Monday, April 18, 2011

Turner Revealed: You Are Here...

I arrived in Margate on Tuesday, 12th April full of anticipation. I had not been since 2008 (see my blog on this visit here) when I came to see how the arts were developing alongside the build up to the opening of Turner Contemporary (said to be the largest art space in the South East, outside of London.) So, the day of the opening had finally arrived...
I had felt the energy building towards the event, even with the 250 miles between Stoke and Margate, as the constant email and Facebook updates from the gallery kept me up to date with the plans. I was very excited when my invitation arrived in the post:which I pinned up immediately. The invitation itself is a lovely object - very thick card, with a slice of colour down the edges of the card, it was a sketch of the gallery by architect David Chipperfield. I sent in my R.S.V.P. immediately.
My interest in Margate is two-fold, having spent many summers there as a teenager working on the Dreamland Fun Park, making doughnuts, ice creams, hot dogs and candy floss, the Margate of my youth was already down on its uppers, but the closure of the fun park in 2005 really seemed to signal the end of an era for the seaside town. My secondary interest is in line with the research I have been undertaking over the past few years, around artistic and cultural activity, and the impact it can have in post-industrial cities, and places in need of regeneration in general. The Turner Contemporary project is, therefore of great interest. Can an art gallery turn around the fortunes of a Town like Margate? What impact will the Gallery have on visitor numbers to the Town? What will the people of Margate make of the project?
A-N magazine put out a call to offer writers bursaries for people to go to the Turner opening, I applied and was selected, so decided to go to both the private view on Tuesday, 12th and the public opening on the weekend of 16th-17th April, to see what difference there would be in approach and feel. The £100 bursary from A-N almost covered the two lots of train fare.On arrival at Margate station there was a big poster announcing Margate as the Home of Turner Contemporary. As I left the station I could see there was a bit of last minute sprucing up going on, with new bins being installed along the seafront, and plants and flowers hastily being dug into borders and boxes.The joke shop at the bottom of the formidable 'Arlington House' block of flats has managed to survive, though most of the other shops which lined this arcade have closed.I made my way along the seafront towards the Harbour Arm, and caught my first real glimpse of the gallery. It certainly outflanks the historic Droit House, which is a post-war reconstruction of the original. My first impressions were that it looks like a series of cliff faces, which to me fits in well at the edge of the promenade. Diggers and other heavy machinery were still busy laying the path to the gallery with only hours to go until the opening...I met up with Mum on the Harbour Arm and had a look at the changes and developments that have happened there since the last visit in 2008. The galleries and restaurants along the harbour arm are more established these days, and there is also this addition of Mrs Booth the Shell Lady (after Turner's lover) a permanently sited work in bronze at the end of the Arm, looking out to sea. Later I heard from Pat Wilson, a local artist who organises the programme at the Harbour Arm Gallery, that this sculpture came about through an open call, which asked for a £50,000 work to signpost the Old Town, (actually I remember the CALL) and this piece by local artist Ann Carrington was selected. There has been some controversy around the selection, with this post from Margate Architecture and another on the Turneround Margate Blog, with various people expressing their dislike of the choice. The main problem seems to be that people feel the sculpture is kitsch (and not in a good way) and that it did not fulfil the original brief, which was to signpost the old town. This permanent sculpture is sited on the end of the harbour arm, and there are twelve other (less permanently made) versions which should be wheeled about the town, in changing locations, and signpost the way to the permanent sculpture. Pat said that the main problem with that is that they would need to be chaperoned, which costs money, and so does not generally happen (more on this later.) We had some hours to kill before the 6pm opening, and wandered around the town, looking for a cafe. A positive change from our 2008 visit was that there were a number of cafes open to choose from. Mum said that a marker that a place is on the up is that 'swish' cafes open, so if this is true, then things are looking good. When the time came for the opening we headed towards the gallery. In my RSVP I had written on that 3 of us would be attending the opening, but after queuing up we were told that I was only allowed to bring (a plus one) by the Lady with the clipboard.
It was an astonishing moment, and one which I am sure to remember throughout my arts career, refusal of entry to an art gallery - 'your names not down, you're not coming in!'
Unfortunately I had failed to understand that my invitation would only allow me to bring one extra person, and so I had to try to explain my mistake, and ask for leniency.
I asked to speak to my contact provided by A-N, but this only sought to confuse things further, and create further embarrassment when the Lady said, a little crossly 'Can you move aside please, we have a lot of people waiting to get in.'
When my contact arrived I was told under no uncertain terms that we would not be allowed in - despite having two places at least on the list - to which I eventually just cried out 'But I've come all the way from Stoke-on-Trent!'
They took pity on us, and finally we were allowed in...
But unfortunately the embarrassment at the door put a bit of a dampener on the event for me.
Still, I was really pleased to look around, I had been sure that there would be some fantastic sea views, which there were. The spaces have been designed so that they can all be opened up, or blacked out depending on the show, flexibility which I am sure will add to the success of the gallery.Mum and Dad were not very happy about the 'lack of art' in some of the rooms, in particular in the learning space, which showed only this piece 'Etagram' created by Turner Contemporary's Intergenerational group Blank Canvas. For me, the works on display throughout 'Revealed' were in response to the gallery, or Turner's work - and were in places slight, or site responsive in order to ensure that the gallery be the star in this all important first exhibition. Also the Clore education space is I am sure designed to be particularly flexible in order to allow a variety of activities and workshops to happen there.My favourite piece in the show was Ellen Harvey's installation, Arcadia. The piece consisted of a large text - much like the seaside amusements which used to line the seafront - facing a large scale video of the sea, and lent up against a make shift hut, which directly referenced Turner's own gallery, in shape and scale. Inside the hut was a panorama of drawings, etched into the back of mirrors on light boxes of Margate seafront as it is today.The monochromatic nature of these drawings suggested something filmic and grave, and the way that they were layered over torn fragments of Turner paintings for me reference the palimpsest; and the future of the Town, with a new generation of artists being inspired by [almost] the same sights that Turner had seen.Daniel Buren's window piece acted as a frame in the main entrance to the gallery, creating a circular view out to sea, and bathing the space in a golden light as the sun went down. We did not stay for the speeches, as the space was entirely full of people, and reminded me of the experience of viewing a Picasso exhibition in Japan, where you had to queue to look at the art works, and there was an unspoken time limit on how long you were allowed to linger and look. The atmosphere felt oppressive, and claustrophobic, and left me wanting to escape, which we soon did. It was probably my earlier experience with the gate keeper; but I felt upset that my family had not had a positive welcome to the gallery.
On my return to Stoke people asked me how it had gone, and I was sad to say that it had not been one of my favourite art experiences.A few days later I found myself back on the new high speed link from London, which means you can now get to Margate in under an hour and a half, hoping that my second brush with Turner would be more fruitful than the first. The Kent on Saturday newspaper that had been left behind by the previous occupant of my seat announced Turner Contemporary's public opening, and I started to feel optimistic.On arrival at the station Turner was already asserting his presence on the Town: I was greeted by two of the missing shell ladies, plus a helpful volunteer handing out information booklets about the opening weekend. I later came across a few more of the shell ladies, hiding in one of the many closed down shops and spaces in Margate Town. This had once been the most amazing sweet shop, lined with jars of every kind of sweet.Another change on the main shopping fronts in Margate is the number of commercial art galleries that have sprung up, and the estate agents are now announcing spaces (here, an old snooker club) being announced as a possible art gallery/studios/showroom.Walking along the seafront I was surrounded by a festival atmosphere. I hadn't seen Margate this busy since the Carnivals we used to go to when I was around 6. Making my way along to the Harbour Arm I was really pleased to see Graham Gussin's film lights illuminating Margate. I felt this worked even on such a fantastically sunny day. The lights were not directed onto the Gallery, but out onto Margate Town, suggesting that it was Margate that was the star of the show today. And I must say, over the public opening weekend of 'You Are Here,' I really felt that this sentiment was true. The Harbour arm and the entire seafront were thronging with people, and music played on every corner. People were smiling and enjoying the day.
There was a food market in the Old Town, and I was looking forward to returning Sunday to see some more of the 'You Are Here' programme.
My brother Dan and I got up bright and early on Sunday morning and headed back across to Margate on the train.
We planned to be there all day, as I wanted to go along and see the collaborative piece by artist Zorka Wollny and composer Ania Szwajgier 'Songs of the Sublime' which would be closing the weekend at 7.43pm (sunset) at the gallery. I was a bit worried about whether we would be hanging around with nothing to do with all that time, but I needn't have worried!Dan and I wandered around the old town, looking at the arts and crafts and food stalls. In between the Museum and the Mayor's Parlour was an area called 'Artists' Alley' where various artists and groups had set up stalls.A sculptor was busy working on a clay head of one of Margate's most famous daughters. Tracey Emin, along with Jools Holland had officially opened the gallery the day before.Around the corner we were approached by a local artist: Angela Malone. She asked if I would have my photo taken as Turner for a project she is working on to reclaim the Turner name for local artists, which I happily did, and asked her what she thought about the new gallery, and all the positive activity which surrounds it.A few pop up shops had sprung up, and other empty premises had their windows filled with art displays to suggest their future uses, all this made Margate feel less like a broken forgotten town, and more like a place with a future.This idea is an initiative called 'Windows of Opportunity' sponsored by Waterbridge, Margate Renewal Partnership and Thanet District Council.
One of the main things I wanted to see was the 'Bodies in Urban Spaces piece, by Austrian choreographer Willi Dorner. So, at 4pm Dan and I headed to the Old Town to wait and see what would happen.Suddenly a stream of colourfully tracksuited people came running through. I had thought they would stop and do something in the middle of the square, but they didn't stop - they kept going. 'Quick, lets follow them' I said to Dan, and we started the pursuit.After a few hundred yards we came across a group of them squashed into a doorway. Once the pursuers/audience had caught up, another of the performers would sprint on, showing us where to go next. What we came across was a series of site specific interventions which directly responded to the architecture and physical features of the town. This also acted as an alternative tour around parts of Margate usually unseen, taking in some beautiful hidden treasures, The Theatre Royal, the now closed Margate Caves and various gardens and streets.The reaction of the unknowing public, those who happened across the activity accidentally was amazing. People stopped and stared differently at these familiar streets, exclaiming 'What's all this then?' and one shout of 'Bloody Weirdos!' My brother declared 'This is my kind of art!' and I had to agree. It was so exciting, not knowing what we would see next. This was worth a trip to Margate on its own.After this we went and had another look at the Gallery. Though still busy, the spaces were a lot calmer and more negotiable than they had been on Tuesday's opening, and we got a real sense of the spaces, and were able to talk to the invigilators, who were very knowledgeable and willing to chat and tell us about the works.Then we had about an hour before the 'Songs of the Sublime' and feeling a bit peckish we went back to the old town, as I had heard a recommendation for a pub called the Lifeboat.We were pleased to find local ales and ciders on offer, as well as vegetarian pie for me, and a local Ramsgate sausage for Dan. The bar staff were really friendly and the music was good. What more could we ask for?
After our refuel we got back to Turner Contemporary in time to watch the sun going down on the opening weekend, and to experience 'Songs of the Sublime.' A sound installation in response to the architecture of the gallery.Unseen voices sang and spoke and footsteps were heard, and as the sun went down a girl wept on the window sill. The thing which I love so much about the New Art Gallery Walsall, (my favourite art space) is that it is a people space. Life happens there; teenagers snog in the film rooms, kids hang out on the sofas, old ladies rock up for some cake and art on an afternoon. It is for everyone. 'Songs of the Sublime' looked to me like a proposal, a projection of the Gallery as a living, working space - and somewhere that will accept and welcome all comers. It was a fantastic end to a beautifully positive opening weekend.
Dan and I strolled back along the seafront towards the train, and spent our last half hour and last few pounds on the two p machines in the arcade.
*****I heard a variety of comments from locals and visitors over the weekend which I tried to capture, also asking various people in shops and bars and stalls what they thought of Turner Contemporary, and how they felt it might change the town. Here are a few of the thoughts and comments collected:*****
Lady walking along the seafront to her Husband: 'You see, the thing is as well, how long would it take to commute to London from Margate?'
Lady Walking: 'Yes, but its only busy today!'
Man working in Arcade on Sunday: 'I think it will make a difference - it did yesterday, not so much today, but what we really need is the fun park - now that would really help!'
Artist on the Street - Being Turner: 'Well, I think the Tate have come down here and are making money out of the Turner Name, and we really have more right than they do down here to go off the back of it. But now things are starting to happen. We are trying to set up a Turner Festival and want artists to line the seafront - you know, come down here and take over the whole seafront.'
I ask: 'Has the Gallery acted as a catalyst for you, or were you already doing this activity?'
Artist: Well, I suppose it has, yes, but now we need to take the name back!'
Man walking by Turner Contemporary, pointing at unfinished path ' All that should have been done for the open day, it's a disgrace! I mean look at it, it's like a high security prison!'
Man walking down Harbour Arm: 'I hate all this art bollocks.'
Man serving in Lifeboat Pub: 'I have been working all weekend so haven't been along yet, but yeah, I think it will be great. It will be good for Margate.'

An edited version of this review was first published on Interface (25/04/11) and is the result of an Interface and Turner Contemporary bursary partnership
Thanks to my brother Dan for the use of some of his images.

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