Gateshead Garden Festival
Jefford Horrigan, Jeff Wall, Nancy Spero - The Guardian 1990
GARDEN festivals are extraordinary things. Lumps and bumps are moulded by bulldozer to create sapling strewn unrealities. Pretend bridges cross forced streams, and nature is rarely so unfairly represented. This year's festival at Gateshead is no exception. But this time, apart from the sculpture commissioned for the festival, there is also a large, separate exhibition of contemporary art.
"A New Necessity" (which must be a mouthful for the organisers when they answer the telephone) has been curated by Declan McGonagle, well-known for his appreciation of public, or "site specific" art, that is basically work shown outside the confines of the traditional gallery. Although a few of the 44 artists show at the Laing Art Gallery, the bulk of the work is in unusual settings. A three-sided square of recently constructed small town houses, also on the festival site, could easily be called Avant Garde Close. Artists were allowed to choose upstairs, downstairs, the whole shell, or anywhere permitted by the planning authorities.
Many artists seemed happy to cohabit, their work divided by a staircase. The centre of the square is dominated by a scaffold structure by Rasheed Araeen. This piece has the strange function of reminding us that art is housed here; no one will emerge to borrow a cup of sugar. It spoils the scale of the square, but that may be deliberate.
Rose Finn-Kelcey has done something simple to a whole house. In the double-height shell she has placed many doors which are, of course, false. The inside is turned out here, and the promise of else-where has been tantalisingly conveyed. Despite the fact that these real houses are to be lived in it is surprising how few artists have responded to the domestic rather than the structural possibilities of exhibiting in them. This may be because the artists have known the houses only while they were being constructed and so see the place merely as a building site.
Muntadas, the Spanish installation artist, does, though, make a point of sorts about property ownership and shows slides of estate agent blurb in every language.
Jeff Wall, an excellent Canadian photographer, has made a small version of the Children's Pavilion he created some time ago with the American Dan Graham. It is placed at the back of Number Three, as an extension or built-on conservatory. The main part of the house has photographs, plans, and architectural drawings for the real Pavilion. There are back-lit transparencies of children of different nationalities. They glance upwards in front of a swirling and colouring sky as if optimistic about the future or at least their part in an advertising campaign for a well-known clothing firm. Only a few of the artists who deal with the fact that these are rooms, rather than a series of galleries on different floors, use furniture. Keith Alexander has been working in the area with groups of school children and pensioners as Gateshead artist in residence. He shows many of their crafted collaborations in a cosy mock-sitting room.
While Christine Constant has placed her similarly crafted ceramic objects in a bathroom with fishy floor and tiled walls, the local artist Liz Rowe has put drawings and paintings of long skirts and luxurious women's clothing in the upstairs bedroom and hall as if filling the space of a wardrobe.
Most of the work in a New Necessity has been especially commisioned, but some has been borrowed in. The boat brought plank by plank from Jamaica to Paris, and then plank by plank again from Paris to the Tyne by Lee Jaffe, looks somewhat arbitrary.
So, unfortunately, do the wonderful paintings by Nancy Spero which are on show at the Laing alongside a work by Tim Rollins and KOS. It is probably not enough to have such small and sometimes just one off representations from these artists. McGonagle's faith in mixing the local with the international, the experienced with the novice, and the traditional with the experimental, is laudable, but the exhibition is somehow too confusing and too much associated with the Garden Festival to make itself clear.
Apart from the square, there are art patches and places around the city and near the river. It is unfortunate that the sense of folly surrounding the festival affects the way we play "hunt the art". Sometimes the only reward at the end of this hunt is the knowledge that something looks a bit odd so must be what you are looking for. Jefford Horrigan makes small figures out of photographs and clay. The clay builds the body while the photocopy of a black and white picture of someone is wrapped around the body. A strange area between flat and three dimensional portraiture and generalisation emerges. Two of the figures (made with pictures of people who worked on the building site) are in House Number 12, suspended halfway up the bedroom walls. But two more figures are placed upside down, falling on the outside of a church in the centre of Newcastle. It takes a few seconds to notice them, and a bit longer to realise that they haven't always been there. This ordinary 20th Century church appears to be much older to have avoided another festival in Newcastle. Edge 90 is Britain's international biennale of innovative visual arts. Which means performance and installation, mainly.
The main venue is a recently derelict warehouse down by the Quayside under Tyne Bridge. The building is perfect for this kind of thing. The dramatic and theatrical effect is already there, before artists take control of the dusty, creaking, crumbling warehouse floors. There is much sensory deprivation, or pleasure, depending on the way you look at it.
The Californian artist Mark Thompson used objects left behind in the warehouse to create an atmosphere of fading industry. A swarm of bees (real) have made a hive in a skeleton but come out and fly around a bit. There is a maze which is frightening to get lost in (the work of Mark Parr from Sydney) and a floor that is cut away from the wall, floats on water, and leaves you seasick.
These theatrical installations may appear to have the Edge on the toned-down joys of a newly built housing estate, but it would be silly to make such comparisons. It doesn't help that most of the New Necessary work can be approached only on a scaled down choo-choo that wends its way past a plastic Tower of Pisa.
© Sacha Craddock - June 1990