Welcome to the Baltic. A vast new centre for the arts, and the latest in the increasingly ambitious series of 'urban regeneration' projects brightening up many of North England's post-industrial cities. The Baltic building was a huge disused flour mill right on the southern bank of the river Tyne - in it's new incarnation a Tate Modern-esque cathedral to contemporary art.
It's impossible not be impressed by the size of the regeneration project. From the 'blinking eye' pedestrian bridge that leads over the Tyne to the magnificent Baltic interior, they've done a damn good job. It's impossible to fault the Baltic for it's ambition. Of course, all this has very little to do with the art in it's opening show, B.OPEN.
(l) Carsten Holler, Neon Circle (2001) / (r) Jane and Louise Wilson
Initial signs are not good. On the way over the bridge we spot a few fairly ordinary Julian Opie efforts - big people symbols in the style of a public information sign. And as usual, I can't fight the initial 'so what?' reaction this work inspires. Big plastic people reduced to a symbol... and? It's just soooo 1999.
Navigate your way past the first wave of shops and restaurants and you're rewarded with a big B.ORING flashing lights installation (above) that fails to engage. It's supposed to alter your perception of the space apparently. But in my experience most of the things in any given space do that without being big, expensive and flashing on and off annoyingly. Good for the kids though.
Jane and Louise Wilson's work isn't so good for the kids. 'Dreamtime' is another one of their snail-pace exploration movies. Many people like this work. I'm not one of them. I remember being nonplussed by everything they've done except an early work in which a gaunt figure floated around the space in question like a ghost. No such fun here - this piece demonstrates just how boring the (intrinsically exciting) US space programme can be if placed in the hands of overexposed London video artists.
I feel like I'm having an allergic reaction to this art. Why am I failing to engage with it properly? Is it the size and spectacle of Baltic distorting my experience of the work? Or is this show just below par? I think about it as I go up the wobbly metal stairwell to the next floor.
Some large gongs that were supposed to be here have already been removed. Shame, as I liked the idea of all that noise reverberating around the gallery. A performance by a Japanese artist who ties bread to his body has long since passed. Maybe he was the only bread-related artist they could find. There are some anonymous photos with a sport/ ballet thing going on. This work has put me in an unkind mood somehow, tarnishing my initial enthusiasm with listlessness. More large Opies that may as well not be there. People mill around, attempting to inject them with some significance. They fail, and leave. Am I being lazy in looking at them this way? Or are they really this vacuous? Probably both. I move on.
Chris Burden, famous for being a radical live artist in the Seventies, has made some Mechano bridges including a scale model of the Tyne bridge (the real bridge is visible from the 4th floor gallery window). This is a project that engages primarily through it's industriousness - the bridges are interesting from the craft angle, and look like they took a long time to make. One interesting thought is the way that artistic process relates to that of actual labour. They are interesting, but I can't help thinking Chris Burden used to be a hell of a lot more interesting.
I feel a little cheated. The building is a lot more interesting than it's contents - let's hope that Baltic can put together some more coherent shows to start justifying that monstrous price tag.© John Rogers 2002
B.OPEN: Chris Burden until October 6; Jane and Louise Wilson until September 1; Carsten Holler until August 26; Julian Opie until October 13 2002.
BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead Quays, South Shore Road , Gateshead. NE8 3BA
T: +44 (0)191 478 1810