Art prizes, while offering an invaluable opportunity to showcase and support the work of particular artists have been fraught with problems over the years. Limits on age and nationality have proved increasingly problematic (leading to the Turner Prize’s recent decision to up the age limit to 60) and exhibiting artists (who often have to self-fund the development new work for award exhibitions) are frequently left out of pocket when prize money gets syphoned off to a single recipient.
The BALTIC Artists’ Award which opened at the end of June, is a clear attempt to combat some of these issues and create an award format that provides an actual and equal opportunity for four artists to develop and showcase significant new bodies of work. The award has no limit on age or nationality, is selected by some of the world’s leading contemporary artists (who also mentor the shortlisted artists) and has no ‘winners’ or ‘losers,’ with prize money (totalling £30,000 per artist) shared equally amongst the four.
As I enter the fourth-floor gallery at BALTIC, I’m confronted with the work of Jose Dávila, selected by Pedro Cabrita Reis. Tension is a dominant and recurring theme in Dávila’s work and the same can be said here. ‘The weaker has conquered the stronger’ is large sculptural installation comprising of two industrial steel beams, roughly cut sandstone boulders and a cartoonish latex red balloon. At first glance, the work looks like a trap laid down by Wild E. Coyote for an unsuspecting Roadrunner. However, after some time with the work one begins to understand that tension for Dávila is not just a playful relationship with the laws of gravity but also eludes to the social, political and material context of the work. The steel beams, sourced from local suppliers, reference Gateshead’s industrial past, the title and composition (the balloon centimetres away from destruction), a reference to the precarious power dynamics we exist within and encounter daily.
Providing a diverting backdrop to Dávila’s work is that of New York based Eric N. Mack. Mack’s work, selected by Lorna Simpson, originates from a desire to explore the nature and limits of painting. His dynamic collages of fabrics and everyday objects layered with spots and dashes of paint are nothing short of beautiful. While comparisons to Rauschenberg are inevitable and his influence clear, Mack’s work has an inviting tenderness to it which, while I’m viewing the exhibition, makes me feel a strong desire to inhabit his work somehow. I imagine myself curled under his ‘Palms on Cotton’ or gazing out through the opening in ‘A Lesson in Perspective’, a sure symptom of the intimacy Mack’s work invites.
Moving down to the third-floor gallery, Toni Schmale’s work, selected by (and once a student of) Monica Bonvicini, is immediately intimidating and unsettling. Monochromatic and polished, like much of Schmale’s work, this set of matt black steel sculptures look like missing parts from a large, unknown machine; useful and useless at the same time. Despite their intimidating first impression, the works call out to be touched, their powder-coated surfaces immaculate with the exception of the odd serial number or tiny blemish. With titles like ‘good enough mother’ and ‘Waltraud’ (a typically female German name meaning power or ruler) these at once aggressive and elegant sculptures become vehicles for the exploration of gender hierarchies and how power dynamics can become encoded in the objects we surround ourselves with.
A small corridor leads from Schmale’s work into Shen Xin’s multi-screen video installation. While the work so far has called for a slow almost meditative pace, Xin, selected by Mike Nelson, asks us to work for it. This, challenging and at points disorientating work is a dynamic investigation into power and systems of belief. A number of narratives unfold across four screens (none of which can be viewed simultaneously) accompanied by overlapping soundscapes. From accounts of sexual slavery in South Korea under Japanese imperialism to the story of female imams in China, the stories, like the screens and speakers they’re presented on, have themes which intermingle, overlap and divert from one another. Through Xin’s dynamic filmmaking and the physical experience of the installation we, as the viewer, are encouraged to abandon conventions and preconceptions, piecing together something previously hidden and entirely new.
This exhibition and its concept are refreshingly simple; an opportunity for the art and the artists to shine. The result is four excellent new bodies of work shown in one of the north’s most immaculate spaces; an enjoyable glance at the art stars of tomorrow.