Vienna-based sculptor Toni Schmale has been thinking a lot lately about ‘transitional objects’, the term coined by psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott in 1953 for the items that young children seize as tools for psychological comfort: dolls, stuffed toys, even blankets. On a recent Wednesday, I followed Schmale around her installation at Gateshead’s Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, for which she’s created her own ‘family’ of ‘transitional objects’, she explains. It’s a punishing constellation that reaches out to the inner machine. ‘Nothing can make you believe we harbor nostalgia for factory work but a modern gym’, Mark Greif writes in his mischievous 2004 essay in n+1, ‘Against Exercise’. And just so, Schmale’s objects dissolve the last vestiges of industry – a language of pulleys, racks, levers – into their simplest elements, rearranging them into compositions that invoke, in equal measure, exercise and BDSM equipment, finished with a military-black polish.
Schmale’s sculptural production in The Good Enough Mother (2017) and waltraud (2016), in which industrial remnants are resurrected in stone and metal as sexually-charged silhouettes of guillotines and treadmills (minus the gym bunnies), find an admirer and clear echo in her former tutor Monica Bonvicini. This year, the Baltic has asked Bonvicini, along with Mike Nelson, Pedro Cabrita Reis and Lorna Simpson (all established artists with strong links to the art centre) to each nominate an artist for its inaugural biennial artists’ award, receiving GBP£25,000 to create new work, along with a GBP£5,000 fee.
Dominating the Baltic’s vast, warehouse-like upper gallery, Mexican artist Jose Dávila (chosen by Reis) has installed The weaker has conquered the stronger (2017) which calls on the rhythms and materials of construction and architecture and produces an unsettling transformation of the functional into a gravity-defying illusion. A steel cable plunges through the floor, shoots back up to the ceiling and seems to visibly strain as it ties together iron girders, boulders of sandstone, and a red latex balloon into an impossible concatenation of events. Dávila likes to ‘subvert the logical experience of things’, he tells me – his closed-loop structure takes an anxiety-inducing moment of drama (the balloon swaying ever so slightly under a mass of rock, suspended in mid-air) and freezes it.
Dávila, who is currently based in Guadalajara, started on a series of photographic cut-out works in the late 1990s, in which he stripped out landmarks from their surrounding landscapes, leaving a gaping white void. This sense of negative space is flipped in recent compositions in which found, raw materials – glass, marble and concrete – are strapped into a precise perimeter. The blank spaces created between the components of The Weaker Has Conquered the Stronger are filled with the phobia of physical threat, the idea that the whole thing might come crashing down on you. At the same time, this hovering megalith also wants to ground you in an appreciation of place and time: the girders reference the industrial history of Gateshead, and Dávila has made sure to source the sandstone from a local quarry.
Dávila’s mass effect renders Eric N. Mack’s installation, which occupies the other half of the gallery, even more fragile and weightless. The New York-based artist (chosen by Simpson) collages the traces of everyday, domestic labour – a knotted brass bedframe, crumpled tent cover, splattered clothes – into a rag-tag, painterly blur: ‘a transference of utility’ as he sees it. A performer, dressed in a toga of vividly patterned fabrics, drifts through the installation. Mack quilts a contorted fragment of fencing into the ruffles and flourishes of a bed skirt in The opposite of the pedestal is the grave (2017), while stained fabrics are stitched up with a slice of dried orange and a sequined dragon in Implied Reebok or Desire for the Northeast Groover (2016), playfully curved into the contours of the Reebok ‘cross check’ logo. He draws inspiration from Sam Gilliam’s drape paintings, and continually thinks about how ‘absorption, the depth within the fabric, the staining’ all manifest within his own work. Mack makes his mark by pushing pigment through peg boards, imprinting a sequence of dots across the surface of his select textiles.
‘When I’ve seen Eric’s work before, I’ve also seen him come up against architectural limits, but now to have that height…’, Simpson says, pointing towards the gallery’s high ceiling, from which a gently gyrating parasol cloaked in a cascading quilt is hung: the giant umbrella of Palms on Cotton (2017) implies a deeply private architecture, but is rendered at such a scale that it almost resembles a banner. For Mack, this new relationship to space became a challenge: ‘I asked myself, what do I want my practice to become, to be realized in a full sense?’ He uses rope to carve through the gallery space (a scaling up from thread), literally tethering the fabrics to the space: a clothes line that creates a framing of sorts.
Heading back downstairs, past Schmale’s row of fetishistic gym gear, another darkness beckons beyond. Mike Nelson has chosen London-based Chinese artist Shen Xin, and her sprawling video installation feels refreshingly cool. For Nelson, there was an intuitive attraction to Shen’s interest in stripping apart belief systems and vast narratives – ‘the distillation of a lot of confusing aspects of the world from a person half my age’ – as well as a preoccupation with the idea of the theatre set. Provocation of the Nightingale (2017) uses four screens as dividers, forcing people to watch a series of films one by one. The first video sets up a dialogue between the manager of a DNA testing service and her meditation mentor, dressed in grey and red robes, which veers between flirtation, denied romance, and a heartbreaking dive into personal history. Shen uses the theatre of the Asia Culture Center in Gwangju, Korea, as a backdrop throughout Provocation of the Nightingale, accentuating the choreography and physical interplay at work within the piece. The next two films lace together a screen showing archive footage of misbehaving monks, and female Muslim communities in China, and another documenting two dancers facing off (their performance stripped out), recording a process of decaying physical energy. The final piece animates YouTube recordings of people commenting on the experience of having a DNA test, their voices matched by undulating, looping yellow rings. There’s a hazy, meditative sensation at work throughout the entire installation, in which image and sounds are increasingly arranged in slippage.
When I visited Shen’s studio late last year, we discussed her latest pieces, including the 2014 film Counting Blessings in which she documents the work of her father, a realist painter, and his deployment of rural Tibetan life as his subject. Shen was drawn towards her father’s paintings’ fetishization of Tibetan masculinity, and more broadly, the ways in which muscular sexuality is always something to be both promoted and oppressed in Chinese society. Meanwhile, her 2015 project Shoulders of Giants staged a symposium of artists and theorists (including the late Mark Fisher), using their voices to animate fantasy beasts from the 4th-century Chinese text, the Shan Hai Jing (‘The Classics of Mountains and Seas’), unpicking the power dynamics and ritual of a radical politics seminar. While Shen’s latest work continues these themes (belief systems, unorthodox behaviour, righteous practice), it does begin to feel different: less rooted in the personal, and like the other work created for this year’s Baltic prize, foregrounding close studies of energy in moments of resurrection, immobility, and transference.
The Baltic Artists’ Award 2017 runs until 2 October, 2017.
Main image: Eric N. Mack, A Lesson in Perspective, 2017, activated by participant, BALTIC Artists’ Award 2017, installation view, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead. Courtesy: © 2017 BALTIC; photograph: John McKenzie