BY Sarah E. James in Reviews | 20 SEP 17
Featured in
Issue 191

Folkestone Triennial 2017

Various venues, Folkestone, UK

BY Sarah E. James in Reviews | 20 SEP 17

‘Double edge’, the title of the fourth Folkestone Triennial, could be read as relating to the ambivalent impact of gentrification on this once deprived seaside town. It’s hard to see the undeniably positive transformations of the lively creative quarter and buzzing harbour arm as distinct from the planned luxury seafront penthouses – and their clarion call to London commuters. The triennial’s curator, Lewis Biggs (formerly long-time director of the Liverpool Biennial) has diplomatically anchored the ‘double-edge’ in reference to two psycho-geographic axes mediating the town: the seashore and the ancient watercourse – also giving a nod to the socio-economic divide between east and west Folkestone. But his exhibition also promises a more unwieldy engagement with borders, thresholds, margins, the periphery, the liminal, migration, wealth inequality, sustainability and climate change: an intimidating inventory for even the most ambitious of biennials.

Local practitioners such as composer Emily Peasgood join establishment figures like Antony Gormley and Michael Craig-Martin, as well as current Turner Prize nominee Lubaina Himid. Peasgood’s sound piece Halfway to Heaven (all works 2017), although a tad reminiscent of Susan Philipsz, makes nice use of a tiny Baptist burial ground normally closed to the public. Triggered by movement, a collection of disguised urns sing a love song between a buried couple giving voice to a once excluded religious community whose civil disabilities included being denied burial in consecrated ground. The work gently historicizes and re-animates present politics of exclusion. Malaysian artist Wong Hoy Cheong has erected a scaffolding structure resembling minarets in front of Folkestone’s non-descript and overlooked Mosque. Mimicking a construction site and referencing urban regeneration, at night the green netting is lit up, making visible and celebrating the town’s Islamic community – a politically bold gesture that directly addresses Islamophobia. 

Wong Hoy Cheong, Minaret, 2017, installation view, Folkestone Triennial 2017. Courtesy: commissioned by the Creative Foundation for Folkestone Triennial; photograph: Thierry Bal

 In contrast, Craig-Martin and Gormley offer less generously-site specific pieces. The former’s mural of a light bulb in kitsch shades announces the town’s creative quarter whilst two of the latter’s now conspicuous and growing army of steel body casts stand below the harbour arm and by the sea wall to the east, respectively.

Other artists have suffered by accommodating the themes. Amalia Pica’s intimate and playful practice – investigating the social and psychic powers invested in objects – seems particularly stretched. For Souvenir, Pica made 20 small shell sculptures, resembling seaside craft objects but also anthropomorphic forms. As in a previous project undertaken in London’s Tower Hamlets, Pica’s sculptures are hosted by local residents. Almost invisible, exhibited in the front ground-floor windows of houses, they vie for attention with other objets d’art including miniature Eiffel towers and Transformer robot figurines. Instead of reflecting on what divides art and craft, Souvenir foregrounds the awkward model of audience encounter when out-of-towners peer into private rooms on some of Folkestone’s most deprived streets, even taking photos on their iPhones. (Another mode of souvenir-making?) Less convincing are the few bronze editions installed around town, emptied of the fantasies and social relations Pica’s work normally channels and too similar to Tracy Emin’s far less interesting bronze-cast baby clothes and toys discarded permanently around Folkestone in 2008. 

Michael Craig-Martin, Folkestone Lightbulb, 2017, installation view, Folkestone Triennial 2017. Courtesy: commissioned by the Creative Foundation for Folkestone Triennial; photograph: Thierry Bal

Equally, Himid’s Jelly Mould Pavilion seems  an awkward addition to her commission for the 2010 Liverpool biennial. There, the artist’s collection of Victorian jelly moulds – brightly painted with figures from black history and African textile patterns – subversively pretended to be maquettes for an imaginary architectural competition, directly challenging the politics of commemorating figures from the African diaspora in cities built on the slave trade. Here, her pavilion’s candyfloss pastels – too nostalgic a nod to seasides of childhoods past – fade anaemically into its pebbly beach surroundings. Himid’s maquettes were effective precisely because of their status as never-to-be-realized constructions.

The leftovers from previous triennials – currently 27 works – also transform Folkestone into a museum without walls in the vein of Skulptur Projekte Münster (founded in 1977). As a decennial, Münster is more easily distanced from debates about gentrification. In fact, its modus operandi is that public space cannot and should not be subordinated to economic interests. In contrast, art’s role in economic regeneration is openly welcomed in Folkestone. This produces some ambiguity, for example, Ian Hamilton Finlay’s ‘Weather is a Third to Place and Time’, text posthumously stencilled in blue across the lighthouse in 2014 is easily mistaken for branding by the champagne bar now residing there.

Studio Ben Allen, The Clearing, 2017, installation view, Folkestone Triennial 2017. Courtesy: commissioned by the Creative Foundation for Folkestone Triennial; photograph: Thierry Bal

The fact that distinctions between the visual arts, community-focused urban regeneration and cosmopolitan leisure enterprises seem muddier than ever is perhaps acknowledged by the commissioning of works by Studio Ben Allen, a multidisciplinary design and architecture practice, and the Decorators, who ‘work with diverse range of stakeholders’ to design spaces informed by psychology, landscape architecture and interior design. The former’s brilliant plywood gothic structure-cum-infinity mirror houses the visitor centre at the Quarterhouse, and the latter have collaborated with the local artist Diane Dever to create an ‘Urban Room’, hosting workshops interrogating the town’s past, present and future in the former Customs House.

Whether or not the Decorator’s brightly coloured props (pink painted steps on castors) prove radically transformative, Dever’s programme is one of the real, albeit immaterial legacies of the triennial. Like the artist Bob and Roberta Smith’s project – a proposal that Folkestone be considered an art school, and the provision of an art programme for a cohort of local students – it provides new opportunities for quietly transformative social experiences alongside debate. 

Main image: Antony Gormley, Another Time XXI 2013 (Loading Bay), installation view, Folkestone Triennial 2017. Courtesy: commissioned by the Creative Foundation for Folkestone Triennial; photograph: Thierry Bal

Sarah E. James is an art historian and writer based in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. Her next book Paper Revolutions: An Invisible Avant-Garde, is forthcoming from the MIT Press.