From the Archives

Heaven Is a Place Where Nothing Ever Happens

Today in From the DS Archives, we bring you an article by Michelle Shultz on the Folkestone Triennial, a public art project that took over the artist-luring town of Folkestone, England, in both 2008 and 2011. The triennial called for artists to “respond in a perceptive way to the unique geographic and demographic qualities of the area.” Similarly, the Bergen Assembly, a multidisciplinary project produced by fifty international artists, has taken over the town of Bergen, Norway. Instead of being the inspiration for the project, however, Bergen is being used as the physical setting for a contemporary interpretation of a sci-fi novel by brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. The first edition of the project, named “Monday Begins on Saturday,” after the title of the novel, opened yesterday. The following article, “Heaven Is a Place Where Nothing Ever Happens,” was originally published July 9, 2011.

In the aftermath of the manic, dizzying opening of the Venice Biennale, it is refreshing to see an alternative model for an international exhibition on the coast of England—a project, that much like its place, embodies the understated, the poetic, and the site specific, a welcome breath of fresh air that is in contrast to the global displays of power battling it out at the site of the Giardini.

Folkestone is one of those seaside towns that is both idyllic and sleepy—the kind of place you run away from London to in order to escape the chaos and urban imprisonment. With the coast of France visible from it on a clear day, it is becoming a place of refuge for many in the artistic community, who eagerly embrace the one-hour commute from London for a bit of serene escapism. But this somnolent town is stirring—the Folkestone Triennial is reinvigorating the town with a perceptive, engaging, and meaningful project, an ambitious public program that aspires to reach beyond geographical boundaries.

Tracey Emin. Jacket (from Baby Things), 2008. Photo: Thierry Bal

The Folkestone Triennial, curated by Andrea Schlieker, is unlike many overshadowed peripheral exhibitions in that it attracts internationally renowned artists who respond in a perceptive way to the unique geographic and demographic qualities of the area. With permanent works and temporary installations, the Folkestone Triennial animates the town, engaging with both the fleeting international audience passing through and the permanent local community.

The inaugural Triennial in 2008 brought together twenty-two works by significant artists. They included Christian Boltanski’s sound installation of letters written by First World War servicemen, played as one sat upon a bench at the site where these men were shipped off to battle, staring out into the sea. It also included Tracey Emin’s Baby Things, a spattering of bronze-cast baby clothes strewn across the city that paid homage to the vast number of teenage mothers who inhabit seaside towns like Folkestone and Margate, Emin’s notorious hometown. With the permanence of many of these works, including Emin’s infantile clothing collection, an alfresco accumulation of works (which many institutions would covet) is being built.

Now in its second edition, the triennial has expanded beyond the regional specificity of its first incarnation to reflect wider international interests. Looking beyond its shores, A Million Miles from Home explores migration, borders, displacement, and transnational identity. These themes extend across a post-globalized world yet remain particularly pertinent to this placea seaside town that exists on the periphery between nations, within Britain, a country with a diverse, multicultural reality.

AK Dolven. Out of Tune, 2011.; Photo: Thierry Bal

Among the nineteen newly commissioned works is Norwegian-born artist A K Dolven’s Out of Tune (2011), a reclaimed sixteenth-century church bell that had been decommissioned for having an impure tone; it lacked the conformity and clarity required by the institution. Standing high above the horizon on the beach, the lone bell invites the viewer to ring it, crying out over the town and across the sea. The bell has been freed from the constraints of a tower and given a new home, however, it remains isolated and forced to stand on its own, a poetic metaphor for the reality of migration, as displaced individuals forever negotiate geographical and cultural differences.

The inspiration for Bombay-based collective CAMP’s video work is the H. G. Wells title The Country of the Blind and Other Stories, which questions if, in the country of the blind, a one-eyed man can indeed be king. Asking local volunteers at the National Coastwatch Institution to film the sea with a telescope, CAMP enacts the politics of the panopticon gaze and procedures of control. From the ivory tower, fishing boats, ships, and sailboats were recorded by individuals acting as part of an omnipotent power. With the fluidity of the sea containing the border where two nations meet, it is the one-eyed telescopic gaze looking out to the horizon that maintains the pretense of power and control.

Hew Locke. For Those in Peril On The Sea, 2001; Photo: Thierry Bal

While the gaze controls the borders at sea, the boat represents the possibility of transgression. Hew Locke’s work For Those in Peril on the Sea (2001) consists of nearly one hundred model ships installed in the oldest church in Folkstone, which were collected from around the world, as well as fabricated in Locke’s studio from his trademark cheap, colorful plastic materials. The boat here stands as a symbol of migration, transnational locality, and heterotopias; it represents the possibility for escape and the dissolution of borders in international waters. However, with over-saturated media images and stories of tsunamis, pirates, and oil spills ever-present, attention has also be drawn to the vulnerabilities and dangers of this non-place. The ship may represent autonomy, but it is also the space susceptible to the perils of the sea.

Overlooking the town is Nathan Coley’s illuminated sign reading “Heaven Is a  Place Where Nothing Ever Happens,” and while this seaside town may be a place of respite from the chaos of urban centers, and even heaven to some, it is no longer that place where nothing happens. The triennial is developing a formidable platform for contemporary art that engages with international concerns while remaining connected to local geography, history, and culture, by no means an easy feat. I applaud you, and I personally thank you for giving me a excuse to dip my feet in the salty sea and get a bit of fresh air in my lungs.

Nathan Coley. Heaven is a Place Where Nothing Ever Happens, 2008. Courtesy of the artist, Folkestone Triennial and Creative Foundation. Photo: Thierry Bal