On Friday I drove from Leicester to Newcastle, to meet artist Yvette Hawkins, and to see an exhibition of a year-long project she has run, entitled Book Apothecary. Book Apothecary is a series of old suitcases, filled with artists’ books and objects – things that challenge and make us think about the ways in which objects are kept, how they are kept and so on. Yvette was recommended to me by Sheila McGregor at Axis, as someone whose work questions the role of museums, curating, collecting, and so on – all those questions that Mouseion hopes to grapple with. This project consists of work created by young people as part of a Cultural Olympiad project, funded by NE Generation, as well as works by artist mentors.
The suitcases (there are 16 in all), range from ones specifically bookish, to others more object-based, to mechanical, to sound pieces, to memory, history and engagement focussed ones. Two of the other artists involved in the project are Dawn Felicia Knox and Theresa Easton, both of whose work is highly curatorial/museumy, object-centred, about collecting, engaging with, sensing and displaying things – and ties in perfectly with the Mouseion themes too. There are a few logistical issues to overcome (some of the work is on show at the Great North Museum until the day before Mouseion’s installation), but I am hoping that the case in Mouseion will reflect something of the cabinet-like quality that I saw at the ‘Curious Case of’ exhibition.
Anyway, Yvette had invited me to the NE Generation Preview Launch Event at Stevenson Works, which showcased all the different young people’s projects from Newcastle and the North East – including the Stories of the World museum projects, other museum ones – and some amazing peformances of street dancing and dancing with fire, art projects, video/VJ projections, hacking an XBox. Part of the funding had even paid for a disused church to become a circus school. Amazing and very inspiring stuff – let’s hope that there really is a legacy for all these cultural olympiad participants. I miss that sort of working with young people at the moment. Even though I had no idea who the people referred to in the speeches were, it was quite a special and life-affirming moment – and the people were incredibly friendly and welcoming. I like Newcastle. Its Persian restaurants are good too.
So after a late night, my mission for the following day was to see all sorts of things. Of course to visit the above-mentioned exhibition at the Great North Museum (formerly the Hancock, and recently done up) – loved the museum. Then pottered to the MFA Show at Newcastle University’s Hatton Gallery just over the road on Newcastle’s lovely red brick campus – a vast labyrinthine space with installations, constructions (Sam Thorpe’s rescued boat brought from Exeter and somehow taken down flights of stairs to the studio), film (Isabel Lima’s Contact Zone – performance on the beach), paintings (Bernie Clarkson) – and lots more besides – including an interesting foray into finding out about Kurt Schwitters and his Merzbarn Wall. But, time was of the essence as my aim of the day was to see Janet Cardiff’s 40-part motet at BALTIC.
Walking through Newcastle there was some sort of world music festival – very jovial – with South American performers (when will I get to Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador?), and then I headed down to the water where there was another festival of speedboat dexterity or something – before which though I went into the Side Gallery – to see a wonderful – both uplifting and depressing photographic exhibition of work by Lynsey Addario – Veiled Rebellion: Women in Afghanistan. Was incredibly powerful and moving to see women’s (in)visibility – ranging from trainee teachers sharing a picnic in the park, to a woman whose nose had been cut off, to an elderly woman surrounded by poppy heads, addicted to opium. I’ve forgotten the percentage of opium addicts in Afghanistan, but it is enormous.
I had to wait for the Millennium Bridge to tilt – a wonderful sight – and glad I got there just in time to see it – and then crossed to BALTIC, where having seen Richard Rigg’s Clearing (a mountain hut with the actual mountain terrain reconstructed inside it), I started at the top, on the viewing platform (with OWL projects soundscape) and then made my way down – to Mark Wallinger’s commissioned pieces – spectacular chessboard with 10000000000000000 (binary form of 658,336 – or something?!) pebbles were placed on the squares, while in another piece, bricks were numbered in chalk, similar to his ‘MARK’ graffiti pieces across London, and a film in which scaffolders put up scaffolding to construct something (what?) on the shingle beach as the sea lapped around them – but then to the piece I have been wanting to experience since first hearing colleagues talk about it when it was in the Millennium Galleries in Sheffield back in 2004, alas, just before I worked there and I never saw it. Since then, I have sung Thomas Tallis’ 40 Part Motet, Spem in Alium with the Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus in 2008 – I think one of the most beautiful pieces of music in the world – but also incredibly hard to sing with so many parts, and its 8 choirs (I think)… It’s Sam’s most favourite piece of contemporary art.
Well, being immersed in the middle of Janet Cardiff’s Forty Part Motet was incredible. I couldn’t not well up and soon tears were pouring – why? Sound sometimes has a much more visceral effect than the visual or any other sense. The speakers become the singers – person-height, and as is signature with Janet Cardiff’s work, the quality of the recording is so rich. Fragile voices, the choristers of Salisbury Cathedral (with its personal resonances), and the wonder at being able to wander and listen to single parts, hearing breaths, swallowing, notes less confident. But overall warm, rich, outpourings that hit you right there (where is there?) – beautiful and from somewhere else. Is that why it makes you cry? I wonder if this piece is more powerful for singers?
And then, after 11 minutes of singing, the conductor stops, and silence reigns. But the silence is not silence. For in it, you can hear the coughs, splutters, inane conversation, the reaching for water, the making notes in the copy, the discussion about what is happening next… And I wondered if some people didn’t notice that. You had to get up close to the speakers to hear this inner world. I think that is why Janet Cardiff is such a genius – she plays with interiority and exteriority – just as she did at the Hauptbahnhof at Documenta. And it was worth every second.