Newest Review: ... with yellow brick features on its corners and along the top. On the Tyne facing side the words 'Baltic Flour Mill' are picked out in bla... more
65,536 pebbles, 40 speakers and one big shed
Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art (Newcastle)
Member Name: koshkha
Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art (Newcastle)
Advantages: Fabulous building, amazing views, unusual installations
Disadvantages: It won't be to everyone's taste
~And was Jerusalem builded here, among these dark Satanic mills?~
If you love architecture then it's hard to find a city in the UK that doesn't have something to offer. It's easy to be impressed by grand civic or religious buildings, designed and constructed as monuments to the success and importance of local big wigs or as testimony to the faith and love of whichever particular religion their builders (or rather their funders) followed. But architecture is not only about the great buildings, the ones that were always intended to stand the test of time and be considered great beauties. What about those buildings whose aim was nothing more than functionality? When you can see the beauty in warehouses, canals and - in this case - old factories, then your eyes are truly opened to just how much there is out there in the UK to impress you.
Personally I love industrial architecture and I knew, even before I stepped inside the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art - or as most refer to it, 'The Baltic'- that it didn't matter what was inside, I was going to love this fabulous building, a giant Leviathan rising up on the banks of the Tyne. I'm sure it hasn't always been admired and must at times have been considered by many to be a bit of an eyesore - it probably still is - but the conversion ten years ago into an art centre meant that the old Baltic Mill got second wind and a chance to be viewed for what it is, an whopping great big red brick beauty.
When most people think 'mill' they think of weaving but not me. After a decade in jobs in and around the baking industry, a mill to me is where you make flour - pure and simple. And that's the type of mill that this building was built to be by the great Joseph Rank, the R of RHM (Rank Hovis McDougall). It's not a particularly ancient building and its construction only commenced in the late 1930s. By the time the Second World War came along, only the foundations were in place and construction didn't start again until 1948. It's not even a particularly long-used building, only open for 32 years between 1950 and 1982. What it most definitely is though, is a very big lump of a building.
In height it stands 42 m tall (138 feet in 'old money') and it's 52m long (170 feet) and 24 m wide (just under 80 feet). I wish I could tell you how many football pitches would fit into its footprint but I can't - but if you care, please feel free to work it out and let me know. For those 32 years the mill made and blended flour and for part of the time it also produced animal feed - a combination which is not unusual in the milling trade. It's my assumption that its location would have been chosen to take advantage of sea transportation of wheat coming into Newcastle and Gateshead from all over the world.
Conversion of the old mill into the art centre started in 1998 and I can only imagine that the old building must have been pretty much gutted throughout, creating an entirely new interior within its brick shell. There's nothing about the place today that would remind you of a mill - even presuming you know what to look for that might suggest its past. A lower-rise more modern building was also constructed beside the mill to house the café, the shop and the entrance to the centre.
~A place for everything - and everything in its place~
The builders of Rank's Baltic Mill surely couldn't have imagined that it would one day be at the heart of one of the trendiest and most arty areas of the city. It sits on the southern (Gateshead) bank of the Tyne, next to the silver worm-like Sage Centre with the wonderful Millennium Bridge squeezed between the two. The famous Tyne Bridge is just the other side of the Sage so if you've got your camera, you can easily snap up a bunch of the most iconic views in the area within a short walk of each other. The Baltic is the big, blocky mostly red-brick building with yellow brick features on its corners and along the top. On the Tyne facing side the words 'Baltic Flour Mill' are picked out in black tiles against a band of yellow brick. On the other side the words 'Joseph Rank Limited' face away from the river. On the Sage end of the building, most of the central panel of the building is glass, allowing amazing views over the Sage and the Tyne and Millennium bridges
I chose a hotel for our trip to Newcastle which was right next door to the Baltic. I got a fantastic deal for 2 nights at the Jury's Inn Gateshead for just £100 for the two of us and we could see the Baltic from our hotel. In order to get such a great price on the room, not surprisingly we had to forgo the joys of a hotel breakfast. The Baltic thus became both a major artistic attraction and the place where we had breakfast both days.
Boy this place is big. You can see photographs before you go but it's quite a shocker to get up close and personal with such a big blocky lump of a building. We approached from the 'unfashionable end', walking along the riverside from the Jury's Inn and having to pass along the riverside façade of the building. You can give yourself neck-ache trying to see the top. There used to be a walkway that passed right next to the building but it won't take you long to work out why they've closed it - just follow your nose. Not only is the Baltic a fabulous building and a marvellously bizarre art gallery, it's also a fantastic place for seagulls to nest. And when seagulls nest, well you can guess what else they do - and that many seagulls all in one place means a major pong as you pass.
Once we'd got round to the entrance side of the building, it was time to go inside. Art's wonderful but our first priorities were to get ourselves some breakfast so we headed into the restaurant on the ground floor. I won't dwell too much on the restaurant other than to say that both my cheese scone on day one and my veggie cooked breakfast on day two were great quality and - by museum standards - pretty good value.
~Never mind the art, look at the view~
Next step was to head up to the top of the building and look at the views. The converted Baltic building has 7 floors - six plus the ground floor - and the top floor houses a restaurant which wasn't open at the time. The fifth floor was where we headed, following signs to the 'viewing box'. The box offers jaw-dropping views of the Tyne and the city beyond and it's well worth a visit even if you're one of those people who doesn't 'get' contemporary art at all. You can skip the 'weird stuff' and just enjoy the view if that's what works better for you, this isn't the kind of place that's going to force culture down your reluctant throat.
With photos taken and both of us suitably impressed by the views we headed down to the fourth floor to work our way down through the galleries. It's perhaps important to set a bit of background on just how obsessed my husband is with art because his response to the Baltic totally surprised me. In the almost 15 years that we've been together, we have never missed an opportunity to get to an art gallery. After we got married our first few years together were characterised by flying off all over the place to look at great galleries. When I'm working and he has time off, he trots off in my car to whatever gallery he can find, clocking up three in just two days the week before last. He's an art 'sponge' - chuck him in the direction of something and he'll soak it up. I expected him to love the Baltic after seeing him happily sit for hours watching bizarre videos of artists on trampolines in the Guggenheim in Bilbao or taking the train down to Tate Modern just to see a specific exhibition. I thought that the Baltic would be right up his street. Against all odds, he just didn't 'get' it at all. Even more against all odds, I loved it. We are one of those boring couples who usually like exactly the same things, who stroll round a shop and pick up the same items, and who pretty much know what the other will love. The Baltic was a shock.
~Pebbles and bricks~
On the fourth floor was a room filled with 'work' by Mark Wallinger. I'll admit I hadn't heard of him although he won the Turner Prize in 2007 (I guess I wasn't paying attention that year) and he was one of the Fourth Plinth artists in Trafalgar Square. I hang my head in shame for not knowing who he was. The room was enormous and could be viewed either from within the room or from the 5th floor viewing balcony above. Sadly, photography of the art is absolutely banned within the Baltic. The main piece was laid out in the middle of the room and I'm not really sure what to call it. 1024 black and white grids, each with 64 squares in black and white like chess or draughts boards, were laid out in a giant square. On each of the squares was a pebble - in total 65,536 pebbles laid out in neat rows. My husband expressed an overwhelming urge to run up and give them a good kick. I started looking for patterns, wondering if like an old 'Magic eye' pattern a pebble pattern of a bunny rabbit would jump out if I looked long enough.
We got into a long chat with one of the 'Baltic Crew' (as they call the staff who work in the galleries). She told us a lot about the piece and how it had been done; that Wallinger himself had not put all the pebbles in place but had used dozens of volunteers for that tedious task. I hoped that perhaps the pebbles had come from the beach which was shown in a video installation on the far wall of the room. A group of work men were assembling scaffolding on a beach and then taking it down again - over and over again. No such luck. She told us he'd bought the pebbles on eBay - how banal and how 'now'. But apparently he had stood and looked at the pebbles laid out and moved a few around to make it perfect. Tony hated it - I got more fascinated the more I looked at it.
The other installation she pointed out was a wall of red bricks each with a different number chalked on them. There's no instruction on how you should interpret this piece any more than there is for the pebbles. I wondered if it was linked to the tattooed numbers of the Nazis' concentration camp victims but I don't know - and actually I'm quite happy to not know as I can continue to wonder much longer than if there was an 'answer' to the questions of 'what is it and why?' The final piece was a television screen showing photos taken all over London. In each photo the name 'Mark' in chalk was placed right in the middle of the photo. Most were walls, a few were doors, but the joke was clear. Wallinger was 'making his mark' on the city. I groaned but I thought it was a pretty funny pun. Whilst I was watching, a man standing by told us he knew Wallinger and asked what we thought. The combination of talking to him and to the crew member added up to us spending more time in one room looking at just four bits of art than I can remember ever spending in a single gallery.
The fourth floor has an outdoor viewing platform which is worth a visit. It looks out across the river and it's good to clear your head after to much worthy artiness and it's also a good spot for looking at the seagulls.
As we escaped from the fourth floor with my husband shaking his head and moaning about 'the waste' of all that space, we headed down the stairs to the third floor and a Janet Cardiff 'installation' comprising 40 speakers on stands playing the 'Forty Part Motet' - a choral piece of music. The idea appeared to be that listeners should stand inside the ring of speakers and get a 'wow' effect from being surrounded by the voices. Clever but quite honestly my main feeling was on of "So what?" - we moved on quickly.
The second floor is a sort of learning resources area with some walls given over to temporary local exhibitions such as displays from the local art colleges. It's a bit of a mish mash and I enjoyed a video of an old man who used to work at the Baltic Mill, talking about how he still makes bread in the little Hobart mixer he took home with him when the place closed. I aspire to having a Hobart in my shed one day but I realise that makes me almost as odd as the old man. There was also a screen showing an interview with Mark Wallinger which I quite enjoyed. At the time of our visit the river-facing side of the building has a massive canvas hanging on it, like a giant sail. The canvas has a letter printed on it - a giant letter I. Wallinger explained that it was a Times New Roman 'I' because that's the most standard, default font. He called it the world's biggest 'self portrait' - I the letter and I as in me. Genius. I love that kind of weird stuff - all the more so considering that the canvas was coated in rather a lot of seagull poop. You cannot possibly as an artist take yourself too seriously if you allow your art to be crapped on by sea birds.
Floor one again had just one piece of 'art' - an intriguing, large wooden shed. It reminded me of an Alpine bunk house but once the door was opened, there was a slope of compacted soil inside. Intriguingly, the whole shed was at a strange angle - not straight, not 45 degrees, just a random 'not straight' angle. It was very odd. We chatted to the 'crew member' who was in the room and she encouraged us to go inside and have a look, one at a time. She said that nobody knew how the artist - Richard Rigg - had done the sloped floor or why the building was at the odd angle. Apparently the gallery had been completely closed off and none of the staff were allowed to know what was going on behind the closed doors. She was convinced that the sloped floor was probably solid and not just chip board with dirt on top - oddly telling us that they'd had things like that in the past and "you can tell when it's not solid". Fascinating.
Entrance to the Baltic is free of charge although they'd of course love you to make a donation and if you've enjoyed it, I think you should. If you hate or just plain don't understand or like such controversial art, then nobody will mind if you just want to admire the building and look at the views. I was surprised how much I enjoyed the exhibits but even more surprised by how much my husband didn't. I think his biggest gripe was that there are thousands of good artists looking for exhibition space and to give so much space to so few works really annoyed him. Whether you love it or hate it, I'm confident that the Baltic will make you think and will make an impact on you. I'm very glad we went and I'd definitely go again. How much you enjoy it may well depend on the luck you have with the particular exhibits. Looking at the Baltic website, there have clearly been some exhibits much better and much worse than those we saw.
As you might expect, the accessibility throughout the building is excellent. There are lifts for those who don't fancy the stairs, there are no narrow doorways to catch your buggy or wheel chair on and of course there are plenty of disabled toilets and baby changing facilities. If you have a blue badge, there's even free parking. There are toilets on every floor except the fifth. If you check the website you can find the times of the daily free tours which may be a good way to better understand what you're seeing.
If any of the specific exhibits I've mentioned has made you feel like rushing up to Newcastle-Gateshead to have a look, the Wallinger and Cardiff shows are open until mid October and Rigg's hut will be there until the 9th of September. I'm already wondering what's coming next.
Summary: I loved it, my husband was just baffled but everyone has an opinion on the Baltic
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