The Baltic Mill: Giving Contemporary Art A Good Name

The Baltic Mill in Gateshead isn’t the most attractive of buildings; it was, after all built as a mill and the storage and processing of grain didn’t require too much ornamentation. There are visible attempts of grandeur; notably the tiled words ‘Baltic Flour Mill’ and the clean vertical lines but, like its big brother on the South Bank in London, its beauty lies within its tall brick faรงade. I’m at risk of veering off into Sewellisms here so be warned: pretentious nonsense may follow…
Unlike Tate Modern however, the Baltic has kept things beautifully simple. I spent two hours in the place this morning and saw six pieces of art by three different artists; Mark Wallinger, Janet Cardiff & Richard Legg. I would have been hard pressed to see much more as (I think) that was it. Wallinger had four pieces on display, the most striking of which was a work of over 60,000 pebbles of different shapes, sizes & colours (as pebbles tend to be) arranged in a grid pattern on the floor. They weren’t stuck to the pieces of squared paper upon which they were sitting and we were politely warned on entering the room that this was the case lest we send one of the precious pieces of stone skimming across the floor by an inadvertent foot movement. I was careful not to do so. Richard Rigg had built a shed on the ground floor. It was, well… a shed. I could however see what the artist was trying to do; the shed, placed in the centre of a white room could, if you squinted, be on top of a Scottish mountain covered in fog. Sheds aren’t really my thing (it comes of living in a flat I suppose) but it had its charms.
The highlight of the visit however was to be found sandwiched between Wallinger & Rigg on level 3. Janet Cardiff’s work was commissioned by the Baltic as part of a pre-opening programme ten years ago; ‘The Forty Part Motet’ consists of forty speakers each one providing the sound from one singer of Salisbury Cathedral Choir. Arranged in groups of four, the audience is free to wander around the speakers and by doing so change ever so slightly the impact of each member of the choir. An amazing sound which works on a sound level, on a visual level but also on an imaginative level; close your eyes and you are taken off to a cathedral listening to a cathedral choir. The effect is breathtaking.
The other breathtaking aspect of the Baltic is the view. From the level 5 viewing gallery, a panoramic view of the Tyne, its bridges & Newcastle beyond. Stunning on many levels (but especially level 3). There is a real risk that the Baltic Mill in Gateshead could give contemporary art a good name. It has probably been doing so for the past ten years but I was never there to take note…


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