The QT

Friday 14 June 2024

Baltic Open Submission — every exhibit tells a tale

A former House of Commons photographer and a fan of patterns share their art stories with David Whetstone as Baltic showcases the region’s wealth of talent
Exhibits in Open Submission 2024 at Baltic

Behind every artwork lies a story and Baltic’s latest Open Submission exhibition represents a veritable anthology with 104 submissions having made the cut.

“We were aiming for 100 but snuck in an extra four,” smiles Baltic assistant curator Rose McMurray who was on the judging panel.

That’s understandable, given the numbers involved here — a barometer of the wealth of artistic talent and ambition across the region.

Colleague Niomi Fairweather, Baltic curatorial team leader and fellow judge, said ahead of the opening: “I think we could have done the exhibition five times over.

“The quality of the submissions was amazing. The last iteration of Open Submission, during lockdown, attracted 500 which was an amazing figure. This time we had 1,400.

“We’ve had to be very selective and are saying to artists who might be disappointed, please enter again because it was really tricky.”

Jim Moir (aka Vic Reeves) at Baltic with his painting, The Exhibitionist

Three established artists were invited to exhibit, so you will see works by Jim Moir (aka Vic Reeves), renowned for bird studies and quirkier pictures; photographer Phyllis Christopher, who recently exhibited at Baltic; and sculptor Holly Hendry, another Baltic exhibitor back in 2017.

The two external judges involved in sifting the anonymous submissions were musician Paul Smith, of Maximo Park, and artist Jasmina Cibic.

So what catches the eye?

A great deal but… what’s that in the corner which looks at first glance like a dangling bundle of body parts?

Mark Duffy with his artwork A Parliament of Empty Gestures

That’s not so far from the truth. A Parliament of Empty Gestures, by Mark Duffy, comprises hands cut out from photographs taken in the House of Commons and blown up to life size.

They are politicians’ hands, debating hands. Mark, who has quite a story to tell, can put names to many of them.

“Some of them I definitely recognise. This I can see instantly is Keir Starmer’s hand because he makes a sideways ‘live long and prosper’ gesture (the Jewish blessing also known to Star Trek fans as a Vulcan salute).

“Rishi Sunak also has quite a distinctive hand and he’s in there somewhere.”

Mark, an Irishman who came to the UK 12 years ago, has a background in photography rather than fine art.

Having landed a job as a House of Commons photographer, he quickly became disenchanted with the way things were done.

“It was a fairly boring job, intended to add gravitas to internal events. But they never photographed the interesting side of the Commons as far as I saw it.

“They never photographed debates which I thought was strange. I was really keen to get in there.”

He worked to make it happen, reasoning that if proceedings in the Commons chamber could be filmed then they should also be photographed.

“It was around the time of Brexit, Theresa May’s era. Before I worked there, there were no photographers in the chambers so it was new territory.”

We’ve had to be very selective and are saying to artists who might be disappointed, please enter again because it was really tricky.

Niomi Fairweather, Baltic curatorial team leader

Mark, who was sacked after four-and-a-half years, believes his eventual fall from grace stemmed from a dramatic photo he took showing Government whips surrounding Commons speaker John Bercow.

“This was the picture that went viral and changed everything. I was very proud of it but as far as the institution was concerned, it showed rules being broken in the House — whips trying to influence decisions made by the Speaker.”

From that moment, says Mark, the decision on which photos to distribute passed to senior House of Commons figures. He claims subsequent choices betrayed “massive governmental bias.”

While he insists he acted impartially in his Commons role, he makes no secret of his opposition to Brexit which he describes as an act of “political self-mutilation.”

Outside work, he was developing an artistic practice and building an archive of Brexit-related material which now runs to more than 300 items, including beermats, oven gloves and leaflets.

A close up of the Parliament of Empty Gestures exhibit at Baltic’s Open Submission exhibition

With his partner, a curator, he set up a gallery exhibition in his London home which was raided by armed police on Valentine’s Day, 2020, following allegations by parliamentary authorities that he had stolen House of Commons furniture, candlesticks and other items.

A story was published in The Guardian under his famous photo — and 10 days later came a follow-up report that the police had closed the case after finding no evidence of a crime.

“What I essentially got fired for was my artistic practice and what they deemed to be bias in my social media use,” says Mark.

“I was making all this work around Brexit and the deterioration of British politics as I saw it.

“It was quite a traumatic episode really.”

Out of a job, and on the night before the first Covid lockdown, he moved with his partner to Newcastle, where she was completing a PhD, and only then fully realised the stress he’d been under.

“If there was ever a loud knock on the door my blood would just run cold, thinking my house was going to be raided.”

Mark is now focusing on his photography and his art, while also trying to find a permanent home for his Brexit archive.

He says parts of it have been shown in Italy and Denmark and the Museum of London was considering buying it before a policy shift in favour of pandemic-related acquisitions.

“No-one in the UK wants to show it,” he says. “No-one’s ready yet.”

Baltic is, however, showing A Parliament of Empty Gestures, its title betraying Mark’s true feelings about the confrontational nature of our political system. And he says he’s delighted to be represented in a true home of contemporary art.

Jenny McNamara is no less delighted, although she works on the Baltic Crew so is no stranger to the place.

Also born in Ireland, Jenny moved to the North East 10 years ago to study on Sunderland University’s glass and ceramics course at the National Glass Centre, met her partner and stayed on to do a fine art MA at Newcastle University.

As well as being an artist and working on the Baltic Crew, she organises exhibitions through a project called The Spaghetti Factory which she set up in 2018 with fellow artist Eve Cromwell.

Pattern is Jenny’s thing and she’ll defend it to the hilt.

“I love exploring the emotional response to colour,” she says. “I think because pattern is eye-catching and mesmerising, it’s beneficial for mindfulness and wellbeing.”

She says she loves the way pattern commands attention. She takes photos of patterns she finds out in the world and uses them as the basis for her studio work.

“I like to use bright, jewel-like colours, and usually only two or three at a time otherwise things get too muddied. I really like minimalism. With less visual information, you focus more on what’s there.”

Jenny McNamara with Striped Collage Test

Among Jenny’s design heroines is Orla Kiely and later she emails me a photo of a Hong Kong tram liveried in one of her distinctive leaf-like patterns.

Jenny’s Baltic submission is a patterned rectangle called Striped Collage Test which is pinned by one corner, low on a wall so it would spread onto the floor if thoughtful Baltic technicians hadn’t rested it on a low plinth.

“They were afraid people would tread on it,” says Jenny.

This collage was made as part of a proposal she’s working on for an interactive light sculpture.

Baltic Open Submission 2024 is in association with Fenwick. Embracing a broad spectrum of media and styles, and with exhibitors ranging from an 11-year-old budding graffiti artist to a sculptor and first-time exhibitor in his eighties, it can be seen in the ground floor galleries until September 1. Find details on the Baltic website.


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