Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen: The Coal Coast – Exhibition

As part of their celebrations to mark their 40th year the Side Gallery in Newcastle has put on this exhibition of Konttinen’s photos taken between 1999 and 2002 of mining industry detritus on the coast of County Durham.  I first saw these pictures years ago when they were originally shown at the Baltic Gallery (I cannot now remember exactly when) but they have lost none of their impact over the years.

These are big works, the panoramic shots particularly so, which itself gives them impact.  A bit like Anselm Adams’s work, with their deep depth of field and sharp detail throughout, and a degree of distortion in the really big panoramas, they are quite otherworldly and slightly unreal.  It would not have surprised me if some of these photographs had been taken on Mars, so alien does the landscape appear.

Previously Konttinen had only worked in black and white, which worked brilliantly well with her subject matter, much of which focussed on mining, and this was the first time she worked with colour.  Although the colours are quite subtle they are nevertheless particularly striking because of the incongruity of the industrial remains in this coastal landscape.  It is funny the tricks memory can play – I had remembered the colours as being very vivid and highly saturated but mostly they are not.

The presentation of the images is interesting and also adds to their impact.  They are stuck directly onto the white walls of the gallery, without any mount or frame, so there is nothing to distract the eye.  Apparently this was largely a pragmatic choice: framing these big photos would have been prohibitively expensive and the relative humidity in the building would have led the prints to buckle and wave; also, rather than being printed on photographic paper, which would evidently have pulled the plaster of the walls when they are removed, they are printed on industrial wall paper which is easy to stick to the walls and easy to remove.

Accompanying the main exhibition is also a short video, made by Amber Films, called Song for Billy, showing many of the photos interspersed with video footage from the same coast, and in which an ex-miner retells the story of the death of Billy in an accident under ground.  A specially composed soundtrack by So Percussion complements the visuals beautifully and emphasises the human tragedy without being overtly dramatic or programatic.  This is a very moving, deeply affecting work that reminds us that mining was not built just out of concrete and steel which remains to this day even if only in a shattered form, but also the bones of men.


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