On a particularly blustery, wet and windy November Sunday, we took a quick drive down to Folkestone to enjoy the final day of the triennial. The triennial takes place once every three years and is one of five key projects of the Creative Foundation, an independent arts charity dedicated to enabling the regeneration of Folkestone through creative activity.
The buffeting rain didn’t dampen our spirits as we wandered immersed from one public art installation to another; admiring the beauty, puzzling the meanings and experiencing a whole range of different emotions – from hopeless despair to soaring joy. We were also fortunate enough to be expertly guided by a lecturer in Fine Art at the University of Kent – offered for free as part of event.
Our first stop was Gabriel Lester’s The Electrified Line – a huge bamboo scaffolding-like structure situated on the abandoned railway viaduct. Inside, a small and (when we were there) very windswept tree emerged from the wooden platform to remind us of the the fleetingness of human endeavour in the face of the pervasive and enduring power of nature.
From here we espied one of roofoftwo’s Withervanes 1-5: A Neurotic Early Worrying System; a commentary on how the media use fear to influence public behaviour and emotion. These 5 headless chickens sit atop some of the highest points in Folkestone and their software monitors newsfeeds from Reuters, looking out for keywords related to fear, turning different colours and spinning faster as fear levels increase. Visitors can even influence their behaviour directly via Twitter.
We also enjoyed a fine view of Alex Hartley’s Vigil – a tent strung a good 8 stories up into the air clinging onto the side of the Grand Burstin Hotel, and physically inhabited by the artist himself. The piece heightens the awareness of being watched over; for good or bad depending on the perspective on the watchee. Given the bitter cold and extreme winds, it struck us as an isolating experience for the watcher.
Walking alongside the sea front we saw Cornelia Parker’s The Folkestone Mermaid from Folkestone’s 2011 triennial – a lifelike sculpture of a woman with mermaid-like feet gazing out across the sea. The sculpture was modelled on a Folkestone born-and-bred mother of two, and is now a permanent part of Folkestone’s sea front.
We also saw a red letter box called Une Cabine (possibly from a previous triennial?) whose anthropomorphic messages tugged at our sentimentality: “I want to live long. Please help me!”, “I am here for you”, “Please keep my memories alive”.
The beach where Michael Sailstorfer’s Folkestone Digs was set was deserted when visited it, despite up to 8 gold pieces remaining. Sailstorfer buried 30 individual pieces of 24-carat gold worth £10,000 in the beach and invited the public to dig for the gold and keep any they found – a piece of performance art that on more pleasant days would draw the local community together to share a sense of space and purpose.
One of our favourite pieces was Tim Etchells’ Is Why The Place; two sets of large neon signs set in the abandoned Folkestone railway station that proclaimed ‘Coming and going is why the place is there at all’. It made us meditate on what the station would have been like in its heyday, bustling with soldiers, members of the public and noisy trains. When contrasted to today’s quiet ruins it evoked an eerie, poignant and out of world experience.
Emma Hart’s piece Giving It All That was another installation that evoked strong emotions of excess, despair and helplessness. Sculptures of strew wine bottles and glasses supported by distorted, elongated arms in a derelict house conjured uncomfortable feelings of nausea and regret of the wild excess of the night before. This was accompanied by a video that showed visuals of splashing tear drops and played a distressing audio track of a woman desperately and inconsolably crying. It was a divisive piece that people loved or hated but got the whole group talking.
Next we were delighted by an experiment set up by the local students, who had designed a system for sustainable fish and chips that, after the outlay of the initial materials, required nothing but water and fish food to support itself. The fish were given fresh water and food, and the waste they produced was used to fertilise the potatoes, mint and peas with vital nutrients.
Yoko Ono’s SKYLADDER told us “Audience should bring a ladder they like. Colour it. Word it. Take picture of it. Keep adding things to it. And send it as a postcard to a friend.” No visitor had yet brought in a ladder, but the piece did help us understand that we can all be artists simply by interacting with the world around us.
Helping us literally soar further towards the sky was Marjetica Potrč’s The Wind Lift. This was a wind powered lift that carried the audience to the top of the old viaduct, offering panoramic views of the town and harbour and a chance to contemplate Folkestone’s future.
Jyll Bradley’s Green/Light (for M.R.) was a fascinating sculptural light installation that on the old Gas Works site. The grid like strings symbolised the hop farms of Kent from Bradley’s childhood, and the neon lights the energy of her adult life. We loved the different patterns and shapes created by the beams and strings as you walked inside it, forging a shimmering fluid structure that seemed to ebb and flow with every step.
There were a number of other fantastic installations that we saw briefly in passing or did not have time to visit on the day – visit the official Fokestone Triennial website to find out more. Although this year’s triennial is now over, a number of the best and favourite pieces will be retained as permanent structures. When you add these to the previous triennials’ legacies it makes Folkestone a fantastic town to visit all year round.