinn’s sculpture takes an intimate subject and adds a dash of hyperbole: two imperfect figures kiss. Great. His cock’s freakishly small, her breasts sag and she’s half his size. Sounds like real life to me. Then you walk round to the other side and, surprise surprise, he’s got a thalidomide arm and she hasn’t got one at all – about as representative of real life as a bearded lady at a circus.

Why is there an unwritten rule that states a British artist can’t be understated? Or funny, for that matter? Another one of Quinn’s thalidomide arms statues, the pregnant disabled one on the plinth in Trafalgar Square, won out over the much more amusing car-being-shat-on-by-pigeons design. I can only blame the YBA clique for the present rash of po-faced, hyperbolic art being churned out by our supposed talents.

Which brings me neatly back to the Baltic, where Mark Titchner’s installation — the finest example of hyperbole masquerading as transgressionism I can think of — held pride of place above these two excellent exhibits by foreign artists. If you’ve ever seen Mac’s famous “1984” commercial (Titchner quite obviously has) then you’ve pretty much got the idea. Fill a hall with communist style slogans chanting ‘seek imagine create delight’ and ‘leverage collective genius,’ stick a giant obelisk (in this case, a video installation of an obelisk, how daring) at a pulpit in the front, turn the lights down and crank out a lot of pamphlets explaining how the use of ‘black, white and red’ – the corporate colours of a certain unpopular transnational soft drink manufacturer – ‘comments on the blind faith and obedience to authority which is unconscious in much of society.’

The whole spiel was a big yawn. Clearly, someone in Primrose Hill had declared that this was the sort of art the provinces needed. But if it hadn’t been for the murmuringly insistent robotic voice that filled the hall, this exhibit would have been a good place to catch forty winks.

Downstairs in the gift shop were t-shirt prints of Titchner’s slogans prominently displayed beside a handful of those Agyness Deyn sponsored House of Holland prints that were cool about a year ago. It was so self-knowingly ironic I felt like raising my skinny fists in despair, or at least running to the rooftop restaurant for a quick bottle of red.

‘The t-shirt is the message!’ screamed the Titchner print. Baudrillard 101? Check. Got it. Well, actually, I suppose this one’s a Marshall McLuhan parody. But who’s to know? Not, I suspect, the tired, rain-soaked Geordies milling about in the downstairs café.

Needing a break, I walked back across the footbridge to check out the newly opened Lazarides North gallery, currently exhibiting the work of US graffiti artist David Choe. He’s a natural choice: Choe’s known for his hyperbole. As is Steve Lazarides: 25k plus VAT for a 4×4 board might be pushing it a bit far in a Northern town where your main competitor’s centerpiece is a £900 Jack Vettriano print. Predictably, apart from the beautiful, black dressed, black Mac wielding receptionist, I had Lazarides to myself. Tucked away in a room at the back, behind his grotesque graffiti caricatures hid Choe’s watercolours. They were heartbreakingly beautiful. If I had three and a half grand (plus VAT) I might have bought one.

As it was, I headed back over the Baltic to see some material by Barry McGee –- another graffer from over the pond. Even the vivid acid-casualty colours and the burned out truck slapped into the middle of the room didn’t seem hyperbolic after the 25k pricetag on the 4x4s.

I retired to the café for a soup-like mug of black coffee. I gave up the boozing and the plastic fumes some time ago. On the train platform on the way home I got chatting to a teenage girl heading into town for a night out. She said she liked my clothes. Then she offered to suck me off. It’s one of those stories you couldn’t make up.

I boarded my train, a smile on my face. Some things, I supposed, would never change.

Richard Allday

One Comment

  1. Loosid says:

    Gee, it’s a bleak picture, and that’s after the refurbishment. It just underlines the real disconnect between society and art.