“We were five in January,” beems Alix Collingwood, curator at Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art as she guides me around their latest exhibition.
Middlesbrough is an old steel mining town in Teesside. It's a poor area with one of the highest crime rates in the country. mima (the gallery is known by the obligatory four letter sobriquet of the contemporary public art space) wants to change all that. Imaging itself as 'a flagship venue for Middlesbrough and the Tees Valley and a beacon of the town’s aspiration', it finally opened in 2007 after twenty years of planning, with the laudable aim of 'driving the local economy, inspiring civic pride, supporting local arts infrastructure, encouraging visitors to the town and sub-region and creating opportunities for enjoyment.'
As I hurry up Middlesbrough's soulless, near deserted high street and turn into Centre Square – the 19,000sq meter area surrounding mima, the largest civic space in Europe, that includes a 120 jet water feature and a 35 foot Claes Oldenberg sculpture - the experience is akin to what I imagine it might be to encounter a space ship on the Hangar Lane Gyratory. To behold this vast glass and steel palace to contemporaneity in the heart of a depressing and depressed post-industrial wasteland is, without exaggeration, an awe inspiring experience. One stands agape.
And mima isn't pulling any punches with it's programming either. Inside the exhibition space the first thing the viewer encounters is Berlin-based Cyprien Gaillard's 16mm film Cities of Gold and Mirrors. Emotive twin sound tracks – the loud whir of the old fashioned projector that dominates the room and an elegiacal, otherworldly musical score – dictate the mood in which we interpret the visual image. Alcohol soaked teenagers in knee length swimming trunks and gold neck chains, on a sun drenched path of rebellion in Cancun, Mexico, their self-destructive activities played out against a backdrop of palm trees and cheap hotels. The hangover these kids will at some point entertain is an apt metaphor for the invasive tourist structures thrown up in places like Cancun with no regard for the long term ramifications upon the landscape or the culture. Later in the film we see crumbling Mayan ruins on parched grassland, the lumpen modernist tourist structures of tomorrow's archaeology floating behind.
This isn't a crude negation of modernity though and neither is it an overly simplistic romanticisation of yesteryear. Rather it reminds us that history is alive in the present, that every moment in time includes its own past and its own future. Landscapes collide.
Alongside Mr Gaillard's work is an exhibition that is separate but conceptually linked and is, in some ways, an even bolder choice on mima's part. John Gerrard is one of only a tiny handful of contemporary fine artists working in the field of computer art. The media of cutting edge technology and computer generated image is still something of a wild card to the contemporary art world, dangerously close to its own nerdy, utilitarian roots.
This exhibition of two of his most recent works 'consolidates' mima suggests, 'his reputation as one of the most innovative artists working today'. Both pieces take as their subject a school created as part of the 1960s social revolution in Southern Cuba. In reality the school is still in use but it appears here in a state of ruinous disrepair; grey with age, windows smashed, concrete crumbling.
The methods of data capture that Mr Gerrard employs are complex and inordinately time consuming. Upwards of 4 to 5,000 images of his subject are taken on site. These he collates, along with satellite imagery and the assistance of mind boggling gadgety, custom built gaming software, and a team of technological wizards, in his Vienna studio. By some mysterious act of alchemy what emerges is a real time virtual world so detailed it portrays every nook and cranny of the school through 360degrees, even reflecting the actual time of day in Cuba.
Vacated of children the school's single occupant is a caretaker who comes twice a day to switch the lights on and off. The effect is of a lonely, dehumanized and disconnected environment that speaks eloquently of the challenges of our time. That mima has, in the last few days, acquired one of these Cuban School works for its permanent collection demonstrates an impressive level of insight.
As mima enters it's sixth year one wonders if it is succeeding in realising the ambitious goals of its outset. Is building a shrine to the sharp end of contemporary art in a cultural and economic wilderness such as Middlesbrough seriously a means to regenerating an area? At this point it's impossible to know. But research conducted over the last five years certainly shows that mima is one of the most popular visitor destinations in the North East, attracting in excess of a hundred thousand visitors a year who very likely wouldn't have dreamt of going there otherwise. Bringing their tourist money with them this would certainly seem to be no bad thing. But as Gaillard makes clear, today's monuments are just tomorrow's archaeology.