During the infamous 1938 radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds, faux news bulletins fooled many listeners into believing that an actual alien invasion was in progress; panic ensued and many fled their homes in terror. The radio play was adapted from HG Wells’ classic novel, reputedly penned during his time as a resident of Folkestone. This summer, the Kent seaside town has been subject to a different kind of invasion, one engendering a much less hysterical reaction.
Consciously modelling itself on Skulptur Projekte Münster, the inaugural Folkestone Triennial, curated by Andrea Schlieker, presents public artworks by 23 international contributors. Whereas Münster’s aim is to debate the parameters of contemporary public sculpture, the Triennial masterminded by millionaire businessman Roger De Haan is the flagship project of an arts-led regeneration initiative determined to make Folkestone a leading centre for the arts.
Once a popular holiday destination, Folkestone has since fallen into serious economic decline. Evidences of its former glory are still palpable in buildings such as the grandiose Metropole Hotel, the former ballroom of which is now used as a gallery. Installed here is David Batchelor’s ‘Disco Mécanique’, 2008, a cluster of multi-coloured suspended spheres made entirely from cheap plastic sunglasses. These meretricious glitter balls, with their witty appropriation of seaside tat, appear incongruous in these opulent surroundings.
Along with so many of the town’s former attractions, the bright lights of the seafront funfair are now just a dim memory. Using fairground bulbs, Nathan Coley’s contribution is an illuminated sign that reads: HEAVEN IS A PLACE WHERE NOTHING EVER HAPPENS. Quoted from a song by Talking Heads, this wry statement is intentionally ambiguous and in this context decidedly pessimistic. Continuing his critique of religious institutions, Coley’s challenging of belief systems is a deliberately provocative strategy.
Belief is also addressed in the work of Adam Chodzko, whose art emanates from a strange parallel world of his own imagining. ‘Pyramid’, 2008, presents an imitation tourist information sign recounting a ridiculous story of how the four ‘inverted pyramid’ structures supporting the Leas Cliff Hall are in fact the source of Folkestone’s misfortunes. Along with an accompanying pseudo-documentary, Chodzko spins a bizarre ritualistic folk tale set in the future, revealing how the residents of Folkestone were able to counter their inverted pyramid curse, thwarting its negative energy; the story is completely absurd, but hugely enjoyable.
Chodzko’s fabricated history contrasts sharply with Christian Boltanski’s audio installation, ‘The Whispers’, 2008, in which local residents read real letters written by servicemen passing through Folkestone during the First World War. Speakers located behind four public benches facing the channel emit the long-forgotten missives, their words carried out to sea by the saline breeze. It’s a poignant and emotive piece, prompting reflections on the fragility of life and the pointlessness of war.
In similar territory is Mark Wallinger’s unheroic war memorial ‘Folk Stones’, 2008, consisting of 19,240 individually numbered beach pebbles embedded in nine square metres of concrete. Each pebble represents one life lost on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, in which allied forces who sailed from here fought to oppose the German invasion of Belgium and France. The significance of these soldiers’ sacrifice is, perhaps, lost on the groups of disaffected youths congregating on street corners or roaring around the town in their supercharged VW Golfs.
Tracey Emin’s ‘Baby Things’, 2008, comprises seven bronze casts of found baby clothing placed at various locations throughout the town as if discarded or lost. The verisimilitude of these diminutive facsimiles is impressive, to the extent that, even with map in hand, they are incredibly difficult to spot as they meld into their surroundings. Intended by Emin to be viewed as a kind of memorial to teenage mums, these works will be staying after the Triennial has ended, which is a curious decision for a town attempting to clean up its image and numerous social problems of which teenage pregnancy is just one.
This first Triennial is ambitious, perhaps overly so, and for a project intending to place Folkestone firmly on the national and international cultural map, the end result is somewhat underwhelming; while there is some interesting work here, none of it is remarkable. Will Roger De Haan’s generous philanthropy be sufficient to spark the urban renewal downtrodden Folkestone so desperately needs? The presence of this art world invasion suggests that the tide is beginning to turn but has not changed its course as yet.
David Trigg is an artist and writer based in Bristol