No exhibition is without an underlying economic agenda. Whether this involves creating revenue through sales, attracting publicity or justifying public expenditure, it is something that most of us tend to try and push to the back of our minds when looking at art, as though wanting it to free-float in some ethereal sphere of contextual neutrality.
Ironically, this is often easiest to achieve in a commercial gallery where financial exchange is so explicitly a part of an exhibition’s dynamic that we can frequently take it for granted. In cases such as regional biennials, privately owned museums or corporately sponsored project spaces such an agenda is sometimes hard to ignore (think of Hermès’ travelling ‘H-Box’ video suite, for example, or the forthcoming ‘GSK Contemporary’ season at London’s Royal Academy, sponsored by GlaxoSmithKline). The first Folkestone Triennial is a little different, and a little the same: different because it is entirely upfront about its role as a regenerative catalyst for the ailing coastal town; the same, because this ends up threatening to swallow the entire show.
Of the triennial’s £2.2 million budget, the local businessman and developer Roger de Haan supplied £1.5 million. De Haan is also chairman of The Creative Foundation, an organization whose strategy is ‘to draw together arts activity, economic growth, educational transformation and significant enhancements to the built environment’ for Folkestone in the way that Brighton and nearby Whitstable have done so successfully. He also happens to own a large proportion of the property in what has become known as the town centre’s Creative Quarter – to be precise, 200,000 square feet spread over 80 buildings, according to their press release. The triennial seemed to function primarily, therefore, as an advertisement for the town pitched at outsiders, with its acknowledgement of a local audience coming as a muted afterthought. Curator Andrea Schlieker looked to Sculpture Projects Muenster as a model for the triennial, while acknowledging the differences between the middle-class German town and Folkestone, one of the most deprived areas in England’s south-east. As a result, the triennial’s 22 specially commissioned works were not only installed entirely in the public realm around the town, but also dealt by and large with issues that existed there too.
Many of them shone a light into the town’s rich history, such as Christian Boltanski’s The Whispers (all works 2008), an audio installation under seafront benches in which actors read letters to or from World War I soldiers with connections to Folkestone. While the letters themselves are intimate and vividly evocative documents, as with other works – such as David Batchelor’s slowly turning sunglass spheres installed in an vacant ballroom (Disco Mechanique), or Robert Kusmirowski’s mouldering wooden fish market stalls on the harbour floor (Foreshore) – Boltanski’s work relaxed too readily into the sentimental aura of its context. These works may have increased my appreciation of the town, but they did little to extend my understanding of their makers’ singular engagement with their subjects.
Much of the triennial seemed tautological eith-er in its approach or its form. Patrick Tuttofuoco’s Folkestone was a large sign spelling out the name of the town. Sejla Kameric displayed black and white posters of found photographs of Folkestone in the locations in which they were shot. Even Mark Wallinger’s underwhelming memorial to the 19,240 soldiers who lost their lives on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916 was titled, unforgivably, Folk Stones.
Other artists did themselves a disservice by carelessly wading into ‘local issues’. Richard Wentworth, normally an imaginative and intelligent artist, contributed a project consisting of signs that revealed naturalized species of tree to be foreigners in our midst: ‘The London Plane is, in fact, a hybrid of two tree species, one from China and one from America.’ In an area that struggles with a high number of immigrants from mainland Europe combined with rapidly declining local industry, Wentworth’s ‘Don’t be racist, kids’ sermonizing came across as not a little simplistic.
The triennial’s highlights shone because they stood aside from The Creative Foundation’s agenda. Nils Norman collaborated with Gavin Wade and Simon and Tom Bloor to create a seafront kiosk based on Berthold Lubetkin’s structures built in 1937 for Dudley Zoo. Inside, they sold cheap black and red kites emblazoned with the regeneration-speak terms ‘uneven development’ and ‘hipsterization strategies’. However while this expression of scepticism about the triennial’s politics came as a breath of fresh sea air, it had of course been agreed and sponsored by the very body it aimed to critique. One wondered whether both parties were hoping simultaneously to have their cake and eat it.
Adam Chodzko and Heather and Ivan Morison, on the other hand, were quieter in their reservations to the triennial’s approach. In his work Pyramid, Chodzko mischievously attempted to sow the seed of a local myth. An information panel in a landscaped park explained how the pyramidal steel supports of the Leas Cliff Hall were once thought to be supernaturally responsible for all Folkestone’s misfortunes and ritualistically dragged out to sea. A video in a nearby shop confusingly suggests that this in fact happened in the future, ‘around about the fifth triennial’. As I heard an elderly lady say as she dubiously read the panel, ‘Well, it could happen’. The Morisons exhibited their self-sufficient wooden house-truck, customized from a decommissioned fire engine and containing, next to a stove and pot plants, a library of apocalypse-themed fiction. Tales of Space and Time, as it was called, embodied a jauntily over-optimistic attitude to surviving the end of the world, simultaneously mocking the ‘art will save us all’ attitude of some contemporary civic reformists. Art won’t save Folkestone. I hope something does though – something real, something solid.