What separates the Folkestone Triennial from many similar events is the abundant evidence in the Kentish seaside town that art is truly transformative. Across the world, forlorn cities have instigated biennials supposedly as levers of regeneration (and its evil twin, gentrification). But often they’re festivals of what the British sculptor Rachel Whiteread has called “plop art”, art shipped in with no concern for context or purpose.
There’s no plopping in Folkestone, whose fifth triennial opens on Thursday. Art’s role in defining Folkestone’s identity for this century is writ large across the town. Artworks survive from the four previous triennials and are now as much a part of the landscape here as the harbour and the boats on The Stade, its shingle beach.
This is the third triennial in a row curated by Lewis Biggs, who also founded the Liverpool Biennial. His embeddedness in Folkestone is a huge advantage because his understanding of its histories, its urban and marine landscapes, and the way these intertwine through its people, leads to the opposite of the emailed-in biennials elsewhere.
Called The Plot, the triennial offers three “ways” – effectively trails of works – through Folkestone, beginning immediately as you step off the train as a visitor, and never far from your front door if you’re a resident.
The routes – colour-coded, signposted and plotted on an essential map – are based on three distinctive aspects in Folkestone’s history and identity: first, St Eanswythe’s Way, named for the 7th-century saint whose relics remain at the church of St Mary and St Eanswythe in town. Her miracle was supposedly to have made water run uphill – a historic watercourse was named after her and it’s this that defines the route. William Harvey’s Way evokes the 17th-century physician who first described the circulation of the blood. And the Milky Way is taken from the nickname for a route where horse-drawn wagons would transport black coal from the harbour to the gasworks in the north of Folkestone and white chalk back down to the harbour for ships’ ballast.
So: miracles, watercourses, the circulation of blood and bodies, industrial and post-industrial histories – all rich territory for artists. And the overall result is an engaging, thoughtful show. Of course, it’s about the art, but it’s also about discovering, or re-discovering, a place – the art makes you look closer at Folkestone’s built and natural environments. It helps that I saw it on a beautiful day, the Channel a vision of aquamarine splendour, the town’s parks verdantly aglow.
Of course, artists aren’t always attracted by the neatest parts of town, often focusing instead on liminal spaces, forgotten corners and awkward nooks that show that Folkestone remains rough at the edges, still emerging from decline. The collaborative duo Winter/Hörbelt have created a fountain in the middle of a despised gyratory road that bisects the traditional route from the north of the town to its centre, which followed St Eanswythe’s Water. A white tree emerges from the ground, looking for all the world like an etiolated hand thrust into the air. It will eventually produce water flowing into a bowl proclaiming St Eanswythe’s return.
But artists haven’t ignored the politer parts of town: Richard Deacon has created granite sculptures-cum-benches in spaces earmarked for seating but left vacant in the formal Kingsnorth Gardens. Clusters of differently shaped horizontal stone, they’re tough, austerely beautiful things. Also in the gardens, Mariko Hori has mimicked the square topiary with a boulder made of Pulhamite, a form of fake rock that was used in the 1920s to create the steep, zig-zagging tourist walk with grottoes that takes you from the beach to the top of the town. The old Pulhamite stones are built around landfill that, as the rocks age, is slowly being exposed.
Kingsnorth Gardens was once a quarry and a landfill site, so Hori’s use of Pulhamite is emblematic. Rather than use rubbish, she’s asked local people for objects to fill her boulder and two others elsewhere in town – they’re time capsules that may reveal their contents to future generations.
Like Hori’s, Patrick Corillon’s work unravels at different points across Folkestone, following St Eanswythe’s Water, from Radnor Park to the Bayle Pond. Neat boxes on legs, Corillon calls them reliquaries, and they contain exquisite sculptural assemblages describing children’s games and poems conjuring old rhymes and incantations; moments of enchantment informed by Corillon’s historical research and discussions with local communities. They’re wonderful.
Community voices are also amplified at the former gasworks site, now a vast empty wasteland surrounded by high brick walls. Morag Myerscough has created painted signs with the words of local people, attached to a scaffolding evoking the gasometers that once stood here. Nearby, Jacqueline Donachie is showing a film focusing on the vital role of social clubs and nightclubs in communities, staged on a platform with a diagram of all of Folkestone’s dancefloors.
Down on the Harbour Arm, Assemble have created a new skate park which is part found sculpture, part designed amenity, and it works brilliantly. I also admired Tina GveroviÄ’s Surface Flows on the old ferry ramp: images of clothing drawn as if its floating on water, using blue road paint. I couldn’t help but think of refugees’ deaths at sea, and the asylum seekers demonised by Priti Patel, Nigel Farage et al, trying to find their way to the UK in the Channel.
The movement of people is also the subject of the colourful gateway on the Harbour Arm by Atta Kwami. A wooden structure painted in abstract shapes, it’s a deliberately modest triumphal arch. It might be impressive on its own terms, but it’s dwarfed here by the sublime power of sea and coast, and the industrial structures around it. By contrast, Kwami’s benches and sculptures conjuring the street kiosks of his native Ghana work beautifully in the more domestically scaled avenues at the top of the town.
Biggs has carefully staged the triennial to exploit the full range of the Folkestone’s environments – from Pilar Quinteros’s huge Janus head in chalk and plaster on the cliffs overlooking the harbour, to genuinefake’s critical reimagining of arcades and crazy golf in a pavilion jutting out from the now rather neglected old tourist centre, to the beautiful geometric patterns of Rana Begum’s huts running for the best part of a kilometre along The Leas coastal path. To see Begum’s work at its best, with the subtle colour shifts and musical movement (it’s called Arpeggio), walk along the beach, close to the shoreline.
If Begum’s huts allow you to delight in momentary effects of light, Shezad Dawood’s The Terrarium, the only indoor work commissioned for this triennial, suggests a possible, darker future. A virtual reality piece staged 300 years from now, it creates a drowned world where the Baltic extends to the Kent coast, and we, a human-cephalopod hybrid, swim in the ocean, only to be captured and confronted with different possible fates (mine: decapitation by another hybrid being).
Beyond the fantasy element, Dawood’s work is based on extensive scientific research, and reminds us that, whatever Folkestone’s fascinating histories, the town and the sea that it meets will be immeasurably affected by climate change. A solemn but necessary intervention in an absorbing triennial.
The Folkestone Triennial runs to November 5