Communal Legacy

The biennial Artists’ Award, hosted by the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, is the first worldwide award to be judged solely by artists, and it shows. Monica Bonvicini, Mike Nelson, Pedro Cabrita Reis, and Lorna Simpson have each, in turn, selected an emerging practitioner; a public vote will then inform a legacy commission project in 2018, enabling one of the artists to engage more deeply with the local community. The exhibition is four distinct and large-scale pieces that work with the BALTIC’s spacious interior, whilst exploring  with originality, if not always impact  themes central to their existing practices.

The first work upon entering a cavernous white hall on the fourth floor is a compelling sculpture by Jose Dávila, a Mexican architect-by-training turned self-taught artist. To create The weaker has conquered the stronger (2017), he has worked with local suppliers for this work of steel beams, steel wire, sandstone boulders and a balloon filled with helium. One of the two beams are at a 45 degree angle to the floor, while one boulder descends from the ceiling, suspended above a red balloon hovering directly underneath. Mere inches of space separate these two ends of a circuit, formed by a taut steel wire that links all elements, holding them immobile in tension.

Dávila’s familiarity with the key qualities of Minimalism works in his favour, here creating a single, self-contained piece that explores form, physics and material with simplicity and harmony. The piece is not quite as political as its title makes it: on its own, it seems more a confident but self-contained meditation on the precarious yet perfect balance that nature’s laws enable. There is little conquering going on – rather, time seems suspended, or arriving together: the age-old stone boulders, the industrial beams, and the latex balloon of a later era of plastics and disposability.

The second half of the room, considerably more colourful, cacophonous and textured, belongs to American artist Eric N. Mack. His seven abstract works playfully extend the limits of what a painting phsyically is, and what our engagment with painting can extend to be. Using everyday materials such as duvets, towels, tent canvas, clothing and domestic furniture, Mack takes painting beyond the flat surfaces of traditional painting, as well as, in his words, “activating” the resulting works by the inclusion of a live model who wanders amongst the peices, sporting textiles that complement the hung works.

Although his section can look overcrowded and repetitive at first glance, it is undergoing small changes constantly. Air shafts on the gallery floor gently rotate Palms on Cotton (2017), a sculpture-painting consisting of an open parasol from which drapes of colourful, heterogenous materials hang towards the ground. Walking under or around this and others cause shifts in the materials’ positioning, lending a tactility to the viewer-artwork relationship that is often absent from contemporary sculptures that utilise hard materials. Questioning and perhaps challenging the association of textiles and domestic materials with crafts or its utilitarian uses – demonstrating, rather, their potential as a medium for abstract painting  Mack’s offering also gives the viewer a sense of the artist’s life, identity and community more so than the three others.

On the third floor, a smaller white room is given over to Toni Schmale, a German artist selected by Monica Bonvicini. Both share an interest in gender and power, and Schmale’s five works for the BALTIC present a particularly harsh visual vocabulary for handling these two loaded themes. Exhibiting for the first time in the UK, Schmale’s sculptors are uncompromising; reminiscent of particularly ominous kinds gym equipment or heavy industrial structures, the “machines” lack in functionality, and remain opaque to the viewer in terms of meaning and purpose. Schmale’s expressive titles, however, give a sense of where to begin: the good enough mother (2017) and wildcat (2016) suggest ideas related to gender roles and hierarchies within society. Her “machines” are constructed in such a way that they seem to have no visible internal system: inviolable and invisible, their workings are hidden by exterior of sleek efficiency, symmetry and durability in much the same way that existing systems of power often function, and aestheticise their functionings.

The question Schmale proposes is urgent and multi-layered, but arriving at it through the works  with no accompanying curator’s text  is difficult. They remain too dark and unintelligible. Schmale’s Minimalism provides us no entry, unlike Dávila’s – but, then again, perhaps that is a frustration the artist intends to evoke in us. Our response to the power hierarchies within our societies  like to her stolid and dark sculptures  is too easily one of avoidance and disengagement.

Finally, a dark room containing screens, benches for seating and projectors make up UK-based Chinese artist Shen Xin’s multi-screen video installation, Provocation of the Nightingale (2017). The work is a narrative focusing on systems of belief and power, with a particular interest in the assimilation of Buddhism into various cultural contexts; the lot of ethnic minorities, such as the Muslim Uighurs, in modern-day China; gendered violence and the trauma of its memory; and the ethical implications of technological advances in data and DNA-mapping. Dense and draining, intense in subject and style, this immersive experience gets the viewer to move around the installation as films end and begin on different screens. One narrative lasts twenty minutes: shot in a large empty theatre in South Korea, a woman and her meditation teacher have an intimate conversation that manages to encompass religion, science, migration, race, and family secrets.

The two women’s conversation ebbs and flows as they gently touch hands to hands, wrists, and lips: a process of physical healing as much as a psychic release. Their story drives home the universal presence of violence in a women’s coming of age, but contains slivers of hope and healing as embodied by sisterhood and female energies. Another narrative, a double-screen experience, is a patchy newsreel on one side and a modern dance executed by a young man and woman on the other. Its subjects are wide-ranging: quack monks, religion used as an excuse for gendered violence, abuses of power, token “freedoms”, performativity; there is much here, which can be draining and discordant. Shen’s is, however, the one that stays with the visitor long after the experience.

It is hard to come away from the BALTIC having found a dialogue between the four artists: perhaps, instead, the conversation going on beyond our access is rather between each artist and their nominating mentor. As individual experiences, Dávila, Mack, Schmale and Shen’s works are striking in their own ways; brought together, Dávila and Shen emerge the stronger, yet the diversity of all four’s media, themes and practices limit comparison or complementarity. A worthwhile visit for an introduction to four rising global artists; whether this inaugural award successfully coheres its aims with the actual result looks like the public’s to decide.

Sarah Jilani

BALTIC ARTISTS’ AWARD 2017, AT THE BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, until 1 October. For more information:

1. Shen Xin, Strongholds. Courtesy of the artist.