The Everyday Political
18 July - 26 August, 2018
Review by Piers Masterson
There seems to be an excess of nostalgia in England this summer. Jeremy Deller has made a film about 1988 and the second summer of love (though I thought that was 1987), the advert for which keeps cropping up whenever I go on social media and the football world cup brought on a constant replay of Gazza’s tears in 1990 and. Similarly, nostalgia hangs over The Everyday Political both because of the work and the background of the exhibition. Ciara Lenihan and Gayle Meikle give an excellent summary of this in a text provided as their own mini-publication. As the exhibition attempts to showcase an emerging contemporary art scene in the North East, Lenihan and Meikle while critiquing the banal geographical rubric used by the current Great North Exhibition – this exhibition is not part of the official programme – the pair insightfully identify ‘restorative nostalgia’ and the appeal of the ‘off-modern’ as two subjects that fixate the cultural landscape of the region.
Joy Labinjo’s work stands out in the exhibition; her bright attractive paintings apparently based on family photos capture the common nostalgia of family rituals. In ‘Cousins’ (2017), a joyous recollection of kids hanging out on the street the subject can be compared to the work of Tish Murtha, Chris Killip or any number of artists who document the social history of the North East. However Labinjo is not from the North East, her family are from Dagenham and her work is informed by a history of Black British art that largely bypassed Newcastle where she studied. If a defining characteristic of the Northern artist is the primacy of family and the shared identity of local community then Labinjo certainly qualifies. Near ‘Cousins’ is a photograph of a group of Miners by Mark Pinder, a seemingly archetypal image of Northern identity but with its citation of a now-redundant, white male, working-class, narrative as a representative of the ‘real’ contemporary North East. Pinder’s photographs are placed around the gallery and document projects undertaken in the region over the last 30 years to reinvent itself. A black and white photo from the 1990 Gateshead Garden Festival appears more historically distant than its actual date. Showing a flying saucer style pavilion that appears to have crash-landed onto the quayside near the area that the Baltic and the other art centres now stand, Pinder gives us a cautionary Tomorrowland image of a promised future for the region only accessible to an alien elite.
Hauntology is another type of nostalgia that runs through the exhibition. The emerging crop of Newcastle-Gateshead artists have to contend with the knowledge that the promises made for the culture-led regeneration of the area since the Baltic opened have not been delivered – if they had, there would be no need for the Great North Exhibition agenda to redress the deficits of the region. This gap between the experience of being an artist in the region and the institutional hype is brilliantly related by Emily Hesse’s bookwork. The curator’s inclusion of book projects, University based collaborations and research archives present this strand of contemporary art practice in the region that has remained a distinct feature. The display of teaching materials printed by the collective Foundation Press illuminate that art education and outreach have become a key output of the region’s economy. In her book Hesse painfully recounts attending a closed seminar of international curators at MiMA as the token ‘local’ artist, the antipathy she encounters serving to enforce her sense that the eliteness of art institutions is unsuited to her practice. Hesse incorporates a moving eulogy to her father who worked for the development corporations that began the property based ‘gentrification’ of Middlesbrough and presents another defining characteristic of the region, that the personal is often the political.
In the main gallery, Harriet Sutcliffe’s sculpture incorporates an archive display from the recently established Women Artists of the North East Library, a project central to the conception of the exhibition. Sutcliffe creates a barbed ‘homage’ to Richard Hamilton’s Man, Machine, Motion exhibition/installation at Hatton Gallery. The main wall behind Sutcliff’s piece has Matt Antoniak’s mural that makes epic a found doddle and manages to recall Victor Passmore’s mural in Newcastle’s Civic Centre. The importance of Hamilton and Passmore to the historiography of the curation of contemporary art within the region has been amplified greatly in recent years to the detriment of other narratives. Sutcliffe and the Women’s Library presents the difficult question of why is the promotion of gender equality and diversity by the art institutions of the North East still an issue.
Kuba Ryniewicz’s photographs of a circle of artist friends and colleagues, shown as a wall work, provide an index to how social interconnectedness and community remains a defining element of artist’s works and lives in the region. Phips Lloyd has a screen work that uses web-based architecture to throw up a montage of images that evoke ‘northern-ness’ and text that appear culled from New Labour mantras about community cohesion while, at the same times, attaching to it a reference made by Thatcher, ‘There is no such thing as society’. Lloyd’s work is troubling. This is because it shows how quickly discussions of northern identity begin to reflect back to past catastrophes. Pinder’s photo of Peter Mandleson, with a hardhat, inspecting a business park regeneration site as MP for Hartlepool, is the mirror image of the soon to be redundant Miners. The failures of New Labour’s regeneration projects in the region will cast long shadows; equal to Thatcher’s development corporation wrecking balls or the corruption of Passmore’s patron T.Dan Smith, who brutalised Newcastle in the 1960s.
The Everyday Political positively showcases that the North East is still producing artists who are deeply committed to the area who will hopefully remain long after The Great North Exhibition or the next over-hyped show flies by. As for the subject of the show Emily Hesse sums it up best when she writes:
“The Idea of the North is completely flawed.
We don’t need anyone to need us. We
Need to need ourselves.”