Bruce Rae’s 1983 commission for Side Gallery provides a heartening insight into the lives of the diligent workforce that drove a spectacularly productive industry. It is also a frank reminder of the drastic decline, closure and erasure of multiple enterprises and livelihoods.
Shipbuilding on the Tyne, on view at Side for the first time since the 1980s, demonstrates the unsteady future paved for shipbuilding by the Conservative government – something which is aptly comparable to the UK’s current political and economic climate. And yet, Rae’s reflection on the British Shipbuilders Corporation’s disruption of the industry in the 1970s and 1980s is more humble, more human than policy-making. He brings us, even today, into an empathic enamour; we are drawn to individuals whose identities were closely bound with the North East’s once prevalent industry.
A series of uniform black and white photographs illustrate the sheer scale of the ships’ hulls and their components through the inclusion of builders, engineers, blacksmiths and welders pictured amongst these vast structures. A lone figure meanders up the cavernous interior of a vessel at Swan Hunter; his silhouette animating the rigid geometry of both the iron mass and its surrounding enclosure. Elsewhere, a man in a flat-cap perches on the edge of a sixty foot drop dry dock replacing a propeller bonnet at North Shields – the propeller in-front of him is subtly marked with fingerprints. Poignant and solemn, the men’s actions echo through each composition as poised figures and ghostly fragments; simultaneously emphasising the absolute enormity of these cast-iron units and the sobering impact of the Tories’ deindustrialisation.
Each image’s deep, mono-tonality positions the workers within angular crevasses – theatrically capturing their unassuming nature as something sublimely celebratory. Rendered unnecessary to a rapidly changing nation towards the end of the last century, this occupation was the remarkable spirit of the region. Rae’s documentation of the rough yet amicable lines on the workers’ faces alongside the epic nature of the industrial beasts that they manufactured is punctuated when placed alongside shots of vacant outbuildings. The impact of Thatcher’s 1980s privatisation revolution rings heavy through the empty hall of a plating shed at Readhead’s. Here, the lack of human presence leaves the viewer contemplating an abandoned mausoleum.
Featuring a selection of imagery from across the independent dock yards of Swan Hunter, the Neptune Yard, Clark Hawthorn Marine Engine Works and Cleland’s in Wallsend; Smith’s Repair in North Shields; and Readhead’s in South Shields, this industrial homage is complimented by Amber Films’ ‘The Art of Shipbuilding’ (2017). Pulling together archival footage of an oil tanker launching out to sea at Wallsend – its height towering above terraced houses and excitable locals – the film offers viewers an animated insight into the lives of those pictured in Rae’s documentation. Recitals of Jack Davitt’s poetry and an interview with painter Peter Burns – both of whom worked in the docks – along with residential images by photographer Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen enforce the commission’s open-eyed recognition of the ‘human’ concealed within the industry’s tough exterior. An indispensable reminder of Northern spirit, it realigns shipbuilders as momentous individuals.
Bruce Rae: Shipbuilding on the Tyne, Side Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne, 22 July – 8 October 2017.
Selina Oakes is writer based in Stoke-on-Trent and York.