With her exhibition 'Dark Matter' the Berlin-based Austrian artist Eva Grubinger said her final awkward goodbyes to the Baltic, where she has spent the last 12 months on a residency. She may not be welcomed back. Over the past few years the northern city and its neighbour Newcastle have been grafting hard to cleanse their grimy 'beer and builders' image - but Grubinger wants to remind them of the bad old days.
She also wants to remind them of the bad new ones. The centrepiece of the show was an inhumanly vast and entirely black telephone headset, the sort familiar to the thousands of workers employed in the call centres that have recently spread across northern England in the wake of industrial decline. Resting on the floor with all the gravity of Satan's own chariot, Headset (2003) is about three metres wide at its broadest, with its mouthpiece reaching four metres to the ceiling. Waves of muted noise emanate from the earpieces, but instead of the usual succession of frustrated technical inquiries and blustering complaints is an abstraction of all that stress: an aural soup of tunnel echoes, metallic whine and telegraphic buzz. Finally, adding an Orwellian coup de grâce to this scene of misery, Grubinger attached a long strip of reflective black glass to the rear of the gallery, which resembles the looking glass of an observation room.
The remaining ground-floor exhibition space afforded the artist only a small gallery, and for this Grubinger made a sculptural crypt of iconic workplaces. Many of these recalled the old order: a power station cooling tower, a nuclear reactor and the control tower of an airport, the latter sculpted in the hefty, aspiring, Expressionist curves that used to be so fashionable. Standing at the end was an icon that straddles both worlds: a Mies-ian high-rise office block. All of this was black too.
Unfortunately, like a store cupboard, the contents of Grubinger's second gallery lacked drama. While the headset had presence, the smaller works were peculiarly lacking in assertiveness. First, they were jumbled in scale: the nuclear reactor was the stunted junior of the cooling tower, while the office block, which should have been the towering overlord, like most of its neighbours only reached just above head height. Second, being straightforwardly representational, the sculptures exhausted themselves quickly. The Minimalist ancestors of this type of work had a bold ambiguity that made them crackle with menace - regardless of what Donald Judd said about the delimited references of his 'Specific Objects' (1965). But if it was same growling malignancy that Grubinger wanted pent up in her sculptures, it was an energy that was quickly spent in their plainly denotational reference.
What Grubinger did have on her side, however, was clear-sightedness. Her amusingly overblown and literalized noir was an icy blast against those who would say that the north has been regenerated. Progress, she would say, is not the replacement of skilled labour with telephone answering for minimum wages and maximum aggravation, but a return to the shadowed corridors of white-collar anxiety that film noir expressed so well in the 1940s and 1950s. Grubinger's noir isn't an entirely rejuvenated one, however; rather it is gently rendered ironic, similar in mood to the cinematic pastiches of the Coen brothers' Barton Fink (1991). Noir doesn't have a recognized successor, but that isn't because the seas of anxiety have been calmed. It probably indicates only that a battle of wills and rhetorical resources has been won by big business. Indeed they're winning it right now on the shores of the Tyne: when I visited the Baltic, builders were at work on a bizarre new edifice next door; eventually it will be Sage Gateshead, an entertainment centre, but currently it resembles a kind of metallic caterpillar inching its way along the riverbank. Our finest buildings no longer look like tombstones: they now look like large grubs. That must be progress.
First published in Issue 80