In the light of Helen Marten’s astounding success over the past year, first winning the prestigious Hepworth Sculpture award and subsequently cementing her standing with a well-deserved Turner Prize, arts awards and institutions across the UK are celebrating the next generation of creators with renewed vigour. In what could be perceived as a similar move, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art has initiated the BALTIC Artists’ Award to further champion the talent of emerging artists. Yet this new offering by the internationally renowned gallery on the Gateshead Quays is different from many other awards – for one thing, everyone’s a winner.
Dissimilar to both the Turner Prize and the Hepworth Sculpture Award, the BALTIC Artists’ Award rewards four artists practicing contemporary art from around the globe instead of just one. Each recipient is awarded a thirteen-week exhibition at BALTIC, £25,000 to create new work and a £5,000 artist fee. It is also the first worldwide biennial art prize in which the award is judged solely by artists. Comprising the panel in its inaugural year are Pedro Cabrita Reis, one of the first artists to show at BALTIC with A Place Like That (2002); Lorna Simpson, returning to the gallery after her retrospective in 2014; Monica Bonvicini, Golden Lion winner at the Venice Biennale in 1999 and Mike Nelson, the twice Turner Prize nominee and inspired creator of Tate Britain’s The Coral Reef (2000).
These four world-renowned artists have each been tasked with selecting an emerging artist whose work they strongly believe in, but rather than simply providing the recipients with a cash prize, the focus of this award is upon international exposure and mentoring. Toni Schmale (nominated by Bonvicini) is one of the winning artists who is already benefitting from this exposure, with the former professional athlete having never exhibited in the UK prior to this prize exhibition. Schmale’s transitional sculptures – which exude bravado and macho culture reminiscent of the gym – are encased in a thin, barely visible layer of oil, which gives them a faint shine enticing to touch, if only to grip the cold metal. Touching is obviously forbidden in the gallery, which is a theme that surfaces regularly in both Schmale and Bonvicini’s practices, and yet the temptation seems to have been too much for some, with visitor fingerprints clearly visible on ‘The Good Enough Mother’ (2017).
A regular visitor to BALTIC will notice the parallels with Bonvicini’s Her Hand Around the Room, which was shown in the same space in 2016. This highlights another aspect of the Artists’ Award that differs from many other art prizes in that each judge has free reign to choose whomever they want. This means that some may nominate artists that reflect their own practice. However, one need only walk down a dark corridor, just past Schmale’s work, to see that this is not the case throughout.
At the end of this unlit passage visitors will find the video works of Shen Xin, nominated by Mike Nelson. The space dedicated to Shen’s ‘Provocation of the Nightingale’ (2017) has been curated as if to lead visitors through a story of four ostensibly unconnected parts. In the multi-channel installation there are dancers observing each other, breathing heavily after physical exercise; misbehaving monks and tales of ‘comfort women’ in Japan; scripted dialogue between a therapist and their affectionate patient, and the final, more ethereal DNA and heritage revelations. After each film has been viewed, however, there is a sense that Provocation of the Nightingale acutely details how our perceptions of social history influence our present being. Shen may have only graduated from Slade School of Fine Art in 2014, but it is easy to see why her seamless deconstruction and reconstruction of personal and social histories has marked her out as a promising video artist.
On the next floor is Jose Davila’s ‘The weaker has conquered the stronger’ (2017). Nominated by Pedro Cabrita Reis, Davila has spoken of his childhood adoration of Looney Tunes cartoons and how they have shaped his work – and with a half-ton boulder suspended in mid-air just above a novelty size red balloon it is easy to see their influence. The eye is led up a girder, around tension supports to a second girder and then to a smaller boulder, which provokes both unease and excitement as the gravity of the work is appreciated. Gravity being the operative word, with each of the 5 elements looking as if they’re only a pull, shove or (God forbid) kick away from crashing to the floor. Davila’s work is extremely well developed and a joy to behold, but as the Mexican artist regularly exhibits work throughout the Americas and Europe this does prompt questions regarding the definition of an ‘emerging artist’.
The last of the four nominated artists is Eric N. Mack, an American self-defined painter who, on first impressions, may not seem like a painter. Mack’s paintings in the gallery do not use a traditional frame, nor do they even use a canvas. They instead exist in the form of textiles sown, strewn and worn around the gallery. Apple Yang is one of four performers who each day pick a piece of Mack’s work to wear and ‘activate’ as they effortlessly float across the gallery floor. ‘Reebok or Desire for the Northeast Groover’ (2016) in particular is a welcome addition to the show, and even though it is not specifically tailored for Yang to wear, the experience adds new layers and depth to the show.
The BALTIC Artists’ Award attempts to instil a new dynamic into the generic, hierarchical formula of art prizes, but perhaps more needs to be done to mark out its distinct characteristics and increase transparency. This first instalment does, however, do exceptionally well to celebrate four vastly different artists with an average age of just over thirty. The international exposure and mentorship from BALTIC curators and the judging panel will be a great asset to the future careers of these promising artists. And in addition to these invaluable rewards, there is also a public voting system in place for a legacy project. All four artists may be winners of the inaugural award, but BALTIC has spearheaded this viewer interaction to reward visitors with a further project they’d like to see in the North East. Using a simple token-styled ballot, each visitor through the doors is given a chance to vote for their favourite work, with the selected artist then being elected for a legacy commission project, which will be announced in Autumn 2018.
BALTIC Artists’ Award 2017, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, 30 June 2017 – 1 October 2017.
Liam McCabe is an artist and writer based in Newcastle upon Tyne.