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August 03 2012

NASA technology helps get video art off the ground

Kelly Richardson's latest work, which opens at Spanish City on the North Sea coast at Whitley Bay today, uses data sent by satellite to create a dramatic reconstruction of the surface of Mars

Kelly Richardson's latest work Mariner 9, which opens at Spanish City on the Whitley Bay coast today, uses data sent by satellite to create a dramatic reconstruction of the surface of Mars.

Kelly, who is originally from Ontario, now lives in Whitley Bay, so it is a particularly appropriate place to host the world premiere of Mariner 9. The work, on a 12 metre long screen, shows the desert-like surface of the planet as the artist imagines it might look in a few hundred years, after a battle has taken place, with the detritus of abandoned space ships scattered over the surface of Mars. The artist has taken NASA's own imagery and technical data to help recreate the arid Martian landscape, complete with dust-storm. By coincidence, NASA's Mars Curiousity is due to land on the planet on Monday. The artist says of Mariner 9:

It focuses on the contradiction of our beautiful endeavour to find life beyond Earth, to know that we're not alone in the universe, while simultaneously pointing to our incredibly destructive nature as a species which continues to destroy life we know to exist at an extraordinary rate.

Spanish City, designed by the Newcastle architects Cackett & Burns Dick, was once the centre of a pleasure resort that rivalled Blackpool in its heyday. It has been closed since 2000, so this is a rare chance to see inside before redevelopment takes place. The imposing white Edwardian building, which boasted the second largest dome in the country, after St Paul's cathedral, now belongs to North Tyneside council, and has just been given planning permission for redevelopment. It is hoped the complex will re-open in 2014. In his Buildings of Northumberland, echoing Coleridge's "stately pleasure dome", Pevsner describes it as a "high and stately dome (possibly one of the earliest in Britain to be built of ferro-concrete)"

As well as the screening in Spanish City, Legion, a large retrospective of her works is on at the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art (NGCA) in Sunderland, and a smaller display at the National Glass Centre, just across the river Wear. The NGCA is filled with several of her video works, including Exiles of the Shattered Star, where an idyllic scene in the Lake District is disturbed by a series of fireballs falling slowly towards a lake. Ferman Drive is a one minute long shot of a suburban Canadian street viewed from a car. Everything is normal about the dozens of houses with their well-tended gardens, other than for the couple of seconds when the camera goes past the house the artist grew up in, which she has painstakingly recreated as if it was spinning round and round. Glow shows a rear view of a television set, so that whatever is on the screen can only be imagined by the colours it throws onto a blank white wall – as the wall panel puts it, "intentionally simple, beguiling, and infuriating." Another world premiere is The Great Destroyer, an eight screen video installation showing a rain forest. The sound track is of the animals of the forest, including, disconcertingly, a lyrebird imitating the sound of a chainsaw.

Coinciding with the screening of Mariner 9, the Tyneside Cinema (which, with North Tyneside council, co-commissioned the work) is organising a series of events around the screening – details can be found here. The final days of the screening also coincide with the opening weekend of the Whitley Bay Film Festival.

Over the next couple of year, Mariner 9 and Legion will tour to the Towner, Eastbourne, the Grundy Art Gallery, Blackpool, the Albright Knox Gallery in Buffalo, New York and the Contemporary Art Gallery in Vancouver.

Mariner 9 is on at Spanish City, Whitley Bay, until 19 August
Legion is on at the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art until September 29
Orion Tide is on at the National Glass Centre until September 9 © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 26 2012

Stalking Schwitters in the Lake District

Newcastle honours the high priest of Dada, whose previous exhibitions include the notorious show 'curated' by the Nazi Goebbels on 'degenerate art'. Alan Sykes reports

Wakefield-born Helen Petts is a film-maker, a photographer and a painter who also works collaboratively with improvisational musicians.

In her latest work, commissioned for the Great North Museum's Hatton Gallery, she has created a film installation with sonic back-drop which follows the high priest of Dada, Kurt Schwitters, as he fled Nazi Germany for Norway and then on again to the Lake District. Schwitters has many passionate admirers, and the Merzbarn, his only surviving 'Merz' construction, made in a barn in the Langdale Valley in the months before his death in the Lake District in 1948, is now an integral part of the Hatton Gallery, and a place of pilgrimage for Schwitters' fans.

As an, at the time dangerous, addition to his cv, Schwitters was included in the Entartete Kunst – degenerate art – exhibition curated, if that's the right word, by Josef Goebbels in Munich in 1937. Schwitters had fled Germany a few months before the opening of the exhibition – which also included works by Mondrian, Max Ernst, Kandinsky, Kokoshka, Chagall, Otto Dix and Klee - as his son Ernst had evaded military service, and it became convenient for both of them to leave.
In Norway he mostly stayed on the small island of Hjertoya where the Schwitters Hytta still survives. Helen Petts followed him there, camping on the electricity-free island and filming the surroundings, as well as swimming in the icy fjord. It seems probable that, in creating the Merzbarn, Schwitters was, in some way, attempting to re-create the space in Norway where he was happy – as Helen Petts puts it: "

it was almost spooky how similar the landscape around the hytta is to Elterwater, and how like the Merzbarn the hytta itself is

Schwitters was forced to flee the Nazis again in 1940 when they invaded Norway. He embarked on the last Allied ship to leave, arriving in Scotland with his son, daughter-in-law, one piece of sculpture and two white mice. Eventually he landed up in the Lake District, where he spent the last three years of his life, occasionally selling portraits and landscapes of local scenes to earn a living. Although depressed that Kenneth Clark, then director of the National Gallery, refused to see him, his morale was lifted in 1947 when a cheque for $1,000 arrived from the Museum of Modern Art in New York, enabling him to start work on the Merzbarn. The wall of the barn which he had partially completed, by then falling into disrepair, was gifted by its owner to Newcastle University in the 1960s, and transported over there - with considerable difficulty - in the 1960s..
Helen has followed Schwitters almost obsessively for her film, camping on the island in Norway where Schwitters lived. She has also followed all of Schwitters' walking routes in the Lake District.

As the Dutch art historian Rudi Fuchs has pointed out

possibly the great achievement of Schwitters was that he discovered disorder as an expressive force in art.

The title of the exhibition comes from the description Schwitters gave of the random process he used with the materials for his collages. Helen Petts has used the apparently haphazard images she has made for her film to create an abstract narrative of the last 10 years of Schwitters' life – following him to his gravestone in Ambleside churchyard - forcing the viewer to concentrate on shape and form, texture and movement, tone and light, both in the film and the accompanying sound-track. Schwitters was a fan of avant garde music and composed abstract poetry using wordless vocal sounds to construct works like his Ur Sonata. Helen Petts has used experimental music and improvised sounds as the sound-track for her film, working with leading experimental musicians Phil Minton, Roger Turner, Adam Bodman and Sylvia Hallett.

Helen has said:

When I was invited to Hannover Jazz Week to screen some of my music films, I went to the Schwitters archive there and realised what an extraordinary artist he was and what an influence he has been on the musicians I work with who all work in free improvisation. And Schwitters was obviously a walker – he loved the mountains.

In the Hatton, the work will be shown on a large screen in the gallery next door to the Merzbarn, with six speakers immersing the viewer with the accompanying sounds.

Helen Pett's Throw Them Up and Let Them Sing: Following Kurt Schwitters' escape from Nazi Germany to Norway and the Lake District is on at the Great North Museum - Hatton Gallery, Newcastle, from June 28 until 18 August (with a Merz musical evening at the Sage Music Centre in Gateshead on June 30th). It will also be displayed at the White Room at the Royal Festival Hall, London, from 31 August to 8 September and at Hall Art Gallery, Kendal from 15 September to 19 November.

It has been chosen by the Huffington Post as one of the 21 Cultural Olympiad events not to miss this summer.

Here's a clip from YouTube of Petts filming Roger Minton, playing percussion with paintbrushes and palette knives, while Phil Minton sings Dada. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

May 18 2012

A little house made of human skin

Poignant, thoughtful and exhilarating by turns, the art of the family comes to the Laing in Newcastle. The Guardian Northerner's arts explorer Alan Sykes finds much to enjoy and admire

Family Matters, which opens at the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle today, Friday 18 May, shows over 60 artists and their very differing depictions of the family, going back to a 1542 portrait after Holbein of Edward VI aged six, and on to the 21st century.

The exhibition is organised around five broad – and overlapping - themes:
inheritance; childhood; couples & kinship; parenting and home.

Perhaps not surprisingly, death is frequently in the foreground or background of the paintings. Poor young Edward VI, dressed up in imitation of Holbein's grandiosifying iconography of Henry VIII to symbolise the power and continuity of the Tudor dynasty, only survived his father by a few years and died a teenager. Donald Rodney's 1996-7 "In the House of My Father" is a photograph of a miniature house held in the artist's hand. The house is made of skin removed from Rodney in operations for the sickle cell anaemia which was to kill him only a year later, aged 37.

In Gainsborough's charming "The Painter's Daughters Chasing a Butterfly" from the National Gallery, it is thought that the fragile butterfly may have been the painters way of depicting his older daughter Mary, who had died young. Sometimes the portraits are even done post mortem. In Pompeo Batoni's "The Hon Thomas and Mrs Barrett-Lennard with the daughter Barbara Anne", the daughter had been dead for a year when the grieving couple arrived in Rome on a grand tour. The painter had to make the likeness of Barbara Anne from a miniature which the Barrett-Lennards carried with them. Van Dyck's portrait of Venetia Digby was apparently commissioned by her widower, who had plaster casts of her face, hands and feet taken after her death. The sitter had died very suddenly and mysteriously aged only 32, and some suspicion of foul play fell on the husband, but nothing has ever been proved.

It's not all doom and death, however. Zoffany's amusing picture of David Garrick in drag and a rage in Vanbrugh's "The Provok'd Wife" is here, contrasting with the amusing for different reasons and much more overtly theatrical "The Prodigal Daughter" of 1903, by John Collier, in which a modern and independent-minded young woman is pitched against her Victorian-in-every-sense parents.

David Hockney's "My Parents", of 1977, shows his mother smiling fondly at her talented son, while his father is hunched over a copy of "Art & Photography" - apparently he was inclined to fidget when sitting if not allowed to read - while in a mirror on the chest we see a reflection of Piero della Francesca's "The Baptism of Christ" from the National Gallery. Michael Andrews' touching "Melanie and me Swimming" shows the artist teaching his daughter to swim, and looks at parenthood from the opposite end of the lens to Hockney.

Of course, one can have fun thinking of works that could have been included – I would have loved to have seen the extraordinary 1635 portrait">portrait of Sir Colin Campbell, 8th laird of Glenorchy, and his seven ancestral predecessors as laird, by George Jamesone, from the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. And some one can do without: even the Laing's Marie-Thérèse Mayne admitted that Joshua Reynolds' "The Age of Innocence" portrait of a young child is "cloyingly sweet", and it certainly makes one understand why the Pre-Raphaelites lampooned him as "Sir Sloshua Reynolds".

Although the "themes", which are enforced through colour-coding in the labels and in the catalogue - which is irritatingly divided into 5 flimsy pamphlets with no index, rather than being in a single handy volume - are too vague to be of any real use, there are certainly enough treasures to make it worth visiting the Laing to enjoy this free show. Other artists in the show include Gillian Wearing, Rachel Whiteread, Vanessa Bell, Mona Hatoum, Sickert, Stanley Spencer, Lely, Julia Margaret Cameron and Allan Ramsay.

Councillor Ged Bell, Chair of Tyne & Wear Joint Museums & Archives Committee (which runs the Laing and other museums and galleries in Tyne & Wear), says:

"It's very exciting to see the North East being involved in a partnership such as this Great British Art Debate project. The North East, as well as the rest of the UK has a wonderful artistic heritage which powerfully illustrates our sense of who we are and the Great British Art Debate is designed to encourage people to take part in an important debate about Britishness."

The Laing is one of the venues in Newcastle and Gateshead which will be taking part in this year's "The Late Shows", which takes place on the evenings of Friday 18 and Saturday 19 May, and this year includes a ukele jam session in the Sage Music Centre, a Space Hopper disco in the Shed, Gateshead, tours of the Victoria Tunnel under the streets of Newcastle, new sculptures at the Mining Institute and exhibitions and events in over 50 other venues – all accessible via a free bus service. Last year 24,000 people visited the 46 participating venues over the two nights, and this year the organisers hope to break that record.

"Family Matters" has been seen at the Norwich Castle Museum and at Museums Sheffield. It is on at the Laing until 2 September and then travels to Tate Britain (1 October to 21 December). © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

March 30 2012

March 29 2012

Street scenes of 19th-century Newcastle – in pictures

A remarkable set of original early glass negatives detailing everyday 19th-century street scenes has been found by Aaron Guy, who works at Newcastle's Mining Institute. Most are from Newcastle, but some in the collection are from other parts of the north-east. The photographer is unknown

Victorian Newcastle brought to life in photographic treasure trove

Newly discovered collection of photographic plates shows meat markets, rag sellers and street scenes from 1880s

When Aaron Guy peered into a forgotten box in an ancient Newcastle building, he could not have guessed the treasures contained inside. The curious photo archivist had stumbled upon a remarkable set of original early glass negatives, detailing everyday street scenes of 19th-century Newcastle.

Meat markets, fairs, rag sellers, small corner shops and larger than life street characters are among the subjects which feature in the high-quality, 300-image collection.

Guy, who works at the city's Mining Institute, was helping to shift old furniture for the Society of Antiquaries when his attention was diverted to the box.

"The society were moving to a smaller building and were passing some of their belongings to other organisations," he said. "I was just being nosy really, peering into boxes, when I happened to spot that one contained some really old glass negatives. I thought they seemed interesting so we asked for permission to bring the plate boxes back to our office to have a proper look."

The work seems to date back at least to 1880 and the cohesion of the images suggests at least a third of them may have been created by a single photographer. His deliberate documentation of working-class life was unusual for the period, perhaps more in tune with the celebrated street photographers who followed in his footsteps almost a century later, in the 1960s and 70s.

The most arresting images are from the Newcastle streets, but the collection also contains work from other parts of the north-east, most recognisably Tynemouth and Lindisfarne.

By 1871 Newcastle industrialist Joseph Swan had devised a method of producing dry photographic plates, which meant there was no immediate need for a darkroom and chemical processing, and made photography more convenient and commercially viable. Within a few years his city factory was the largest and most successful manufacturer of dry plates in the world.

By the 1880s, Newcastle was prosperous and sophisticated. It had a thriving cultural and intellectual scene, with frequent lectures, debates and scientific demonstrations. Yet this photographer chose to point his lens at ordinary people.

"We know very little about where these negatives have come from," Guy said. "They were never catalogued and the society doesn't recall how or when it came by them. We aren't even completely sure whether they are one photographer's archive, or if they were produced by several individuals. Photography would have been a very expensive hobby at that time, but this person was shooting in a very contemporary way.

"Despite the cumbersome equipment he would have been using – a large plate camera, probably on a tripod – I would describe this as observational documentary, almost photojournalistic in style.

"The work doesn't look staged, but if it was then the photographer was doing things very differently from his contemporaries. This work feels less distant and more engaged than other series I have seen.

"It may have been someone with means, or a commercial photographer with quite a distinctive viewpoint, who decided that Joe Bloggs on the street was more interesting to photograph in his spare time than the high society of Newcastle. He was really quite ahead of his time in that respect."

Guy and his colleagues are still scanning the work and researching locations and possible identities of the photographer. They are also keen to find another 15 boxes of plates which were sent by the Society of Antiquaries to other places.

"I was really quite lucky to find this box," he said. "I don't know if someone forgot it or planned to pick it up later. The aim now is to date and catalogue the work, and then to put it out to other organisations in the city and hopefully get it seen, because it really belongs to the people of Newcastle." © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

December 16 2011

The north east honours its neglected sculptor - the Durham blacksmith's son

He was asked to design the lions for Trafalgar Square but turned the job down, giving Edwin Landseer his big - and expensive - chance. Alan Sykes lifts stones

Back in 1845, the original plan for Trafalgar Square was that the four lions guarding the then brand new Nelson's Column would be designed by the fashionable sculptor John Graham Lough at a cost of £3,000.

After some discussion, and apparent disagreement with the column's architect William Railton, Lough turned down the commission: the lions were eventually sculpted by Edwin Landseer and finished 22 years later at a final price of £17,000. The Victorians were just as capable as we are at finishing their projects years behind deadline and many times over budget.

Lough has been neglected and out of fashion for the last century or more, and it is hoped that a new exhibition at the Hatton Gallery, organised by Tyne & Wear Museums, will help somewhat to restore his reputation.

The son of a County Durham blacksmith, John Graham Lough was born in 1798. One of his first jobs was as a stonemason building Newcastle's Literary & Philosophical Society. In the 1820s he left for London, where he was nearly thrown out of his lodgings for breaking a hole in the ceiling to enable him to complete his massive clay model of the six times Olympic wrestling champion Milo of Croton.

Although he spent much of his career in London, producing works for St Paul's and Canterbury Cathedrals and statues of Prince Albert and Queen Victoria for the Royal Exchange, he is best known for two public sculptures in his native North East – the Collingwood Memorial in Tynemouth and the George Stephenson Memorial outside Newcastle's Central Station.

Collingwood's memorial at Tynemouth was completed in 1845. Lough sculpted the 7 metre high statue of Nelson's second-in-command in Portland stone, and it stands looking out at the North Sea on a massive pedestal designed by John Dobson, with four cannons from his flagship The Royal Sovereign – Collingwood's ship led the attack at Trafalgar, making Nelson exclaim: "See how that noble fellow Collingwood takes his ship into action."

The Stephenson Memorial, near Newcastle's Central Station, is a less heroic affair, with the "Father of Railways" a mere 7 foot high in bronze, and rather than lions or cannons, George Stephenson's four sidekicks are a plate-layer, a blacksmith, a miner (complete with his Stephenson-invented safety lamp) and a locomotive engineer. The cost of £4,500 was raised by public subscription, and the work was unveiled on 2 October 1862 – huge crowds attended the honouring of one of Newcastle's favourite sons, with 10,000 workers processing with banners sporting slogans like Peace Promotes Industry and May Honest Industry ever be Fairly Rewarded, and a further estimated 100,000 people watching.

Although Newcastle was left a large collection of Lough's works by the sculptor's widow, sadly most of these have since been lost. The Hatton Gallery owns a number of smaller Lough sculptures, including his The Infant Lyrist Taming Cerberus and Sabrina, a nearly life-sized female nude. Complementing the sculptures for this exhibition is an extensive display of works borrowed from the British Museum, the V&A, the National Portrait Gallery, Alnwick Castle, the Laing Art Gallery, the Lit & Phil and Newcastle Libraries.

Emily Marsden, the Hatton Gallery's curator, says:

Because of his prominent public sculptures such as the Collingwood and Stephenson monuments, many people are aware of John Graham Lough's work without realising it. Lough was a celebrated artist in his day but he later fell into neglect. We hope this exhibition will help bring him back to prominence. The fact that Lough's work found its way into national collections and the support he received from important local patrons indicate how highly it was considered. We're delighted to be able to bring some of those works on loan to the Hatton. We also have some wonderful archive material which shows how his sculptures were displayed and appreciated in the past.

The John Graham Lough exhibition is on until February 18 at the Hatton Gallery, Newcastle University. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 21 2011

Tiny Tyneside church beats Canterbury cathedral and Gormley in arts competition

Engraved glass so delicate that frost can change its nature helps scoop top prize for Northumberland. The Northerner's arts monitor Alan Sykes reports

A tiny church high above the Tyne valley has beaten off competition from the likes of Canterbury Cathedral to win this year's Art in a Religious Context award from the charity Art & Christian Enquiry.

The biennial award was made for two commemorative stained glass windows commissioned for St John's church, Healey, in Northumberland, by artists Anne Vibeke Mou and James Hugonin.

Anne Vibeke Mou was born in Denmark and graduated with an MA from the Royal College of Art in 2005 before moving to Newcastle. She has shown in Denmark, Prague and London as well as at the National Glass Centre at Sunderland University. Her work for St John's, which lies between Hexham and Newcastle-upon-Tyne, is a sheet of glass covered with thousands of tiny impact marks made by hitting the glass with a tungsten point, creating swirling, cloud-like forms which can be seen from the outside of the church as well as from its interior. A hard frost can affect her window, giving it an extra layer of depth.

James Hugonin was born in county Durham and graduated from the Chelsea School of Art in 1975. He has shown at the Baltic and Kettle's Yard in Cambridge as well as in London, Edinburgh and Germany. He is shortlisted for this year's Northern Art Prize which opens at the Leeds City Art Gallery on November 25th. His window is made of small rectangles of glass, some transparent and some translucent, mainly red, blue, yellow and green. Although totally abstract, a double helix form can be made out in the patterns of colour.

The two windows were commissioned as a memorial to his parents Julian & Virginia Warde-Aldam by local landowner, Hotspur magazine editor and churchwarden Jamie Warde-Aldam, a relation of the Quaker Robert Ormston who built the charming neo-Norman church in 1860 (at the third attempt, the nave having collapsed twice during the building process). Jamie says:

Everyone in the parish is delighted with the award. Working with James and Anne Vibeke on the project for a year has been a deeply rewarding, educational experience. They both have the highest standards, are meticulous in their respective methods and showed a sensitivity to each other's work as well as for the character and fabric of the church. Without their generosity, patience and friendship, this commission would not have happened.

The prize is worth £4,000, with £1,500 each going to the artists and £1,000 to the church. Other finalists for the award included sculptor Antony Gormley, who created another of his human figures, this time made up of old iron nails, for Canterbury Cathedral, Jonathon Parson's grid-like Cruciform Vision for Guildford Cathedral, Thomas Denny's Transfiguration stained glass window for Durham Cathedral, and Katy Armes' NoThing for Hellington Church in Norfolk. The judges were chaired by the Dean of Chichester, the Very Rev Nicholas Frayling.

Laura Moffatt, Director of Art & Christian Enquiry, comments:

This year's ACE Awards have once again revealed the depth and diversity of artistic practice among faith communities in the UK. Our short-lists included an Islamic Hall of Remembrance and a major new stained glass window in a cathedral, as well as some very high quality works of art and architecture in small rural parish churches. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

October 22 2011

Turner prize 2011 - review

Baltic, Gateshead; Hayward Gallery, London

George Shaw is an oddity in recent Turner prize history in that his paintings do exactly what they say on the tin. The tins in question are the little pots of Humbrol model paints with which he creates his meticulous one-size-fits-all scenes from the place he grew up, Tile Hill in Coventry. Eight of them are presented for his Turner prize 2011 show at the Baltic, four of which are new pieces. They quickly do away with arguments about sentiment and the limitations of simple depiction, and demand that you look.

If there is a soundtrack playing behind Shaw's compositions of the returned-to terrain of his 1980s adolescence it is the Specials' "Ghost Town". He finds traces of human occupation in his excavation of this recent past, like the shades of scrubbed-out graffiti on an end-of-terrace wall, but mostly this place is as emptied of life as Pompeii. He chooses his angles carefully. The places he dwells on, like his past itself, are boarded up and closed down to him. In the brick-built lock-ups of The Resurface even the ingrained child's-bike landscape of puddles and potholes, the gravelly contours of empty Sunday afternoons foregrounded in much of Shaw's painting, has been Tarmac-ed over.

Elsewhere, he can get only as close to the boxy houses of a new cul-de-sac as the wonky builders' fencing and rutted brownfield no man's land will allow. In The Assumption, his old primary school may have been razed but the gates remain stubbornly locked – one strut pulled out of true by some forgotten accident – along with the vestiges of the "Keep Clear" sign on the road.

Shaw's hobbyist's paints and Airfix eye for detail capture the diminished postwar reimagination of his corner of the city with an obsessive, metallic precision: the slowly accreted landfill mountain of black plastic sacks in The Same Old Crap; the brilliant comic incongruity of Landscape With Dog Shit Bin, an omphalos of council scarlet in the centre of a landscape leached of green by the drabness of the day and the neglected tiredness of verges and hedging.

Philip Larkin, another Coventry exile – Shaw now lives in north Devon – would have loved these paintings, but they are made with love as much as any kind of bitterness. They are also a hard act to follow.

The three other Turner nominees at the Baltic all make a strong fist of it, though. Martin Boyce is also much concerned with the interface between concrete and jungle. His work interrogates the implications of early modernist ideas of nature, in particular a photograph of four angular "tree" sculptures made by the artists Joel and Jan Martel in 1925.

He uses the leaf forms to create a kind of prefabricated ode to autumn; at ceiling height the stylised leaves become an elaborate lighting rig; flattened art deco versions of the pattern are adopted for ventilation grilles and a three-dimensional take becomes a waste bin. The floor is littered with paraffin-paper leaves artfully blown into piles.

Within this idealised municipal park, Boyce makes more personal statements; his angular forms are the basis of a self-invented hieroglyph typeface, etched into the school-desk surface of a work table inspired by an Eames design and referencing a Calder mobile. A utopian breeze from the 1920s seems to threaten to blow through these works and animate them – of nature and public spaces recrafted in harmony by the artist – but they remain as curiously inert and ghostly as George Shaw's shopping precincts.

Next door, there is creative nostalgia of a different kind in Karla Black's pastel swags and scrunched-up sugar paper hills and valleys which fill the room. The smells and colours are of a nursery school, and Black's make-believe landscape looks like a wilful return to more innocent artistic freedoms. She colours her polythene clouds by whacking them in a bin bag full of Early Learning Centre chalks until the colour sticks; pink bath bombs have part-exploded on her chalky hillsides. Beyond the sense of play there are primal psychologies at work, of a pure infant engagement with colour and material and form and, through adult eyes, all the loss of wonder it implies.

Hilary Lloyd's films are also hung up on barriers to wonder, especially the difficulties of looking itself. Moon is a pair of vertical screens on each of which 21 moving images of a full moon behind a clock tower outside the artist's window are projected. None will stay still for a moment; they flicker and bounce and move in and out of frame. You are reminded of the fragmentary rods and cones of vision, the way even the solidest of objects is pieced together from flickering fragments in the brain. Lloyd emphasises partiality – Shirt, a concentrated close up of a striped and spotted fabric, is a limited but smart illustration of how looking is as much to do with language as form – and you find yourself beginning to apply the same doubts to the complicated bridges and buildings that make up Gateshead through the adjacent window.

Going straight to the George Condo retrospective at the Hayward in London, after these discreet and concentrated slices of attention on Tyneside, is perhaps not the ideal juxtaposition. Condo's world is decidedly broad brush and translatlantic.

Having hung out with Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat in the heady New York of 1980, Condo has trademarked a personal purgatorial cartoon world that is one part Francis Bacon, two parts Bugs Bunny. His satirical objects are the perceived grotesques of our times – The Stockbroker a jug-eared knucklehead with his pants down, a limp rag doll standing in for his manhood, or The Executive, who is pictured, for comic effect, beneath a dangling carrot (the Queen, in nine versions, and Jesus, in two, come in for similar Looney Tunes treatment).

Much is made of Condo's internal menagerie of characters – as if this were unusual among cartoonists – and the speed at which he works. His more recent semi-abstractions tend to ape art history standards – harlequins in search of a Picasso or whatever; Old masters are recast with his speciality gurning faces, in the same spirit that the Chapman brothers defaced their Goyas, but without the sacrilegious questions raised.

Satire generally requires some specificity; Condo mines instead the archetypal – the homeless drunk woman with a windmilling drinking arm; the dinner-jacketed toff with an unhinged libido – and attempts to make it extreme enough to resonate.

It didn't, for me, as a rule. I liked his Uncle Joe not so much for the figure's post-coital leer and the champagne glass balanced on the upturned sole of his foot, but for the fact that his mad, staring eye was somewhat reminiscent of Steve Bell's Tony Blair and the visual echo seemed fitting. In this kind of context, Condo's portraits of Her Majesty, goggle-eyed in most, a carrot through her head in one, surprise principally for their laziness. Quite endearingly, the artist acts as his own cheerleader in the catalogue – though the unlikely duo of Will Self and Kanye West also tout his genius. "They may not be pretty," Condo explains of his portraits, "but I think we can all see ourselves in these pictures; they are so hideous and yet so utterly real." Speak for yourself, George. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

September 20 2011

Fancy some of Newcastle's civic sculpture? Try eBay

Council makes a bob or two by flogging off the Lego Men whose associated fountain squirted shoppers once too often. The Guardian Northerner's arts correspondent Alan Sykes reports.

Most of us will have know the problem of how to get rid of an unwanted possession, and lots of people are using online auction sites as the solution.

In Newcastle City Council's case, the unwanted possession is a series of 44 six foot high stylised human figures made of re-enforced concrete and pebbledash weighing half a ton each, and they've decided to flog them off on ebay.

The figures, dubbed locally the "Lego Men", were part of an artwork by Ray Smith that stood next to Newcastle's Haymarket metro station between 1999 and 2008. Erected at a cost of £270,000, the works, officially called "Shoulder to Shoulder", stand near to the hexagonal Boer War memorial obelisk with its bronze statue of Nike as Winged Victory (although in 1978 her wings were replaced with fibreglass after being damaged by lightening). They acted as an effective barrier between the pedestrianised area round the metro station and a very busy road junction. Unfortunately the water feature of the work did not react well to squally weather, occasionally giving unsuspecting passers-by an unwelcome soaking. In 2008 they were removed (at a cost of a further £70,000) and stored on a piece of wasteland near the city centre.

The Newcastle Evening Chronicle, not a fan of the sculpture, was recently given one of the figures and, after a competition, handed it over to Laura Taylor, who plans to paint it in Newcastle United's black and white and Alan Shearer's number 9 and stick it in her garden in Chester-le-Street.

Putting Newcastle United football colours on artworks is not new in these parts – some time ago the people behind Viz magazine somehow managed to winch a giant black & white shirt onto the torso of the Angel of the North.

Meanwhile, the first figure made £1254 on ebay when all the bids finished last week, up from its original start of 99p, and substantially more than the council was expecting. There are now four more figures up for sale – two pairs and two singles – with the auctions ending at midday on September 23rd. The proceeds from the sale will go to the Newcastle Fund, which gives money to local voluntary groups. Newcastle City Council leader Coun Nick Forbes comments:

Whilst it is unrealistic to expect us to recoup our original investment, all previous options involved a cost to the council so it's good to see as much money as possible being raised for good causes across our city.

Get bidding now!

Any public sculpture you'd like to see on eBay btw? Or to bid for? Please let us know... © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

May 25 2011

Summer arts calendar: Newcastle

NewcastleGateshead is gearing up for a summer full of art, theatre, music, food and festivals. Jon Corbett and Stephen Noble of Keep Your Eyes Open are your guides

Newcastle's top 10 budget eats
The Turner prize goes to Gateshead in October 2011

Evolution Festival, 28-29 May

Newcastle isn't a city famed for its large-scale music festivals, but this summer the spotlight will firmly be on Tyneside. Evolution will kick things off with a carnival of music and special events over two days on the banks of the Tyne. Plan B, Tinie Tempah and rock legends Iggy Pop and the Stooges are on the line-up for this year's weekender. The cream of the region's up and coming musical crop will also take over the neighbouring Ouseburn Valley as part of Evolution Emerging and the Happy Mondays' Shaun Ryder will DJ at the Riverside on Sunday at the after show house party.
• Newcastle Gateshead Quayside, weekend tickets £35 plus booking fee, day tickets £25 plus booking fee, 0844 248 5086,

Newcastle Community Green Festival, 4-5 June

Now entering its 16th year, the Newcastle Community Green festival follows the UN World Environment Week, and this year organisers promise to make it the most interactive and family-friendly festival they've had. There's a wide range of music across four renewably powered stages, a kids area, circus area and workshops on how to become a little greener. The community vibe among the 10,000 people filling up Leazes Park makes it one of the friendliest places to feel guilty about taking the car in to town that day.
• noon-6pm Leazes Park, free,

¡VAMOS! Festival, 4 June-10 July

Tyneside has something of a booming Latin American community, and for five years organisers of the ¡VAMOS! Festival have worked tirelessly in their bid to celebrate Spanish and Portuguese speaking cultures across Newcastle and Gateshead. ¡VAMOS! 2011 will launch with a Tyne Carnival procession through the streets of Newcastle on Saturday 4 June, ushering in five weeks of live Latin American music, food and film. The festival will feature Lucha Libre Mexican wrestling at the Sage Gateshead, a Revolution on Paper exhibition (focusing on the great age of Mexican printmaking) at the Hatton Gallery and a South American film season at the Star and Shadow cinema.
• Many events are free, others range from £5-20,

Behind The Scenes Weekend, 10-12 June

If you've ever wondered what resides in the vaults of an art gallery or fancied having a nosey backstage at your favourite theatre, this run of behind-the-scenes tours of Newcastle and Gateshead's cultural venues may be of interest. Tour guides will allow visitors to explore some of the region's most historic haunts including the Theatre Royal in Grainger Town, Northern Stage, based at the site of Newcastle's famous playhouse, and BALTIC, the international centre for contemporary visual arts on Gateshead's quayside. You'll gain access to spaces never seen before by the public.
• Free,

Robert Breer exhibition, 11 June-25 September

Spanning two levels in the BALTIC complex (pictured above), the most comprehensive exhibition of American artist Robert Breer, one of the most influential animator/filmmakers of modern times, brings together his paintings, ground-breaking films and radical sculptures from the last 60 years. There will also be a selection of films showing the work of Breer's influencers and peers, a tour by BALTIC curator Laurence Sillars and, at the Star and Shadow cinema, a seminar on his work by speakers Mat Fleming, Gary Thomas and avant garde champion Pip Chodorov.
• BALTIC events are free, Star and Shadow tickets £8, £6 concessions,

EAT! Festival, 17-26 June

Now in its fifth year, EAT! Festival aims to "advocate all the pleasures of creating and sharing good food and drink in the North East". EAT! has built up a solid reputation as a food festival like no other, encouraging food aficionados and those who think a Greggs pasty is a culinary high to come together and enjoy food in a friendly environment. Highlights include a street food festival, 10 Things To Eat Before You Die, and Eat-a-long Movies – where student chefs will recreate the dishes from foodie movies while you watch on screen: Mexican dishes will be served with Like Water For Chocolate and French with Julie and Julia. With more than 50 events, it's worth looking at the full programme.
• Prices and locations vary,

In The Long Run: Thirty Years of The Great North Run, 18 June-1 October

Having received critical acclaim last year for its portrayal of the world's largest half-marathon, the In The Long Run Exhibition is back for another term. Exploring the history and social significance of Bupa's Great North Run, this updated version of the exhibition will feature depictions of Newcastle cityscapes as well as artistic works from archives spanning three decades. Housed at the South Shields Museum, near the spot where thousands of runners cross the finishing line each year, this updated collection will be a fitting tribute to the region's cultural identity and one of the UK's most loved sporting events.
• South Shields Museum and Arts Gallery, free,

Ignition Festival, 6-7August

Post-punk giants Echo & The Bunnymen, fellow Merseysider Miles Kane and alternative folkster Frank Turner will get the party going at the north-east's latest musical gathering this summer at the 18,000 capacity rugby ground at Kingston Park. With a strong ethos on supporting the region's local talent, the line-up also features kitchen-sink indie diamonds the Little Comets, the hotly-tipped Let's Buy Happiness and BBC 6 Music darlings Grandfather Birds.
• Kingston Park, weekend tickets £50, single day £30,

Pitmen Painters at the Journal Tyne Theatre, 8-13 August

Following a sell out run at Newcastle's Live Theatre, Pitmen Painters went on to enjoy success on a national tour plus a stint in New York. But now it's returning home to play at the Journal Tyne. Adapted from a book by William Feaver and written by Lee Hall of Billy Elliot fame, the story revolves around a group of miners enrolling in an art appreciation class in 1930s industrial Ashington. Within a matter of years, the miners had the art world chattering with their creations, and this touching and often hilarious show is, as the Guardian said, "breathtaking in its scope".
• Tickets from £11.50-£28,

• Steve Noble is society editor and Jon Corbett the chief reporter of the arts and culture blog © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

April 06 2010

Britain's best views: Hadrian's Wall

Martin Wainwright explores the ancient Roman frontier, from the famous grandeur of Housesteads fort to its less-visited outposts

Hadrian's Wall may seem a bit of a shoe-in when it comes to Britain's best views, but the monument is much more than the often - and understandably - repeated views of Cuddy's Crags and Sewingshields on the crest of that wonderful escarpment, the Whin Sill.

In truth, it is hard to beat the romantic, lonely grandeur of this famous stretch above Housesteads fort ( and and the Twice Brewed Inn. But the less well-known parts of the 74-mile frontier, built as the Northern frontier of the Roman empire at the height of its power, are a particular treat to discover and enjoy.

They can be linked in a day or two's exploration between Wallsend and the Solway Firth, using the Military Road part of the way - more mundanely known today as the B6318. This conveniently follows the legions' original highway between their lookout turrets, milecastles and major forts such as Housesteads. Inconveniently, its ruthless 18th-century builder General Wade used a lot of wall stone to make it.

The great monument's quieter options include fragments which survive in the surreal setting of everyday suburban Newcastle and a phallic symbol on Chollerford bridge abutment which blesses Wall walkers with good luck. There's also Limestone Corner, the empire's actual furthest north, where Hadrian's men got fed up with huge boulders and abandoned them in the middle of splitting the rock into neat stones. You can see their unfinished chisel holes.

The Wall's urban stretches are best on Tyneside, which offers the partially reconstructed fort of Arbeia in South Shields. The name means "the place of the Arabs" and comes from legionaries recruited in Iraq. Tests on DNA at the other end of the wall suggest genetic links between modern residents and Roman soldiers originally from North Africa.

Much has been made of these southerners shivering in the Geordie chill – W.H.Auden's Roman Wall Blues is an example, and good for children to learn and chant. More of them were based at Segedunum in the middle of Wallsend which was a Cinderella until Millennium Lottery money paid for one of the Wall's biggest excavations and an excellent viewing tower.

This doesn't strictly give one of Britain's best views, but the panorama across town and Tyne is absorbing. Segedunum's reconstructed bath house meanwhile rivals Housesteads' famous communal lavatories for an insight in Hadrianic hygiene, and signs at Wallsend's Metro train station have been translated into Latin.

Just for atmosphere, I like Denton Hall Turret and its 65m (213ft) of wall which lies between a housing estate and a dual carriageway just east of the West Road/A1 roundabout on the edge of Newcastle. Gone are the imposing fortifications shown on English Heritage's website but you can potter round the few courses remaining and chat to shoppers getting off the many buses. There's another, smaller fragment, just down the hill behind the filling station.

Heading west, the fortunate phallus is one of a necklace of sights at Chollerford, including a short but lovely stretch of wall at Brunton Turret, the bridge remains and major excavations at Chesters fort. The big George Hotel by the river is comfy, or you can have the satisfactory experience of visiting the Hadrian hotel in Wall, the next village south.

For quiet beauty, Birdoswald fort is a good bet, with walks to the east beside the longest unbroken stretch of the entire wall. A little further west is another English Heritage property, Lanercost Priory whose monks pioneered the General Wade policy of stone-pillaging but made something beautiful rather than useful.

There is much, much more. But my final recommendation lies way to the west at Ravenglass on the Cumbrian coast, where a naval base protected the Solway frontier from pirates. The remains of the bath house are among the tallest surviving from Roman Britain at nearly four metres (13ft), and the village has masses more to see and do, from Muncaster Castle to 'Lil Ratty', the narrow-gauge trains of the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway.

Staying is no problem near the wall, although book ahead in summer. And if you ever get the time for a week or 10 days' visit, hike the Hadrian's Wall national trail, an additional 10 miles long but by far the best way of seeing the monument.  En route, you'll discover why the pub at Housesteads is Twice Brewed and the youth hostel Once Brewed. Don't cheat with Google. It's worth going there to find out. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 19 2009

Newcastle's new arts festival is Wunderbar

What do lizards, vampires and gameshows have in common? Colette Bernhardt heads to the city's inaugural 10-day arts bonanza to find out

Over the last few days I've walked on a mattress made of mirrors, dressed as an overweight fairy, hugged a giant lizard, dodged vampires, danced to Dusty Springfield and smashed the living daylights out of a yard full of scrap metal.

No, it's not the latest form of therapy: this is Wunderbar, a new 10-day arts festival in Newcastle-upon-Tyne that promotes all the right touchy-feely things about audience participation and artistic interaction, and actually means them too. "Rather than simply viewing a piece of art or watching a performance, people have the chance to make things with the artists, and to be artists themselves," explains the festival's creative director Ilana Mitchell.

And so, by scribbling on a giant Newcastle street plan placed in the third-floor bar of Tyneside Cinema, I made my own artistic mark on Trap Street, a social game created by interactive theatremakers Sandpit, based on the little-known fact that cartographers sometimes invent fictitious roads to trap plagiarists. After adding our own truths and lies to the map, and guessing at the veracity of others' contributions, it emerged that 11 players believed in the "Gateshead Were-rat", while several more were convinced that Bath Lane was "the one place in Newcastle where you can't see a Greggs bakery".

Games crop up frequently on Wunderbar's programme, with varying degrees of success. Search Party's marathon ping-pong tournament at Eldon Square promised "new, unexpected narratives" in a "site-specific, durational performance". Yet it delivered little more than an extra-long table-tennis session, in which the same player took on members of the public and played to a lacklustre, scripted commentary.

By contrast, Who Wants To Be …?, a slickly-produced gameshow with the corporate feel of a money-spinning television broadcast, provided one of the week's highlights with a hugely liberating and spontaneous night of audience autonomy. After brainstorming, arguing and then voting on how to spend the evening's takings (£1,000, as our 100-strong crowd had each paid 10-quid entry), we whittled the options down to nine favourites, ranging from an otter conservation project to placing a "toilet roll of tenners" in a public loo. By the end, nearly everyone had voiced an opinion, a village in Zambia was getting a generator, and faith in democracy was restored.

Money is a recurrent theme in the festival, with Wunderbar organisers keen to emphasise that creative juices needn't stop flowing just because cash has. "We wanted to respond to the recession, so as well as many of the events being cheap or free, there's a big focus on DIY culture and reclaiming disused spaces," says Mitchell.

Hence the inclusion of Alastair MacLennan's Coil to Met, a live performance and installation at a former bathroom showroom, an outdoor "housewarming" on the site of a stalled housing development in Byker, and a "skill-swapping session" where participants learn new talents for nothing.

But nowhere were Wunderbar's ambitions for credit crunch-consciousness and active participation more fully realised than in Joshua Sofaer's Tours of People's Homes, in which local people invited members of the public for "unique experiences" inside their homes. At one front door in Gateshead, I was greeted by a six-foot orange caterpillar, and given a tutu and turquoise wig to wear. In the living room, I discovered five others dressed like me scoffing cake and watching the 80s children's cartoon, Willo the Wisp. But that was the thin end of the wedge; other tours offered all-night curry and cat-cuddling, dinner-party food fights, and a brother and sister giving you a bath. At Pauline Frost's Jesmond flat, we viewed our hostess urinating through a catheter that fed into her "second belly button".

The last image sounds disturbing, but for Frost, the operation which rebuilt her "shrivelled walnut" of a bladder after years of pain and disability has been a lifeline. Her story of degenerative illness followed by miraculous healing, which she told with humour, openness and tremendous strength of spirit, was the most powerful moment of the whole festival. It helped that she kept it simple; a bit like Goh Ideta's mesmerising installation at Vane Gallery, Reflections, where hundreds of mirrors project firefly-like lights as you move across them. Not so with Rajni Shah's performance piece Dinner with America, which, though interesting in some of its individual elements, tried to do too much at once, and has lost its relevance in the post-Bush era.

Overall, Wunderbar has done a solid job of achieving its desires for participation and inclusiveness. Yes, many attendees were hip twenty- and thirty-somethings, but an encouraging number had never been to anything like it before. The Haircuts by Children project, for instance, drew in youngsters from inner-city primary schools, while staging events in central shopping areas allowed pensioners and non-arty types to be involved, too. It's a project that has managed to be both innovative and engaging without being intimidating: I'll definitely be back for more next year.

• The festival's main programme has just ended, but you can still catch the following Wunderbar exhibitions and shows: Reflections at Vane Gallery (until 28 November); Coil to Met at Reg Vardy Gallery (until 27 November); Performance Now & Then at Gallery North (until 20 November); Flagrant Wisdom at National Glass Centre (21 and 22 November). © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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