Postcard from Folkestone and Bexhill

It’s always enjoyable to mooch around faded seaside towns feeling all wistful and nostalgic. The weathered piers and promenades, the boarded up shop-fronts and permanently closed ‘attractions’, the peeling facades of boarding houses, assorted dilapidations and anachronisms: all these remnants of a fairly recent and yet now largely alien past exude a kind of exquisite melancholy. Although it would be wrong-headed to overly romanticise this kind of disrepair, or preserve decrepit towns in amber, there is a quiet poetry to these places, an ineffable atmosphere that it would be a shame to lose.

So I must admit to initially feeling a touch apprehensive about the ‘creativity and arts-led regeneration’ of Folkestone, which is now well under way. The reality though, is that many parts of the town just feel soulless and thoroughly dreary - speaking less of nostalgic reverie and rather more of deprivation and neglect – and this major facelift can only really be a positive development. In fact, the western end of the seafront has already been smartened up, and the agreeable results suggest good things to come.

And so, the inaugural Folkestone Triennial arrives at a time when the town is poised expectantly between the crumbling, washed-out remainders of yesteryear and the promises of a gleaming culturfied tomorrow, presumably awash with white spaces and people from London. This transitional, transformational state-of-affairs should itself provide some fertile ground for artistic exploration, and indeed a handful of artists involved here partially address this topic. A work called Kiosk5: KiteKiosk, by Nils Norman with Gavin Wade mit Simon and Tom Bloor – which comprises a kiosk from which visitors can procure kites emblazoned with the slogans ‘Hipsterization Strategies’ and ‘Uneven Development’ – serves to question, albeit in a playful way, the rationale, motivation, and possible effects of Folkestone’s reinvention as an aesthetic playground. Nearby, similar themes are developed by Richard Wilson’s piece 18 Holes, in which the artist has used 18 concrete slabs from the 18 holes of what was Folkestone’s crazy golf course to construct three faux beach hut structures on the seafront. The crazy golf course was the final remnant of the defunct Rotunda Amusement Park to be ripped out to make way for redevelopment, and Wilson’s piece becomes an elegy to the now vanished Amusement Park and all that the disappearance of such a place represents. This shift that the piece embodies - which mirrors the regeneration of the town as a whole, or perhaps, as a hole - from the simple, carefree pleasures of the funfair, to the cerebral, conceptual concerns of contemporary art, I found in some ways to be a rather depressing one. Wilson’s huts are not especially pleasing to look at, and I for one would much rather play a round of crazy golf than contemplate Wilson’s piece. Nevertheless, in its reflexive, self-defeating way, it functions as an important statement, encapsulating much of the process that is now under way in Folkestone, perhaps even unwittingly serving as a kind of warning against filling the town with art that offers little in the way of amusement.

Happily then, many works in the Triennial are engagingly diverting. One of these is Tracey Emin’s Baby Things, which (alluding to Folkestone’s high rate of teenage pregnancy) consists of seven bronze simulacra of baby clothes, placed, as if mislaid, at various unprepossessing locations around the town. Despite approximate descriptions of their positions on the Triennial map, it’s often extremely difficult to locate these tiny sculptures, and they must be all but invisible to anyone not actively seeking them out. The search itself seemed as integral to the work as the sculptures themselves, and it was fun and frustrating in equal measure to wander mistakenly up steps and down alleyways, before finally alighting on a little bronze glove or shoe, lying bereft under a bench or atop a railing. Whilst it might so easily have slipped over into the maudlin tone that blights much of Emin’s work, the piece succeeds in speaking poignantly and quietly of that which is present and yet unseen, unacknowledged, already forgotten.

Another dialogue between presence and absence is played out in the old harbour, in Robert Kusmirowski’s excellent piece Foreshore, which again elegises a vanishing activity, that of Folkestone’s once thriving fishing industry. The artist has used junk and driftwood he found around the town to construct a replica fish market, and its location on the harbour bed means that it’s almost completely subsumed by the sea at high tide; the receding waters then revealing a handful of battered structures with associated fishing detritus scattered around. It becomes impossible to delineate the boundaries of this piece, to establish what is part of the work and what is not. It seems at once in perfect harmony with its surroundings and completely out of place, and it’s as though this apparition has grown organically out from the seabed: the ghostly residua of a history that cannot be excised from collective memory, that refuses to be washed away by the vacillations of the tides or of the times.

The movement of the sea also plays a central role in Tacita Dean’s contribution to the Triennial, which is another of her compelling 16mm films, called Amadeus (swell consopio), and showing in Folkestone library. The 50-minute film charts the 22-mile trip across the channel between Boulogne and Folkestone in a small fishing boat on a windy March morning. After departing Boulogne in the disorientating darkness of 3am, the few anonymous lights twinkling back on land soon give way to a complete blackness where sea and sky become a single impenetrable void. With the arrival of first light, the undulating shapes of waves emerge from the gloom, gulls wheel and dive in the ships wake, and a sullen grey-blue dawn slowly comes into focus. Finally we glimpse the famous white cliffs and Martello Towers in the distance before pulling into the stillness and drizzle of Folkestone’s harbour at 6am. The Boulogne-Folkestone route was served by a ferry until 2000, and we might see this piece yet again as something of an elegy, though Dean’s main concern is the timeless space between these termini - the sea as both place and placelessness – and the traversing of this perpetually shifting terrain. Everything in this in-between space is in constant motion: the sea, the boat, the film, and by all accounts the stomachs of Dean’s crew. Despite the ceaseless rise and fall of the sea, and in turn, of the camera, no part of the boat or of the passengers themselves ever enters the frame. Consequently the images feel totally disembodied, untethered to any vessel, and yet at one with the rhythms of the sea, as if capturing something of the essence of journey itself. The fact that the film is silent (although the noisy sound of the film projector nicely mimics a boat’s engine) adds to this impression of a kind of spiritual transit. What’s more, there are no (or very few) era-specific references to anchor this footage in the present day, and the film could almost be capturing the way this journey might have looked at any time in its long history. I’m a great admirer of Dean’s art, and this film adds to and enhances what is becoming an extraordinary body of work.     

Screening in a small Coastwatch station up on the East Cliff is another work that engages with the relationship between Folkestone and Boulogne. Langlands & Bell’s video piece about the two towns, subtitled A Blind Date, seems to simply document a bunch of things the artists came across by chance on the days they visited. Of course there’s nothing necessarily amiss with this serendipitous method of working if you have a good eye in terms of what to point the camera at, and for the most part here, the results are effective enough, with some interesting contrasts between the two towns established, and the odd snippet of genuinely surprising and engaging material. Also up on the east cliff, Ayse Erkman has wrapped a Martello Tower in a rather ugly coloured plastic mesh for her piece Entangled. She explains that this is because the tower is jealous of its ivy-covered counterpart in the west. This is a charming and quirky little idea, but not much more. The Martello Towers are stately, evocative structures on their own. Erkman’s piece adds nothing, and is one of the more lacklustre works in the Triennial.

Descending part of the way down from the cliff, Susan Philipsz’s sound piece Pathetic Fallacy is installed in a shelter in which you can sit and listen to it whilst gazing out to sea. The work comprises the artist’s a capella rendition of Fred Neil’s wonderfully wistful track Dolphins. Philipsz’s chilly, ethereal vocal of loss and longing comes across like a seductive song of the siren, as if calling on you to leap from the cliff in a bid to be reunited with some lost love; only to plunge into the depths of the sea or dash yourself on the rocks below. Sometimes the voice is multi-layered into a creepy cacophonous wail, underscoring the dark subtext that Philipsz brings out from Neil’s words. It’s a clever re-appropriation of the song, and a simple, inventive piece. I think it would work even better were it to be installed somewhere even more remote and precipitous, though that might prove too dangerous for the more unhinged art lover.

Also worth mentioning amongst the works I managed to see are: Mark Wallinger’s thoughtful memorial Folk Stones, which comprises a square of 19,240 numbered pebbles – one for each person that was killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme; and David Batchelor’s Disco Mechanique, a dazzling sculpture of colourful spheres fashioned from hundreds of pairs of flimsy plastic sunglasses, hanging from the ceiling in the former ballroom of the Metropole Hotel. If this work was a paean to the lost days of ballroom dancing, it didn’t ring true the evening I visited, as a salsa class was in full swing. Since I was looking for somewhere to brood over a pint, I regretfully declined to join in and moved swiftly on.

Leaving Folkestone the next day I headed west to Hythe and took a ride on the dinky Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch Railway (the world’s smallest public railway, apparently) to the end of the line, and Dungeness - a vast and largely empty expanse of shingle and marshland, famous for many people as the location of Derek Jarman’s last residence and famous garden. I wasn’t there to seek out Jarman’s patch, but just to wander around, take some photos and some video, and get a taste of this bleak and unique landscape. From there I walked to Lydd, then took a bus and a train further along the coast to Bexhill-on-sea.

Grayson Perry has curated a strong exhibition from the Arts Council Collection called Unpopular Culture, and the elegant De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill is the first stop on its tour. Perry’s selections – comprising paintings, sculpture and photography - are mostly drawn from the period between 1940 and 1980, and he characterises his choices as ‘subtle, sensitive, lyrical and quiet’, setting them up in opposition to what he sees as the brash and sensationalist populism of contemporary art (hence the show’s title).

He’s unearthed some gems here, and the sensitive lyricism he describes is most evident in paintings such as Elinor Bellingham-Smith’s The Island and Jack Smith’s After the Meal - both marvellously gloomy tableaux of Lawrentian stoicism and longing. More often though, I felt that some of the work here was suggestive of a more complex and ambivalent condition of the British, concerned with laying bare a seething and sometimes sinister undercurrent of neurosis running through its subjects, often masked by that very British strategy of repression - eccentricity. The photography of David Hurn, Homer Sykes and Patrick Ward was particularly resonant in this regard. Despite Perry’s claims, a number of works exude not a quiet dignity, but a barely contained violence; or in the case of an extraordinary photo by Bert Hardy from 1949 of a fight between dockers in London, a sudden eruption of such violence. In Carel Weight’s painting The World We Live In, shades of Van Gogh, Bacon, Freud and Pinter combine to produce a vision of woozy, menacing suburbia, teetering on the verge of collapse. There is quietness here, but it is a quiet madness.

These themes are transposed into a rural setting in the twisted roots of Edward Burra’s Blasted Oak and in Gerry Badger’s photos of woodlands and gardens strewn with junk. Both artists present the countryside not as pastoral idyll, but as contaminated psycho-repository - a space where the repressed resides or returns. This notion also finds expression through the show’s other significant element, the bronze sculpture, which includes some superb pieces by Lynn Chadwick, Elisabeth Frink, Francis Morland, Eduardo Paolozzi, William Turnbull and others. Unlike most of the painting and all of the photography, many of the sculptural pieces are abstract, and these strange, totemic artefacts come to embody a kind of dysfunctional surplus which the figurative work can only hint at. One of the most interesting seams running through the show is this dialogue that’s constructed between the seemingly prosaic surface of things and the intangible, ultimately inexpressible mystery and otherness beneath.

Not everything in the exhibition works. There are two or three desperately banal canvasses, by artists that nobody has heard of for very good reason, but overall this is an insightful and necessary show. Whilst I don’t concur with Perry’s reductive assessment of contemporary art, I share his taste for the restrained and evocative work he’s chosen, and contrary to the exhibition’s title, I think many other people will too. 

David Foster

Susan Philipsz Location photograph from Pathetic FallacyPhotograph © Martin Wills

Susan Philipsz
Location photograph from Pathetic Fallacy
Photograph © Martin Wills