Call that art?

Bypass Gateshead's glitzy-but-gutless Baltic art centre and head down to Segedunum's real-life Roman fort.

David Lee

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Mention of Newcastle and Gateshead has the feature-writing hack lunging for the ‘renaissance’ entry in the thesaurus: revival, reinvigoration, regeneration, rebirth, rekindling, new life, the Geordie Phoenix rising from the ashes, etc, etc.

Newcastle was dead: no pits, no ships, no blast furnaces, no jobs, no midfield. Even Sid the Sexist and the Fat Slags had deserted south. Now things are different, very different. There are call centres, pensioners tripping to the Metro centre, the Angel of the North, loft apartments with balconies overlooking the river bend, nightly bacchanalia in the Bigg Market and…the new Baltic arts centre, built in the old flour mill of the Baltic. It all adds up to a new zip.

It isn’t true, of course. Tyneside is now as empty, characterless and vomit-splattered as everywhere else – although on the plus side unemployment’s down to only twice the national average and it’s frothy lattes all round on the polished riparian terraces.

The Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead is an off-the-peg modern strand development to die for. Future prosperity starts here with stainless steel handrails, layered steps (even curvy steps), the obligatory new wow-bridge, red sandpaper for the mountain bikes, and bottom-heavy offices built in that vile pinky granite beloved of directors and full partners. No more of that Victorian gloom.

But sadly, like similar redevelopments around the country, this is a gutless, anaesthetic resort of almost tangible spiritual emptiness, but very appealing nevertheless to overfed and overdressed Service Industry slaves. And the river? Still as a reservoir, not even a bloody canoe in sight. The Tyne was busier and exhibited more industry when the Romans built Pons Aelius, a mere 1920 years ago.

The Baltic, with its computer-modelled, low-rise entrance hall is the honey pot for weekenders momentarily diverted from their retail addiction. Stylistically, it was forced to buy a concession to the State-approved franchise for contemporary art museums: restaurants, see-through lifts visible to joggers, ‘shopping opportunities’, deck-plate stairs, raw timber floors, and vertiginous views of tidal reaches and bridges from the roof. The icing on the cake will be a Norman Foster concert hall opening soon next door.

But what’s on show inside this triumph, this audacious masterpiece, which caused the Arts Council to change the Lottery rules so they could pay for its running costs? Well, there is a strobe-effect flashing light show, presumably plagiarised from a science museum somewhere near you; more of those crass outline figures by Julian Opie; a video of stupefying mediocrity projected to a vast size; some gongs to bang (but not too hard in case you wake up the curators); and some spiffing model bridges made of Meccano, which would be just the ticket in a toy museum but are bewilderingly out of place in an art gallery. Half an hour top whack, no sweat.

Such a lot of money and effort for such a minute dividend. In the wake of the Baltic, a new definition of a fashionable contemporary artwork might be: an object in which the cost of its making is in inverse proportion to its content and the scale of its presentation.

One work in the Baltic epitomises the vacuity of State Art and its money-squandering policies: the much-reproduced model of the high Tyne Bridge by American Chris Burden. Placed on the top floor so you can see the original through the window behind, it is large enough for an adult to stoop under. An accurate enough model, it wows children -including grown-up children (and art critics). Burden likes arched iron bridges of the complicated type built so beautifully a century ago by inventive American engineers. His models are impressive enough, but they don’t come near the real experience of, say, that marvellous coastal rail journey from Boston to New York, with its magnificent gaunt cantilevers spanning estuary after estuary.

What is the point of this hugely effortful model of the Tyne Bridge? Is it ‘challenging’ something? ‘Raising important questions’ about ‘issues’? Perhaps it is ‘subverting accepted notions of bridgeness’ – yes, that’ll be it. This is conceptual art at its most illustrative and vacuous, and its least conceptual. Why bother calling it art at all? Why not just call it a model and judge it by its ingenuity and verisimilitude? Why not just look at the real one and marvel at a form determined by size, location, material and function?

The place to visit in Tyneside is not the Baltic. No, cross the river and take a bus downstream to Wallsend. Wallsend is the home of Swan Hunter’s shipyards, whose towering cranes of criss-cross steel built the great liners and warships, and which are now quiet but not yet completely silent. Get off right outside the pub at the main junction in the town and treat yourself there to a pub lunch: you get a pint and a champion plateful of sausages, onions and chips in thick gravy for £3.40. Beat that.

Segedunum, which is what the Romans called Wallsend, doesn’t receive publicity. Its director doesn’t call it ‘an art factory’ or even ‘an archaeological factory’. But for the purposes of arousing thought and inducing revelations of historical understanding, no conceptual art – at least none in the Baltic – can touch it.

Segedunum, the fort built at the end of Hadrian’s Wall, was once concealed by back-to-backs – Leslie Street, David Street, Hunter Street – housing shipyard workers. Its existence was exposed when these terraces immediately abutting the slipways were slum-cleared. Once upon a time, occupants of this site launched javelins at pesky guerrilla tribes from the north who attacked suddenly on horseback and then scarpered back into the forest. Now this once heavily industrial area is peppered with Labour rotten boroughs represented in parliament by incompetents like Stephen ‘Bullshit’ Byers and Nick ‘Foot-and-Mouth’ Brown.

In area, the fort is roughly two football fields, the standard size for accommodating a cohort of five or six hundred crack infantry and cavalry – a tenth of a legion. No Roman fort or town anywhere can match Wallsend for illustrating the rich texture of history, knowledge and experience containable in one small space. Standing in the small ‘room’ in which ate and slept eight homesick legionaries, probably Spaniards, Germans or Belgians, you can look a stone’s throw up and across to the towering armatures of cranes and gantries building the stern sections of a superfreighter and, on the right, the re-fitting of an aircraft carrier stripped bare.

Here, with only the barest bones of stones and foundation wall plans as evidence, everything is left to the imagination – but imagination is unavoidable, so powerful is this image of the wall’s end and the colonising foreigners who lived here for 300 years. What was the reality of the life endured here in such a confined space by the occupying army, the battles and skirmishes fought, the patrols ambushed, the ‘square-bashing’ on the boggy safe side of the wall, the fishing and catching rabbits for meat, and of those service industry tribeswomen manning the brothels in the civilian settlements outside the gate? Your guess is as good as the archaeologists’.

Emperor Hadrian visited hereabouts in AD120, and across the road are the first surviving sections of the defensive frontier he decided to build – but which he never saw – in order to split up the northern troublemakers and to regulate trade.

Conceptual art, we are lectured, is the object as stepping stone to the idea. In the rare, best examples of conceptual art a connection is made; at its worst, the link is tenuous if not incredible, any ‘idea’ habitually minute.

The most rewarding conceptual art and thinking happens without warning, and unforgettably, in real life. At Wallsend it occurs in the memorable moment of recognition when the present collides so poignantly with the past. Segedunum knocks spots off any conceptual work our flairless and arrogant academy of State Art can serve up.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Museums and galleries

David Lee is editor of The Jackdaw and a contributor to Art: What Is It Good For?, published by Hodder & Stoughton, 31 May 2002 (buy a copy of this book from Amazon UK). Email

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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