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Issue 229

The Elemental Pull of Whitstable Biennale

The seaside festival returns with 20 new commissions, addressing climate change, coastal erosion, folklore and displacement 

BY Chris Sharratt in Exhibition Reviews , UK Reviews | 13 JUN 22

There’s a large, rubble-strewn gap on the quayside at Whitstable Harbour, surrounded by temporary metal fences with a sign announcing: ‘Demolition in Progress’. A few weeks ago, it was the site of a disused cockle shed, chosen by Whitstable Biennale to be the main venue for this year’s nine-day festival of contemporary art, performance and poetry. However, a devastating fire changed that and works by six artists, including Jade Montserrat and Sarah Craske, have, instead, been dispersed to various alternative sites across this small fishing town on the north Kent coast. Some have been accommodated in existing venues; others have been found new spaces, quickly adapted to house sculptural installations, film screenings and works on paper.

Whitstable Biennale
Whitstable Biennale. Courtesy: Whitstable Biennale; photograph: Simon Steven 

Despite such a calamitous disruption to its tenth edition – the first since 2018 due to COVID-19 – the harbour and the lapping Thames Estuary beyond remain the anchor point for the biennial, a hub from which ideas and activity radiate. A programme curated by London-based live artist and writer Dzifa Benson sees poems written along the top of the harbour walls, on a slipway that stretches across a shingle beach and fluttering on the flagpoles of cockle boats. Painted on the pavement adjacent to the former cockle shed site is the work that gives this year’s biennial its title, Afterwardness (2019), by Mimi Khalvati. In four short stanzas, the Iranian-born British poet calmly addresses displacement, memory and how we might fashion hopeful futures out of past tragedies.

On a tourist boat departing from the harbour, more histories are unearthed and connected in a sound piece by Madeleine Ruggi. TRANSMISSIONCARRIER (2022) is experienced through headphones as waves buffet us on our way to see derelict World War II sea forts and the towering turbines of the Kentish Flats Offshore Wind Farm. Ruggi soundtracks the trip with a maelstrom of nautical noise, droning engine sounds and a site-specific history lesson exploring our commercial, cultural and colonial relationship to the wind and sea, its harnessable power and destructive legacy.

Arianne Churchman
Arianne Churchman, We Entered Through the Chime Line, 2019, film still. Courtesy: the artist and Whitstable Biennale 

The elemental pull of the tides can also be felt back on dry land. Savinder Bual’s water-driven kinetic sculptures are inspired by time spent on the nearby Isle of Sheppey, discovering how tidal flows were first recorded and thinking about climate change and coastal erosion. In Fade (2020), the artist has constructed a wooden frame housing a tiny projector and a single slide of two small islands surrounded by sea. Creating a counterweight with slowly dripping water, a guillotine-like mechanism descends, gradually obscuring the seascape from view.

There are 20 new commissions in this year’s biennial, including one-off events such as Arianne Churchman’s solo performance, When We Were in Horseback (2022) – a bell-ringing, promenading evocation and reinterpretation of Kent folk tradition, which weaves its way from the harbour to the outskirts of town. Similarly folksy, thanks to songs by composer Leo Chadburn, is Jennet Thomas’s future-set film, The Great Curdling (2022). This weirdly disturbing bio-tech dystopia features a mystery ‘substance’ that seems to be consuming people from within, strange jellyfish-like creatures washed up on the shore of a dying sea and flying Amazon-style cardboard boxes with violent tendencies. With its hammy acting and 1980s-era Doctor Who (1963–ongoing) vibe, the 24-minute film teeters on the edge of plausibility yet ultimately delivers a darkly prescient take on our self-harming, planet-wrecking lifestyles. 

Jennet Thomas
Jennet Thomas, The Great Curdling, 2022, film still. Courtesy: the artist and Whitstable Biennale 

A bit like Whitstable Biennale itself, which just when you think it’s one thing – too hyperlocal, a little too confined by the town that so defines it – reveals itself to be anything but. Like the tides, the push and pull of global forces is a constant, illuminating undercurrent.

Whitstable Biennale: Afterwardness’, is on view in Whitstable, Kent, 11 – 19 June 

Main image: Webb-Ellis, This Place Is a Message, 2022, film still. Courtesy: the artist and Whitstable Biennale 

Chris Sharratt is a freelance writer and editor based in Glasgow. Follow him on Twitter: @chrissharratt