Amusefood by Something & Son
The town-wide art event tackled the troubled idea of regeneration, but also had some fun at the seaside, says Riya Patel
Folkestone, like many British seaside towns, has seen better times. She has her assets: grand hotels perched on a seafront cliff-top and Victorian pleasure gardens that cascade down to a shoreline walkway on the edge of the Channel. But signs of an uglier truth are hard to ignore – boarded-up windows, bored teenagers, a bald patch of seafront once home to a funfair and a harbour train station crumbling into the sea.
It's a town in development limbo: economic recession and government flood-protection guidelines have stilted promising masterplans; now Folkestoners await Sir Terry Farrell's overhaul which will revive the harbour and introduce 1,000 homes over the next 25 years.
Enter the Folkestone Triennial, an art event that has been ruminating on the town's condition since 2008, dotting it with site-specific commissions in places of tourist-town beauty and modern blight alike. For the third edition this year, titled Lookout, curator Lewis Biggs assembled an impressive cast of 21 local and international artists, including Yoko Ono, Andy Goldsworthy, muf Architecture/Art and Pablo Bronstein. The Triennial is funded by the independent arts charity Creative Foundation – "dedicated to enabling regeneration of Folkestone through creative activity".
It's a noble aim, but one that left many of this year's artists trapped between the town's needs and their own artistic concerns. Payers Park was muf's entry, a community-led redevelopment of a forgotten public space. It's clever and useful, will outlive the Triennial's other installations and is no doubt an improvement to the town; it's just not terribly exciting. Sensitive urban repair is what we expect good placemakers to do.
Beach Hut in the style of Nicholas Hawksmoor by Pablo Bronstein
The other architects on the bill, Ooze and Marjetica Potr, had a more poetic notion, a wind-powered lift to take people to the top of Folkestone's imposing brick viaduct for a new viewpoint on the town. But the result was clunky, joyless and has to be backed up by the National Grid, which only serves to highlight the unreliability of its energy source.
Projects with a more global (and depressing) outlook included Whithervanes by roofoftwo, a pair of headless cockerels that broadcast fear on the internet by monitoring alarmist keywords in newsfeeds. Tweeting #keepcalm or #skyfalling sees them spin and turn from blue to red. Will Kwan's Apparatus #9 The China Watchers was vandalised within days of installation: the series of chinoiserie timber screens was supposed to face the Channel and express anxiety about immigration and Britain's diminished trading power.
Some artists don't bother to tiptoe around the town's hostilities or take themselves too seriously, a tack Pablo Bronstein embraced in eccentric style. His Beach Hut in the Style of Nicholas Hawskmoor was a seafront oddity, a miniature 18th-century baroque lighthouse. Both ostentatiously grand and comically small, the fortress-like folly succeeded in turning beach regulars' heads and alluding to historic defensive architecture on the south coast.
Amusefood, by Something & Son, also caught the imagination. Masquerading as a classic fish and chip shop on the roof
The Triennial's final trick was Michael Sailstorfer's Folkestone Digs: 30 pieces of gold buried on the town's beach for locals and tourists to discover. The idea was to blow away preconceptions about public art, cut through local cynicism and make real impact: to get people excited, talking and digging alongside each other for a piece of the treasure. The drama made headlines – all part of Sailstorfer's happening – but raised uncomfortable questions given the regenerative context. Was it a cruel hoax, social experiment or media-friendly gimmick? I like to think there was some poetry at play, that the gossip around Sailstorfer's gold will create a modern folktale or two.
However touching, baffling, playful or original, the Triennial's interventions all showed the problems of making art responsible for regeneration. Ticking both boxes generally doesn't serve either well. What it does better is reveal your own attitude to public art, space and the peculiarities of life in English towns.
The Folkestone Triennial took place in Kent from 30 August to 2 November 2014
Images: Stuart Wilson