Stand and look down into the stairwell of the Baltic Arts Centre and your heart will skip a beat. Look up and you will be confronted with an equally breathless sense of the infinite, as mirrors below and above you extend the winding stair down into the abyss and up into paradise. This permanent installation by the artist Mark Wallinger, is entitled Heaven and Hell and its simplicity is impressive.

Indeed, there is nothing about this converted flour mill on the banks of the Tyne that does not impress. Remodelled and repurposed into a centre for contemporary art, it stands like an industrial monolith now with panoramic views of Newcastle and Gateshead. Inside, there are large uninterrupted spaces, glass elevators and of course that vertigo inducing stairwell.

‘You’re alright with heights?’ the gallery guide gently probed who greeted me at the door. ‘People usually start at the top and work their way down.’  How different from life, I thought.

I rode the glass elevator to the top floor and wandered through the building, working my way down as directed and marvelled at the place — the setting for the art on show. While filled with an eclectic mixture of modern art, it is the building that is the real masterpiece. Albeit transitory, the set of contemporary installations that were on show the day I visited bewildered and bothered in equal measure, but failed I’m afraid to bewitch. Or at least, I should say, they failed me. Yes, it is all art; I just thought some of it wasn’t very good art.

Because I had spent more than £20 in the gallery gift shop — it was one of those gift shops in which it was very easy to spend more than £20 — I was rewarded with a free tea voucher for the café. The Baltic Kitchen café like the rest of the building is rather lovely with wonderful views of the Sage Gateshead and the Tyne Bridge through huge plate glass walls. But, like the rest of the gallery, I felt its contents did not quite live up to the container. Languid teenage staff who seemed to find it an especial inconvenience to take an order and tea that came with the teabag still in the cup. I mean, really.

But, I was in a forgiving mood — art does that, even bad art. And so does working your way back down to the start from the heights. Most of the time we are scrambling up the increasingly greasy pole of life to get a better view. Here the view was freely given and the journey on offer was a descent, down a winding and infinite stairway, in order to get your feet back firmly on the ground. And, from that ground, the view up into the building was just as exciting as the view down from the top — soaring white spaces just made to be filled with art.


But glass elevators were not the only means of scaling the heights of the Baltic, and artistic spaces were not all that soared. Outside the building an inland colony of kittiwakes still nest on its brick ledges just under the stark lettering high on its river facade. They are unaffected by the art on show or the heights to which they have flown. On high is where they dwell. They have no aspiration to climb any higher or indeed to swoop any lower. All they need is here. And they are enjoying the view, unawares that there is any other to be had.

People, however, have a broader perspective on their world and their possibilities. A perspective that leads to ambition and either disappointment or success — or more usually a little of both. We worry about our level, and we waste time on our concerns about the climb. While we usually equate height with status and altitude with success, in the Baltic Arts Centre there was wonder to be had on all levels. Having enjoyed both extremes from the highest heights looking down and from the ground staring up, it was clear that this building might have a lesson to teach.

In this building, as in life, enjoy whatever stage you are at, whatever floor you have reached, and don’t spoil the moment by constantly looking upwards or worrying about the fall.

© Allan Gaw 2017


Now available in paperback…

Testing the Waters: Lessons from the History of Drug Research

What can we learn from the past that may be relevant to modern drug research?

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My other books currently available on kindle:

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