The Vasseur BALTIC Artists' Award 2022

The late Isabel Vasseur, friend to many in the North East and further afield, is remembered in the Vasseur BALTIC Artists’ Award exhibition. David Whetstone met one of the award winners

Originally published: May 2022

Surprise was factored in even before the Gateshead curatorial team first convened to discuss the Vasseur BALTIC Artists’ Award.

The task of the curators was not to select the award winners – each of whom would win £25,000 to make new work and a £5,000 fee - but to select the three artists who would be invited to do that job.

These established art world figures would each be asked to nominate an up-and-coming artist to benefit from high profile exposure and “a step-change in their career”.

Right from the start it was exciting.

Who would be chosen? What would the new commissions look like? Would there be common themes?

These questions were the kind relished by art lover Isabel Vasseur, a BALTIC trustee from 2004 to 2008 and curator of the visual arts element of the 1990 Gateshead Garden Festival.

Isabel, who died last year, is remembered at BALTIC as “a hugely admired figure who inspired a generation of curators and artists with her fearless approach to putting art in the public realm”.

The biennial BALTIC Artists’ Award, which first took place in 2017 (missing 2021 because of the pandemic), is supported by Isabel through a bequest and renamed the Vasseur BALTIC Artists’ Award in her memory.

And since the exhibition has now opened on BALTIC’s Level 3, the Northumbria University Gallery, all those questions can be answered.

Fernando Garcia-Dory, born in Madrid, was nominated by German filmmaker and moving image artist Hito Steyerl; Ima-Abasi Okon, who lives in London and Amsterdam, was nominated by Otobong Nkanga, the Nigerian visual and performance artist based in Antwerp; and Laleh Khorramian…

Well, I met Laleh on Level 3 just before the exhibition opened to the public and asked her what this award and exhibition meant to her.

Artist Laleh Khorramian. Photo: David Whetstone.
“Who doesn’t love a commission?” was her quite reasonable response.
“I didn’t know much about BALTIC but then I did the research and was really stoked about it.
“This was a great opportunity to create work that wouldn’t have been possible without a commission and a long period of time.”

Laleh was nominated by Mika Rottenberg, the award-winning New York-based video artist.

Based in upstate New York but born in Teheran and brought up in Florida from the age of two, Laleh makes delicate multi-media work in which light and colour are important elements.

It’s likely that many BALTIC visitors will linger in the soothing space she requested and made her own, with light boxes and banners and a huge back-lit frieze.

The printed BALTIC guide says Laleh is inspired by “the complex mythologies and cosmological thinking of ancient cultures such as ritual depictions of the afterlife and deities”.

With her work all around her, she suggested that people should enjoy her work rather than worry about its meaning.

The big frieze might surprise BALTIC regulars because behind it lies a window that is usually blocked off. Natural light illuminates the piece which shows a kind of dreamscape.

Laleh Khorramian The Vasseur BALTIC Artists’ Award 2022,installation view, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead. Photo: Rob Harris © 2022 BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art

On the technicalities, Laleh explained: “At the heart of what I do is drawing and painting. This is a magnification of one of my drawings.
“I paint with oil on glass and there’s a paper I use that’s non-porous. Children can do this. It’s a very child-like technique in a sense but it continues to fascinate me.”

The uncertainty, she said, was part of the appeal.

“I do know how to manipulate the paper and paint, but I’ll throw things in there sometimes to disrupt the surface.
“I’d say it’s 65% a surprise what comes out, but I’m drawn to that aspect of it.”

You might see, as I did, a wintry landscape or possibly an underwater scene.

“I see that too,” agreed Laleh.
“I see magical landscapes that I’d rather be in than my own life sometimes. I like that. I like that uncertain aspect of whether it’s under the skin or under the water, whether it’s ancient or futuristic.
“But sometimes there will be just one little element and I’ll make a whole story out of it.”

This piece is called Fontanelle after the soft spot on a new-born baby’s skull, and there is indeed a circular shape which could be called skull-like.

“I like that place of vulnerability that we sort of fear, and I like the bizarre,” said Laleh.
“There is something bizarre about that softness. I have a seven-month-old, so it was an aspect of watching her.”
But she added: “I guess it’s a case of don’t over-think it too much. That’s what I sometimes feel guilty about, that it’s not very intellectual. It is what it is.”

The stained-glass window effect she aspired to in her backlit Fontanelle is also evident in her wall-mounted lightboxes that she calls trapezoidal windows.

“They’re designed to be this way or that way. There’s no top.
“But one thing common throughout this work is the spine. Well, you could call it the spine or a centre from which all else radiates.
“I think I see it as a human spirit or any spirit, whether it’s of this life or another life or post-life. They’re not quite figurative, not quite abstract and they’re all in different stages.”

They could be installed permanently in a building to glorious effect. Think of David Hockney’s stained glass window in Westminster Abbey.

Laleh made clear that she wouldn’t say no to that.

“I did them this size because I wanted them human and personal. This could be in my bedroom. I wouldn’t be insulted by it being a lamp. It’s light and light is life-giving.”

Laleh said she makes a lot of garments and set up a clothing company years ago.

Textiles feature here in the form of a suspended installation of three great kimonos, dyed, painted and with a similarly covetable otherworldly vibe.

Inevitably, the inaugural Vasseur BALTIC Artists’ Award has resulted in an exhibition of vivid and intriguing contrasts.

As Laleh talked about her visually sumptuous work, Ima-Abasi Okon’s sculptural sound installation provided baleful accompaniment from behind a screen.

Nearer the front of the gallery, Fernando Garcia-Dory’s latest iteration of his INLAND project, examining the relationship between culture and nature, looked not otherworldly but thoroughly rooted in this one.

Jars of chutney, ceramic items and photographs are arranged on shelves to resemble a gallery version of the BALTIC shop or a summation of some of the activities North East folk get up to in their spare time.

Fernando García-DoryThe Vasseur BALTIC Artists’ Award 2022,installation view, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead. Photo: Rob Harris © 2022 BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art

Fernando García-DoryThe Vasseur BALTIC Artists’ Award 2022,installation view, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead. Photo: Rob Harris © 2022 BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art

There’s something for everyone, as there is in the whole exhibition. Isabel Vasseur would have been delighted.

The Vasseur BALTIC Artists’ Award can be seen at BALTIC until October 2. Find details of all BALTIC exhibitions here