In the aftermath of the manic, dizzying opening of the Venice Biennale, it is refreshing to see an alternate possibility for an international exhibition on the coast of England – a project, that much like it’s place, embodies the understated, the poetic and the site-specific – a welcome breathe of fresh air in contrast to the global displays of power battling it out at the site of the Giardini.
Folkestone is one of those seaside towns that is both idyllic and sleepy – the kind of place you run away from London to in order to escape the chaos and urban imprisonment. With the coast of France visible on a clear day, it is becoming a place of refuge for many of the artistic community who eagerly embrace the one hour commute to London for a bit of serene escapism. But this somnolent town is stirring – the Folkestone Triennial is reinvigorating the town with a perceptive, engaging and meaningful project – an ambitious public programme aspiring to reach far beyond geographical boundaries.
Curated by Andrea Schlieker, the Folkestone Triennial, unlike many overshadowed peripheral exhibitions, attracts internationally renowned artists who respond in a perceptive way to the unique geographic and demographic qualities of the area. With permanent works and temporary installations, the Folkestone Triennial animates the town, engaging with both the fleeting international audience passing through and the permanent local community.
The inaugural Triennial in 2008 brought together 22 works by significant artists, including Christian Boltanski’s sound installation of letters of First World War servicemen being read as one sat upon a bench at the site where these men were shipped off to battle, staring out into the sea, and Tracey Emin’s work ‘Baby Things’ – a spattering of bronze-cast baby clothes strewn across the city paying homage to the vast number of teenage mothers that inhabit these seaside towns such as Folkestone, and Margate, Emin’s notorious hometown. With the permanence of many of these works, including Emin’s infantile clothing collection, an alfresco accumulation of works many institutions would dream is being built.
The Folkestone Triennial, now in its second edition, has expanded beyond the regional specificity of its first incarnation to wider international interests. Looking beyond it’s shores, ‘A Million Miles From Home’ explores migration, borders, displacement and transnational identity. These themes extend across a post-globalised world, yet remain particularly pertinent to this place – a seaside town which exists on the periphery between nations, within Britain, a country with a diverse, multicultural reality.
Amongst the 19 newly commissioned works is Norwegian-born artist, A K Dolven’s ‘Out of Tune’ – a reclaimed sixteenth-century church bell that had been decommissioned for having an impure tone – it lacked the conformity and clarity required by the institution. Standing high above the horizon on the beach, the lone bell invites the viewer to ring it, crying out over the town and across the sea. The bell has been freed from the constraints of a tower and given a new home, however it remains isolated and forced to stand on its own – a poetic metaphor for the reality of migration, as displaced individuals forever negotiate geographical and cultural differences.
The inspiration for Bombay-based collective CAMP’s video work is the HG Wells title ‘The Country of the Blind and Other Stories’ questioning if, in the country of the blind, the one-eyed man can indeed be king. Asking local volunteers at the National Coastwatch Institution to film the sea with a telescope, CAMP enacts the politics of the panopticon gaze and procedures of control. Looking outwards from the ivory tower, fishing boats, ships and sailboats were recorded by individuals acting as part of an omnipotent power. With the fluidity of the sea containing the border where two nations meet here, it is the one-eyed telescopic gaze looking out to the horizon that maintains the pretence of power and control.
While the gaze controls the borders at sea, the boat represents the possibility of transgression. Hew Locke’s work ‘For Those in Peril on the Sea’ consists of nearly 100 model ships installed in the oldest church in Folkstone, which were collected from around the world, as well as fabricated in Locke’s studio from his trademark cheap, colourful plastic materials. The boat here stands as a symbol of migration, transnational locality and heterotopias – it represents the possibility for escape and the dissolution of borders in international waters. However, with over-saturated media images and stories of tsunamis, pirates and oil spills ever-present, attention has also be drawn to the vulnerabilities and dangers of this non-place. The ship may represent autonomy but it is also the space susceptible to the perils of the sea.
Overlooking the town is Nathan Coley’s illuminated sign reading ‘Heaven Is A Place Where Nothing Ever Happens’ – and while this seaside town may be a place of respite from the chaos of urban centres, and heaven to some, it is no longer that place where nothing happens. The Triennial is developing a formidable platform for contemporary art that engages with international concerns while remaining connected to local geography, history and culture – by no means an easy feat. I applaud you – and I personally thank you for giving me a excuse to dip my feet in the salty sea and get a bit of fresh air in my lungs.