It’s quite a trek from Scarborough – where I’m currently based – to the South East Coast, but certainly worth it to sample the 2014 Folkestone Triennial. This colossal feast of contemporary art occurs every three years, courtesy of the Creative Foundation – an independent arts charity that has been using the creative arts to transform Folkestone since 2002. Indeed, the Triennial (the third of its kind – there were two others in 2008 and 2011 respectively) is forward thinking and committed to establishing a permanent collection of exciting public art that both locals and visitors alike can enjoy for years to come.
This is only part of the festival’s legacy, however. Events such as the Triennial prove that creativity can stimulate the economy, brighten up the landscape and attract new visitors. Indeed, the B&B I stayed in was well equipped with Triennial paraphernalia, and the purpose of my visit did not surprise the staff. The event is well advertised and signposted, inclusive and welcoming.
The programme of works, exhibitions and events is a full one, and my first encounter was part of the Triennial Fringe Festival – the Triennial has spawned a whole network of alternative events, one of which is an installation at the Burlington Hotel. Being as grand as the name suggests, this building seemed an unlikely venue for an exhibition. Whilst visiting Unlocking The Diary – The Archiving Of Nameless Memories I felt like an intruder – a scruffy non-guest in a smart establishment, and a voyeur seeking out hidden, and intimate, displays.
As promised, each piece drew upon the process of archiving; but unlike the traditional archive, that seeks to label, organise and identify its contents, this exhibition juxtaposed seemingly anonymous, obscure relics, which the visitor had to find with the aid of a jumbled hand drawn map. I enjoyed, for instance, the subtle aromas drifting from the electronic bouquet, and the quirky animation that lurked beneath a table in the hotel reception. Certainly, this exhibition, like the Triennial, was just as much about the process of searching as the pieces themselves. The journey (and the unexpected discoveries along the way), imbue the artworks with a deeper level of meaning; they become part of a rich and varied landscape that might be mostly ignored during a casual stroll; or in this case, a hotel visit.
Returning back along The Leas, perhaps the most picturesque part of the town (and reminiscent of Scarborough’s Esplanade) I encountered a significant number of Triennial contributions; new and old. Yoko Ono’s Peace flag, soaring over the Grand Hotel; Mark Wallinger’s numbered pebbles and Will Kwan’s screen. Kwan’s piece, which echoed the Chinoiserie suggested by Folkestone’s Vinery, made me think of Scarborough’s Peasholm Park, a place dominated by British interpretations of Oriental design.
The undoubted crowd-pleaser of this year’s Triennial was Gabriel Lester’s striking bamboo look-out station. The criss-crossing patterns revealed new views of the harbour and disused railway line. and wind chimes sang songs in the roof. There was something temple-like about this peaceful place, and its form referenced all kinds of things – China (the artist was initially inspired by bamboo scaffolding here), cages, baskets, primitive huts – I found myself imagining all kinds of interpretations for the structure.
Further down the abandoned railway tracks was Tim Etchells’ poetic musing on the town’s crumbling harbour station. Once a bustling hub – the arrival and destination point for soldiers during wartime and the final stop for the Orient Express – Etchells’ neon statement (coming and going is why the place is there at all) was suggestive of these lost times, whilst also highlighting the fundamental role of coming and going in the station’s role. What is it now? Without passengers and journeys, how can we now make sense of this forlorn site?
Two of the pieces in particular were deeply moving. One, by Amina Menia, brought to life a curious square of seemingly empty land. The garden within it, the artist discovered, was a humble memorial to a site decimated by a stray bomb in 1917. Over sixty people died and the lettering of a grocery business which stood on the site, is remembered via shadowy outlines on a nearby wall. In a poignant tribute, Menia filled the quiet space with the voices of Folkestone’s migrant population, sharing recipes for bread in a number of languages and accents.
The other featured a spirited choir of local singers, merged to form the Folkestone Futures Choir, who sang a musical arrangement of complaints and praises (in the words of local residents) about the town. A film documented the results, and outside visitors could read the comments that inspired the lyrics. These handwritten notes spoke volumes about places across the country – poorly maintained buildings and roads, litter, lack of opportunities for young people and economic difficulty, and yet alongside this painful yearning for a better world, stood praise for objects of local pride – treasured landmarks and fond memories of times gone by.
Of course this is only a fraction of what can be seen at Folkestone for the Triennial. I’ve not mentioned, for example, the series of water tower sculptures across the town that track the underground Pent stream, or Jyll Bradley’s stunning commemoration of a lost gas works near to the railway bridge. Indeed, the festival, which in previous editions has been focused on the seafront, is slowly worming its way into the town. Perhaps for the next Triennial visitors will be led deeper into the streets and further still beyond the tourist haunts.
The Folkestone Triennial is compelling in showcasing the potential of the creative arts. Whether or not you like the work on display, it is difficult to dismiss the tangible effects upon the town. Folkestone’s growing collection of public art makes the landscape exciting, and appealing. It draws people in. The Creative Quarter is bubbling with life and colour. A place that people want to visit, live in even, is one that engenders economic growth.
Nowhere is this more sorely needed than in Britain’s seaside towns, many of which have struggled to adapt to the tougher economic climate. As I boarded the bus and embarked on the long journey home, I found myself thinking how great it would be to have something like this in Scarborough.
Tracey Emin, ‘Baby Things’. 2008. Photograph © Sarah Coggrave
Whitney McVeigh, ‘The Part Singer’. 2014. Photograph © Sarah Coggrave
The Leas, Folkestone, 2014. Photograph © Sarah Coggrave
Mark Wallinger, ‘Folk Stones’. 2008. Photograph © Sarah Coggrave
Gabriel Lester, ‘The Electrified Line’. Cross-track Observation-deck. 2014. Photograph © Sarah Coggrave
Strange Cargo, ‘The Luckiest Place On Earth’. 2014. Photograph © Sarah Coggrave
Cornelia Parker, ‘The Folkestone Mermaid’. 2011. Photograph © Sarah Coggrave
Sarah Coggrave, 13th September 2014.