People Powered: Stories from the River Tees is unlike most exhibitions for the way it directly incorporates its audience, so that not just artefacts, photographs and paintings are included here but the local community itself. In Chris Davies’ ‘49 Bridges’ (2023), the photographer celebrates the interconnectivity of the architectural form and the River Tees through the ages. The first modern bridge across the River Tees – and the world’s first railway suspension bridge – was only constructed at Middlesbrough in 1830, at the start of the steel explosion in the region. Plenty has already been written about the old town at St Hilda’s being left abandoned, a ghost in plain sight, while the world-famous Transporter Bridge has also been allowed to fall into disrepair as industry diminished. However, Davies’ mosaic of photographs also explores the evolution of the river rather than simply dwelling on the past, so the Tees Barrage near Thornaby becomes a focal point, as does the network of waterways at Teesdale Business Park where Margaret Thatcher took her famous ‘walk in the wilderness’. What Davies’ piece successfully highlights is how the River Tees – all the way from the Transporter Bridge to the Birkdale footbridge near its source – serves as the backbone of the region and its communities: Foyboatmen still operate near Teesport; fishermen still fish out of South Gare; and as far as High Force (the tallest waterfall in England, as represented nearby in William Tillyer’s beautiful abstract screen print of the same name from 1974), the Tees is a source of joy and income for many. People Powered explores how the River Tees has created our region, from the formation of the Tees Valley itself to the shaping of its towns and industries.
Yet what are bridges without people to cross them? One of the photos in Gilmar Ribeiro’s River Portraits series (2023), ‘The Club’, an image of a community group of elders who have been exploring the River Tees in collaboration with the MIMA shop, is particularly alluring. Look closely enough at the faces in the photograph and you can start to piece together their stories from the lines on their brows. There are famous people represented here too, in a series of individual portrait studies, so Steve Shipman’s ‘Vic Reeves; Bob Mortimer’ (1993) and ‘Richard Griffiths’ (1990) have their place, as do Mo Mowlam and Brian Clough. Historical images such as Charles William Faulkner & Co’s ‘Ivy Close and The Eight Horse Power Rover Car’ (1909) and J Weston & Son’s ‘Florence Eveleen Eleanore (nee Olliffe), Lady Bell’ (1910s) consider the roles of women in the past, whether as examples of historic forms of celebrity (Close won the Daily Mirror’s ‘Most Beautiful Woman’ competition in 1908 before beginning an acting career) or of working class life.
Claire Pounder, Learning Curator at MIMA, writes in the press release: ‘Through this exhibition, we make connections between a physical environment – the River Tees – and the rich and diverse lives of people who have shaped its stories’. In partnership with the National Portrait Gallery and funded by The National Heritage Lottery Fund and Art Fund, this is an exhibition that is in essence local – I’ve never been to an exhibition in such a prestigious gallery where I could search out familiar faces on the walls – but which also evokes a more widespread sense of community that is perhaps dwindling in our lives. In Ribeiro’s series of portraits there is a sense of melancholy and stoicism echoed in the stories of these people presented alongside the images (and audio content in the form of ‘Electro Mixed Soundscape’ (2023), a bespoke soundscape curated by Sally Rodgers and Steve Jones, known jointly as A Man Called Adam). Foundation Press’ ‘Notes On The Black Path’ (2019) is a project that allowed the public to get involved in a large collage celebrating the nearby community of South Bank, which has since become all the more poignant after the demolition of the much loved Dorman Long Tower, itself just off The Black Path and previously a highlight of the walk.
Much of the older work presented in People Powered restates its relevance here. Madelon Hooykaas and Elsa Stansfield’s ‘Horizontal Flow’ (1977) captures the history of South Gare at the mouth of the River Tees in a fifteen-minute single channel video with mixed-media drawings. The separation of artistic forms highlights the limitation of each alone to express the artists’ full intent; only the voice of a local fisherman accompanied by gentle guitar sounds can really reconcile the complex piece. Many on social media have already captured in photo form the cultural vandalism recently carried out at the steel works on the same site, an example of intergenerational storytelling in real time. Many of the older paintings and exhibits, from the gallery’s own Middlesbrough Collection, ground People Powered in history as much as the wrinkles in Ribeiro’s photographs. Edward Burra’s ‘Sailors at a Bar’ (1930) is as timeless as it is of its time, while Kenneth Cozens’ ‘Coke Ovens, Cargo Fleet’ (1955), a grim capturing in oil on canvas of the realities of the latter-day industrial age.
Both Bobby Benjamin’s ‘From the River’s Foul Mouth’ (2023) and Diane Watson’s ‘Objects’ (2023) deal in found objects as a way to retrieve the past. The former’s densely packed collection of old stair railings, driftwood and a discarded football table evokes a sense of being trapped by the past but also the claustrophobia of close living, the toys reflecting how fleeting life can sometimes be in working-class communities while also representing the struggle to keep up with the throwaway consumerism of the middle classes. It’s a retro urban piece where Benjamin’s use of flyaway footballs (a recurring theme in the artist’s recent work) also connects neatly with both single-use plastic and tourist tat tropes. Watson’s collection of dummies and inhalers captures the human presence along the river and the traces of lives remembered within the water. The piece also raises awareness of plastic pollution and its impact on marine and shore life, and is particularly pertinent with the iconic ICI tower at Middlesbrough still a landmark on the river, less than a mile from the gallery itself. Another piece in the exhibition highlights a similar issue, realised in found metals and industrial artefacts. Hanna Luczak’s ‘River Objects’ (1993) uses old pieces of pipe, rope and wire that had been recovered by dredging the riverbed, linking back to a reported marine die-off along parts of the east coast that has been attributed to the regular dredging of the River Tees.
It’s hard to get away from a sense of fortitude in these fleeting glimpses and recollections; a shared feeling common to any community, but also wholly unique to this one. But how does this really transfer and apply to the artworks in this exhibition? Collaboration is key. Each display in People Powered could be seen as a collaboration of sorts. Whether it is The Club’s ‘Fish With Foliage’ (2023) and ‘Hedgerows’ (2023), Watson’s ‘Game Over’ (2023) – an intricate collaborative collage between staff, parents and pupils of St Mary’s Catholic Primary School in Grangetown – or Ribeiro’s overtly urban postcards. Even Joanne Coates’ ‘Herdship’ (2022), a series of photographs in chromogenic print, links a patchwork of communities prioritising nature-friendly and low-carbon farming practices often miles apart in rural Teesdale. People Powered is an exhibition with storytelling at its heart: while striving to harness the power of the river, the communities that have grown up around it have in turn imbued the river with a different kind of power.
People Powered: Stories from the River Tees, Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (MIMA), Middlesbrough, 22 July 2023 – 7 January 2024.
Steve Spithray is an author, culture journalist and freelance writer based in Middlesbrough.
This review is supported by MIMA.