The Cold Beauty of the ‘Coal Coast’ at Side Gallery

Sandwiched between the restaurants that decorate Newcastle’s Quayside (pronounced Key-side) you will find the Side Photographic Gallery. Tucked away down an old crooked alleyway complete with worn down steps, this young gallery is quite hard to spot unless you’re deliberately looking for it, but well worth a trip if you are venturing down to the river. Although a small gallery, it is warm and welcoming, the exhibitions being spread over two floors in bright open plan rooms that are not overwhelming but provide enough space to allow you to appreciate the artwork that’s on show.

As part of the Amber Side Collection, the Side Gallery has for 40 years been dedicated towards showing powerful and often forgotten stories of marginalised groups, particularly those in the North East, through art photography and documentary. A subject that has been receiving more and more engagement in art forms over the years, at the Side Gallery they engage fully with the North East’s history in often new and exciting ways.

When I visited the gallery in early July, the gallery was showing the Coal Coast Exhibition by Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen. It is a fascintating collection of powerful photos taken between 1998 – 2002. If you are interested in the mining history of the North East, these beautiful, dramatic photos of the debris of discarded ‘memorabilia’ of the now deposed coal industry are fascinating and moving. The photos capture the scarred nature of the Durham coast-line, evoking a sense of violence and abuse as well as extreme loss in the contrasting colours and sharp tones. I have heard others describe the people of the North East in terms of arguably tribal values as a compliment to their loyalty, reverence to their history, and independence. This is certainly played on in this exhibition as the tribal music of gongs and drums echoing from the second floor makes you feel that the loss Konttinen is portraying in her art is a loss felt by a tribal community at the hands of greater systematic processes.

My favourite pieces of the collection were of Dawson, taken 11 September 2001, which captures the wooden piles that used to be the supports of the rail tracks for wagons, as well as the two aligned pieces of Haworth Hive, taken 24 June 1999 and 9 August 2000. In the photo of Dawson, I loved the use of perspective in the shot to draw you in, centralising your sight on the wooden piles looking out to sea. They seem like timeless beacons, standing as testimonials to a washed over past.

Screen Shot 2017-07-14 at 17.06.00 Dawson,  11 September 2001

With the two photos of Haworth Hive, it was the contrast between their striking colours and textures that I loved. One startlingly vibrant in the captured deep tones of iron oxide which stains a pool of clay, the other strikingly different in its monotone image of cracks in clay that forms the background  of a submerged, discarded miner’s boot. The difference in the images in colour, subject and texture makes both the images even more visually powerful in their alignment than if they were separate. I found the images of discared shoes and mining equipment throughout the collection particularly emotive as it paints the Durham coastline as the site of a great tragedy, a site where many did actually lose their lives in going about their daily jobs.

Screen Shot 2017-07-14 at 17.04.57

         Haworth Hive, 24 June 1999

Screen Shot 2017-07-14 at 17.05.20         Haworth Hive, 9 August 2000

 All images © Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen

This sense of loss, of tragedy and of death is expanded by the short film ‘Song for Billy’ that is shown on the second floor of the gallery. In the film, Konttinen’s photos are set to tribal music, while the personal testimony of the ex-miner Freddie Welsh to the death of a young miner at the Easington pit in the 90s narrates overhead an all too common story of accidental death also the Coal Coast. Welsh’s words ‘little coal’ ‘death’ ‘waste’ accomply images of forgotten, broken shoes and discared mining equipment, reimagining the coastline as a graveyard to a collapse industry but more than that to a way of life and lost lives. In watching this film, I found it shocking to realise how much a reality death was in mining communities right up to the closure of the mines barley a generation ago. The film, although short, is very emotionally powerful, as images of forgetten tools and shoes accompany Welsh’s raw description of hearing the unforgettable screams of Billy’s father as he looked on his dead son. The merger of Welsh’s narrative with the tribal music at the end of the film is particularly effective, as it reaffirms the sense of a tribal loss encapsulated in the collection as a whole.

Overall, the ‘Coal Coast’ collection is one of great power and silent questions. With more and more investment and renovation in the North East, it is easy to forget or gloss over the very real scars still felt by its people. In acknowledging and exposing this reality in her photos, Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen captures not only the cold beauty of the Durham coastline but also an all to real past that is still felt today.