Keeping it real
I'd consider myself moderately cultured, but if there's anything almost guaranteed to make me feel like a philistine, it's conceptual art. So, in hindsight, taking a trip to see the 2011 Turner Prize exhibition over Christmas might not have been the best idea. But, y'know, it's here (the first time it's been held outside London in its history), it's free and it's been years since I've been to the Baltic.
It's the persistent disjunction between the verbose, frequently intriguing accompanying text and the hugely disappointing reality of the artworks themselves that particularly grates.
First up is Martin Boyce, by the time we visit already crowned as the prizewinner. His blurb suggests his work warps conceptions of time, among other such grandiloquent claims, and yet all I see is some uninteresting plastic sculpture and a wooden slab which would seem to have been engraved with graffiti by bored schoolchildren were it not for the absence of spurting cocks (Do Words Have Voices).
Then it's Hilary Lloyd's meditations on "the constructed act of viewing": a number of projectors and screens, showing flickering cut-and-shut/partial images. Interviewed on a video screened on another floor, Lloyd makes the confession that she doesn't even know herself what her work's trying to say and gives up, handing responsibility to her interlocutor. Lame.
And then on to Karla Black, and excited prose referencing Melanie Klein, primal urges and the pre-linguistic stage of early childhood. We round the corner and are confronted with massive papery piles reaching up to the ceiling, supposedly meticulously and intricately arranged, and coloured with pastel bath bombs.
So there I am, aggrieved at finding myself in broad agreement with the Daily Fucking Mail, when along comes George Shaw and makes it all worthwhile.
The relief is palpable among those wandering through the galleries: at last, an artist unafraid of more direct representation. Shaw's pictures - verging on the hyper-realist and painted, unusually, using the Humbrol enamel paints most often used by Airfix model enthusiasts - are subtle snapshots of inbetween outdoor spaces, unimportant and quotidian places. Figures are conspicuous by their absence, the lack of life lending the pictures an unnerving sense of desolation.
There may be nothing happening in Shaw's paintings, but that's not to say there's no narrative. Take The Assumption, for instance, in which the bent railings and the obscured road marking - "KEEP CLEAR", presumably, but perhaps "KEEP OUT" - suggest a transgressive act, either a breaking in or a breaking out.
The exhibition is largely a portrait of a dank, stagnant Britain (more specifically, Tile Hill near Coventry, where Shaw grew up). The tone is partly indifferent (just telling it like it is) but also partly nostalgic and occasionally indignant. The Age Of Bullshit depicts the pub of his youth fenced off, unroofed and doomed to stand waiting for demolition. This, Shaw seems to be saying bitterly, is what we call progress.
Leaving Shaw's affecting paintings behind, we explore what else the Baltic currently has to offer. Pakistani artist Bani Abidi's images of intercom units and barrier types don't do much for me, though her film The Distance From Here is more affecting, depicting a Kafkaesque bureaucratic dystopia in which paperwork and people are processed for no apparent reason.
Better is the collaborative installation A Voyage Of Growth And Discovery on the top floor, the work of Mike Kelley and Michael Smith. Video screens playing just out of sync with each other show Baby IKKI - performance artist Smith dressed in a bonnet, nappy and shades - bumbling around Burning Man in Nevada (the US equivalent of Glastonbury). The footage, the colour and the booming speakers help to recreate the festival's atmosphere in the gallery space, but the fact that none of the revellers seems to pay any attention to Baby IKKI - he effectively blends in unnoticed - suggests the artists are charging the festival with being infantile nonsense. The exhibition's title is an ironic swipe at those festival-goers who claim to be embarking on such a voyage only to return to the normality of 9-5 once the party's over.
Kelley's contributions to the exhibition are several large metal tent-frame constructions, a wrecked camper van and an enormous mock-effigy of Baby IKKI made out of scrap metal. Admirers of the artwork for Sonic Youth's Dirty won't be surprised to find one of the tents paved with soft toys, while the van contains a throne made out of (or at least upholstered with) them. The implication, you feel, dovetails neatly with that of the video installation: namely, that Burning Man is a fantasy, make-believe world - a temporary regression rather than a permanent paradise.
Photos from the Turner Prize exhibition