Title image copyright Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen
The Coal Coast is a body of work by Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen about the effect of the coal industry on the beaches of Durham. It was initially shown at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in 2003, and developed further along with a film and shown again this year at the Side Gallery in Newcastle.
Images from that collection are available at:
and there is a talk that was given at the opening of the Side exhibition available at:
Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen is a Finnish photographer who has worked in Britain since the 1960s. Her earlier work was all in black and white, mainly on the lives of people in the Newcastle area, however, she branched into colour for this series, using a medium format camera with colour negative film.
The Coal Coast describes the effect the coal mining industry has had on the environment. All the waste from it was simply dumped on the beaches, together with the ballast from the ships and the ash from the coal that had been burnt to provide energy for the operation. This effectively raised the levels of the beaches by several feet. Since the coal mining has stopped there has been an attempt to clean up the beaches, and the effect of removing some of the debris and letting the sea have more access has further removed some of it. Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen says ‘a redeeming thing is that the sea is taking back the man-made intrusion …. Maybe environmentally it will return’ and also describes how these sea changes impacted on her work, in that there were constant changes to the beach, how she would look for the time of day, light and tide combination that would show what she was interested in only, on some occasions, to return, and discover that the items had been washed away.
The images are often bleak: a dead bird, mine rubbish, a shoe half buried in the sand, but full of the most surprising colours, rust red, copper green with the intense blue of the sky. It is clear why she chose to use colour rather than monochrome to show this area. The series acts as a comment on the destructive powers of industry on nature, but also on the regeneration possible. The images themselves are sparse, definitely less is more, and benefit from repeated viewing. Some are reminiscent of the images of famous tourist areas, sea, sand and rock formations, so knowing the background to the images is crucial to understanding them.
The recent exhibition was accompanied by a film made by Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen and the Amber Collective, which is accompanied by music from the New York group So Percussion. It tells the story of a young miner, Billy, who died in the pits and the struggle to get his body out, interspersed with the images from the Coal Coast series and scenes of the moving waves, with sounds of the sea on the beach. It is both heart breaking and beautiful. The story is narrated by a former colleague of Billy, and even at this distance in time, the emotion in his voice is clear. The repeating and echoing music weaves in and out of the rushing of the waves. Overall a cathartic experience.
Konttinen, S. (2003). The Coal Coast. Newcastle upon Tyne: AmberSide.
Song for Billy. (2017). [HD video] Newcastle: Sitka-Luisa Konttinen.