Christian Boltanski, The Whispers, at the West end of The Leas Images
(Photo: Wiebke Gronemeyer)
By Wiebke Gronemeyer
When you happen to live close to the English seaside, you might well encounter a seagull at least five times a day. However, this summer the inhabitants of Folkestone in South East England came across a seagull they had never seen before: the gigantic plastic Mobile Gull Appreciation Unit by artist Mark Dion. This replica seagull rolls across the streets on wheels including a small library and a gull expert, whose mission is to promote the appreciation of this often unloved bird family. As well as being a community-orientated environmental project, this is a designated piece of art that formed part of the first Folkestone Triennial that took place this summer around the cliffs of the south-eastern English coast gazing over the sea to France.
Apart from the Triennial, Folkestone has at first sight not so much more to offer. The city went through many changes in the last decades and centuries. It was once the most glorious holiday destination in but then decline and loss marked the town’s history. Now it is a quiet seaside town with a port, but no great ships, a beautiful coastline with many former Grand Hotels on its shore, that since the 1960s have been converted into homes for the retired.
The questions that come to mind are all concerned with the specific conditions of this place: Why should an art Triennial happen here? How would it be realized? And how would its success be measured?
To answer these questions requires telling “Tales of Time and Space”, which is the title of the art triennial that the London-based curator Andrea Schlieker choose in order to bring 22 artists together that engage with the particularities of this town and area and their historical heritage. Amongst them are David Batchelor, Richard Wentworth and Adam Chodzko, Tacita Dean and Tracey Emin (whose own history started not far from here). What they encountered on their visits to Folkestone might have been similar to the variety of impressions that got to my mind during my visit: I assumed a very depressive, lonely and calm city, but instead of drowning in melancholic nostalgia, I soon realized what of a potential the contrasts of beauty and loss, the glorious past and the undesired future can offer for an engagement with art – its time and its space. This could well have inspired the artists to create a site-specific work that articulates those timely contrasts and spatial fragments of this place.
Mark Wallinger created Folk Stones for Folkestone near the road where the soldiers used to march before joining the boats that would take them to and Flanders: 19,240 numbered pebbles commemorate the men who lost their lives on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. A few steps down Christian Boltanski created the sound installation The Whispers that play a recording of voices reading letters to and from servicemen who passed through Folkestone in the First World War. Looking over the shore one might spot a fishing vessel, similar to one that Tacita Dean boarded to make her mute film Amadeus (swell consopio), featuring a dawn crossing from Boulogne to Folkestone.
The Triennial does not simply present art in the public realm, but suggests an engagement between the artworks and the public realm that appears as a circular and communicative relationship. And while the above described works advocate a nostalgic engagement with the public in citing historical particularities of the city, the interventions of Tracey Emin or Matthew Keys put forward a contemporary engagement with the city. The Marvelo Project is a joint venture between Kaffe Matthews and year 11 pupils from Folkestone Academy. They invite you to take a stroll around the city on a bike with speakers attached on it, from which a musical composition disrupts the silence of the city and brings in summer fun. Tracey Emin casted found items of baby clothing in Bronze that are located at sites throughout Folkestone: Baby Things makes reference to the high proportion of teenage pregnancy in Folkestone. As well as moving away from nostalgia, these projects avoid the usual “large scale-ness” of art in the public realm.
Inevitably, a comparison to “Skulptur Projekte Münster” comes to mind, an event of art in the public realm that takes place every 10 years in the Northwest of Germany and invites artists to intervene in the small city defined by the many students that bike around the city’s university, but also by the Westfalian stubbornness of the locals who in the past heavily resisted the project. How the inhabitants of Folkestone will encounter this project is for sure one evident form of measurement for its success. But the question is not if the locals will like it or not: the Triennial might rather prove success when the inhabitants derive a form of inspiration from the various projects – inspiration and motivation to encounter the place they live in, and the times which are yet to come. By all means, this does not mean that art is being brought in on a rescue mission to Folkestone. Rather, it establishes an understanding of art in the public realm for which sensitivity to local history and social make-up have to be a prerequisite for any successful integration of this project into the particular shapes of this community. This includes allowing for ambiguity and ambivalence when it comes to the reception and the understanding of the works, which then might consist of telling ‘Tales of Time and Space’.
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