Barthelemy Toguo / Mark Titchner / Barry McGee, Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead
Art in need of a reality check
Wednesday 13 February 2008
Opened with some fanfare in 2003, Baltic was billed as an exciting new arts venue. Its founding director, a Swede called Sune Nordgren, said that it was to be an "art factory", where art would be made on site, and then displayed, hot, fresh, humming. No permanent collection, then.
Nordgren soon left and Stephen Snoddy took over, but was no sooner there than gone. Then came a Ukrainian-American dynamo called Peter Doroshenko. He cleared his desk rather rapidly in the autumn of last year after a long wrangle with staff and unions. Most of the senior curatorial staff have left, too. So who's in charge now? I ask the lady on the information desk. "I think we're between directors at the moment," she says, but she's not sure of the details.
But the show goes on. In fact, there are three new shows this month, on three different levels of this vast institution. And, strangely, all of these artists, though from entirely different countries – there's the Luton-born Mark Titchner, who was shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 2006; Barry McGee from San Francisco; and Barthélémy Toguo, who was born in Cameroon and lives in Paris – seem to be thinking about the predicament of the artist now in rather similar ways.
This thinking can be described as follows: reality is coming at us all the time, pell-mell. It just never stops. There's always too much information, too much reality. How can anyone make sense of it? So the artist is faced with problems similar to that of the editor of a daily newspaper. Once upon a time, artists were aware of all that – reality has been rushing by for as long as there have been eyes to notice it – but they still thought that they could get to grips with this non-stop rush by making discrete objects. That would deal with some bits of it at least, the bits that seemed to matter to the maker at that moment.
All three artists in this show think that sort of argument is nonsense. For art to be truly alive, say Titchner, Toguo and McGee, it has to reflect this pell-mell onslaught of the ever changing Now. No other authentic response is possible.
The trouble with this kind of conclusion is that you often end up making art that screams and sprawls and writhes all over the place because the fact is that it is nonsense to think that you can replicate reality. There is always too much of it. It never stops coming.
Titchner is obsessed by information overload – how the eye is constantly being bombarded by slogans, slogans, slogans. So he gives us yet more slogans, raised up like a procession of giant banners, all facing towards a film of a giant eye, which is being assaulted, over and over again, by images, images, images – all flickering and gone. The slogans are nonsense because we're always being assaulted by the nonsense created by the admen, and Titchner wants to point that out to us.
McGee loves the streets of San Francisco, and he wants to drag some of that street mess indoors – the overturned, burnt-out car; the orange skip heaped with junk; the wall covered with graffiti, photos of bums, animatronic drawings, colourful, Escher-like images.
Toguo is an all-over-everywhere man, too. The walls of the main gallery on his floor are covered with pages from newspapers. He has scrawled over the text with black felt-tip pen so that all we see are disembodied images of politicians, bananas, two ballroom dancers in a very close clutch. So nothing makes sense any more.
Oh dear, there is so much reality to be contained, boys! The answer is this: relax. Break it down into smaller units. There are, for example, some lovely watercolours in Toguo's show that explore, delicately and slowly, themes of exile. These are worth all the rest of the teeming, howling, turbulent nonsense in this building.
Yes, art can deal with reality, but it does so artificially, by breaking it up into more manageable bits. That makes for modesty – and far less windy portentousness.
Barthélémy Toguo to 13 April; Mark Titchner and Barry McGee to 27 April (0191-478 1810)
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