Baltic’s ‘rebels’ aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. By Waldemar Januszczak
Yet among the dodgy guiding principles that have played a key role in the creation and direction of Spank the Monkey is the idea that all the artists showcased here are operating outside the gallery system: that they are rebels and renegades, Robin Hoods of the spray can, skateboarding William Tells. Let us, therefore, immediately savour the paradox of all these exhibitors fighting the gallery system by having a show in a gallery. Brilliant.
The next big joke of a premise is that the rebellion we are watching is a youthful one. Youth, says the chap in the catalogue, “is a highly coded and discrete mode of resistance”. Perhaps. But what has that got to do with this lot? Some of them are nearly as old as I am.
Yasumasa Yonehara, the show’s eye-popping peddler of oriental soft porn, whose work is concerned solely with lusting after beautiful Japanese girls half his age, was born in 1959 and might need a wheeled Zimmer frame to negotiate the skateboard ramp that has been plopped down so hopefully at the centre of this display.
Takashi Murakami, who is so rebellious that he has designed an extremely expensive suite of handbags for Louis Vuitton, is 44. Even Barry McGee, on the face of it the wildest cat in this litter, who sets fire to trucks and mounts discos in their smouldering remains, dates from 1966 and was born in San Francisco at the height of flower power. Why, he’s practically a piece of hippie memorabilia.
So they’re not young. And they’re not rebels. What, then, are they? A bunch of middle-aged air guitarists would be my cruellest answer, a loose grouping of pretend loners united only by their shared imagining that each of them is somehow going against the system, when all of them are, in fact, furiously perpetuating a new one. The chap in the catalogue is absolutely right about youth when he insists: “Today, more than ever before, it is everything.” So much so that even these old guys are desperate for another stab at it.
Most of the exhibitors, notably the notorious Banksy, started out as graffiti artists, spraying their names on the sides of buildings in that bulging calligraphic style, learnt from hip-hop manuals, that makes all the letters look as if they have eaten too much. I travelled out to Jesmond underground station, where some of the artists have been allowed to cover a platform wall in the familiar colours and howls of graffiti art. What’s remarkable is not how different they all look, but how similar.
The only person paying any attention to their work was me.
Back at the Baltic, Swoon, who is indeed recognisably different from the rest, makes paper cut-outs of life-sized urban ghosts, which she sticks to the walls in a technique apparently known as “wheat-pasting”. I imagine that her highly sentimental images of forlorn ghetto spirits lost in poetic dream worlds work better in an actual ghetto than they do glued to the outside of the lifts at the Baltic.
Most of the exhibitors carry their pretend ghetto settings around with them, having either left the real things behind long ago or, more usually, having never been in one. Faile, a collective of street artists from New York, make paintings about the situation in the Middle East that try to look like weathered Palestinian posters that have been glued for months to a damp wall in Ramallah. McGee stays in America, but has a miniature Red Indian scrawl “Smash the State” above the remains of his burnt-out truck.
So, everyone is trying to be rebellious. Everyone is exuding attitude. And everyone should, therefore, be recognised as a deeply conservative upholder of the contemporary status quo in modern Britain. If this exhibition were a pair of trousers, it would be showing 12in of underpants and only just staying up. In truth, the most rebellious thing you could actually do in Newcastle today is to ask a group of intelligent and articulate 80-year-olds to exhibit their work at the Baltic, and to accompany their show with a video in which it is argued that there is nothing clever about spraying your name on the outside of someone’s house, or along a railway line; and that skateboarding isn’t even a proper sport, let alone a creative act. Now that really would be different.
As it is, Spank the Monkey takes exactly the opposite tack, and what makes it bearable and even fascinating is the delusional intensity of the exhibitors. For reasons that are never tackled, the display has a fierce fascination with Japanese comic-book culture, and particularly the work of Murakami, the Japanese Warhol. The expensive handbags Murakami designed for Louis Vuitton are duly on show, stored in large protective cases, presumably to stop them being nicked. There is also a Murakami cartoon in which a little Japanese girl drops her mobile phone and, while trying to reclaim it, gets eaten by a creature from another dimension, whose mouth turns out to be the doorway to a magical Louis Vuitton land. The little girl spends the rest of the cartoon floating deliriously between luxury goods.
Now, either I am going completely crazy, or there exists one hell of a conceptual disjunction between Murakami’s infantile worship of expensive handbags and the grim urban need to spray your name on the side of a passing train. How this event came to conflate the tastes of the well-heeled Japanese shopper with those of the embittered Geordie shoplifter is entirely beyond my ken.
What isn’t beyond my ken is what Candice Breitz is trying to do in a piece she calls Working Class Hero (A Portrait of John Lennon), which has been arranged all the way up the stairs at the Baltic. It is nothing less than one of the most compelling and effective pieces of video art I have ever seen. Quite what it is doing in this absurdlytrivial context, I’ll never know. But its immediate effect is to bring power, drama, insight, meaning, truth and, above all, accusation to an event that sorely needs all of them.
It’s a simple idea, really. Arranged at intervals up the stairs are 25 HD plasma screens, on which can be seen a choir of middle-aged Lennon fans from around the world, one per monitor, all of whom are singing along to Lennon’s first solo album, the gut-wrenchingly honest Plastic Ono Band album from 1970. I wandered in just as they began the anthemic Working Class Hero and was stopped in my tracks.
The piece works on many levels. The spectacle of all these grimacing faces looming above you is visually extraordinary. And, since the singers are hardened fans and know all the words, they add the power of a Handel chorus to what are already such rousing lyrics. But as you walk up among them and savour each individual contribution in detail, it’s the little things you notice. The bad complexion of the guy with the ginger hair. The chap in shades who imagines he’s a rock star. The dancing woman who forgets she’s 50. When it comes to being remarkable, nothing can hold a candle to ordinary people.