The first sun in a long time welcomes the Folkestone Triennial press party into Kent. And the first port of call, Cristina Iglesias’s mirrored portal-like intervention on the ramparts of Martello 4, affords extraordinary views of a previously hidden tower and cobalt, turquoise and teal waters not immediately associated with one’s mental images of the English coast. Our tour, led by the Triennial’s curator Andrea Schlieker, has been carefully (and fortuitously) framed, for this moment certainly feels ‘A Million Miles From Home’.
And the three main themes of Schlieker’s second Folkestone Triennial (Migration, Home, Other World) appear to converge here. The secret history of the town reflected in the Spanish artist’s Snow White-meets-Brave New World structure and the changeable sea views beyond, provide an elegant backdrop to the curator’s intentions: to further explore this coastal location as threshold and to shift the exhibition focus out into the wider international community. Yet this work, an alien sculptural behemoth in the shrubbery, detracts from as much as it facilitates our engagement with the surroundings. The issues circulating its manufacture and reception are shared by the project at large: of how to mark a vantage point, or reveal forgotten aspects of a territory without exerting some external sense of ownership over it.
Which is why Tracey Emin’s 2008 bronzes (of a baby’s hat; a grubby teddy), fixed to public surfaces, still work so well here. They are unassuming yet permanent, speak equally of local issues as a collective sense of being vulnerable, and her own status being both of and yet outside the region. And while seaside towns have certainly suffered in recent times, on an otherwise normal day in June the people of Folkestone seem to be quietly getting on with things in a recession. Apart from a flurry of welcome activity (getting new boutiques and art spaces visitor-ready) in the Creative Quarter and some slightly lary lads having a supermarket lunch on a tomb in the church yard, it’s a quiet sunny Friday.
Several of this year’s artists appear to have negotiated the interloper issue by carefully excavating the area’s colonial history, or investigating its links to the/their geopolitical present. Many connections with mainland Europe emerge, specifically France just 20-odd miles away, in unlikely local sites. Ruth Ewan’s altered clocks — purposeful continuity glitches in the town’s real-time programming — tell decimal time in various places to highlight the radical potential of France’s temporary abandonment of the Gregorian Calendar in the 18th century.
Danish artist Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen has made a three-screen film — (with the assistance of and) following Afghan and Iranian migrants en route to Britain — for a disused cafe with clear-day views of Calais where many live rough before attempting the journey across the channel. The work does its job very well and as a documentary film in an evocative non-art space prompts questions about the role and responsibilities of artists and institutions in a global context.
It also serves to remind just how difficult it is to get the curatorial balance right in these kind of large-format, largely site-responsive exhibitions. While such a diverse selection of works makes for an interesting visitor experience, inevitable comparisons will be made between very different art intentions not necessarily designed to work together. I’ve put down some more thoughts in this vein as commissioned writer for the 2010 Tatton Park Biennial. http://www.tattonparkbiennial.org/blog/
Other artists have found ways in which to relate aspects of their own cultural histories with the nature of the project and the locale. There is nothing window-shop about Hala Elkoussy’s and Erzen Shkololli’s engaging pop-up stores stocking archival information relating to Egypt’s colonial past and a boutique display of rare Kosovan garments, respectively. London-based Israeli Smadar Dreyfus’ disorienting school-house of sound and text situates the viewer in seven mainstream school classes recorded in or around Tel Aviv. The acousmatic nature of the experience forces one to abandon certain sensory settings and, for a good while in the dark, one’s cultural preconceptions.
A K Dolven’s large, 16th century Leicestershire church bell strung on steel 20m above the Tarmac’d no-man’s land of the seafront, is architectural lightness to the dark and difficult metal mass of Paloma Varga Weisz’s ‘Rug People’ obstructing the tracks of the disused WWI harbour station. Dolven’s elegant commission is a variation on a recent project undertaken in her native Norway: to give voice and new purpose to a de-commissioned out-of-tune (Oslo town hall) bell. The five heads of German artist Varga Weisz’s bronze sculpture, however, sit oddly on a cast mass of fantastic textures – a hardened, once molten mix of duvet, wood and cardboard – a fittingly difficult anti-monument to the dispossessed going nowhere on a stationary carpet.
It’s misleading to say it’s the simple works that win one over at this year’s triennial, for there are very few ‘simple’ works here, strictly speaking. Most involve elaborate actions, complex construction techniques or intellectual journeys. There is, however, an old-world charm and ideological clarity that links the works of British artists Hew Locke and Hamish Fulton and Spencer Finch of the USA.
The interior of St Mary and St Eanswythe’s church, the oldest local building, with its painted and stained glass treasures is not to be messed with. Locke has wisely chosen the ultimate symbol of migration (of people, ideas, beliefs), the boat , to represent his interests here. This highly desirable selection of 100 model boats, crafted in Locke’s studio and collected during visits to his native Guyana, have been strung from the ceiling. Barely touching any of the ecclesiastical surfaces, they appear as if bobbing on the ghostly vestiges of an ancient sea; the visitors below virtually drowning in history.
Finch’s ‘The Colour of Water’, does exactly what it says. The New York-based artist has created a wheel of 100 Pantone colours for the Lea Promenade, based on the painterly hues of impressionist paintings of the sea. Complete with viewfinder, it enables the user to colour-code the vista of the day. A project official matches their selection to a series of four corresponding flags, which are then hoisted at midday for the duration of the project. The romantic associations of the endeavour are almost cancelled out by the clinical nature of the means. Similarly with Kent-based Fulton’s walking tours, represented on the opening day by a map of 31 water-related walks – and the exhibition at large — the performative reality reveals so much more than the sum of its supporting parts.