In the pedestrian precinct outside Debenhams there is a small white hat, the sort of thing that might be made for a tiny baby or possibly a doll. It is rumpled and slightly discoloured, you imagine the child who lost it, or the distracted parent who put it down and forgot to pick it up again.
The hat, of course, is made of brass and is part of an installation called ‘Baby Things’ by Tracey Emin. When the piece was installed, for the first Folkestone Triennial in 2008, it was at the side of a bench, just the sort of place where a hat like that might be discarded. (There are other baby things in similar locations around the town, a teddy bear underneath a bench on the railway station platform, a glove on the spike of a fence.) But the bench outside Debenhams has gone now, though it is not immediately clear whether it was deliberately removed or the result of vandalism. So the hat now lies there on its own, contextless, abandoned, mostly unnoticed by the shoppers pushing by. It’s a small thing, all of the items that make up ‘Baby Things’ are small, deliberately so, the sorts of things that are easily lost. This is public art that doesn’t draw attention to itself, but is rather meant to surprise when you chance to notice it. But with the context removed, that chance is less likely to happen.
Just around the corner from Tracey Emin’s hat, an old tree stands in the middle of a traffic island. It stands as tall as the three storey buildings around it, though it appears slightly unbalanced since a lightning strike tore off one of its limbs a couple of years ago. The tree is a London Plane, which is actually a hybrid of two trees, one from China and one from America, that crossed in Lambeth sometime in the 1600s. We learn this from a small blue plaque on a low wall just across the road. The plaque looks like the sort of thing a particularly inventive Council might erect, and there is nothing about it to say otherwise, but it is in fact another survival from the 2008 Triennial. ‘Racinated’ by Richard Wentworth consists of ten such plaques dotted around the town, we are introduced to hornbeam and whitebeam outside a branch of Santander and white poplar at the top of the cliff. The trees thus described are all non-native species, and the installation thus calls attention to the importance of immigrants to how we view the country today. It is an interesting idea, if not always immediately obvious in what these plaques tell us.
The Folkestone Triennial was launched, with much fanfare, as a festival of modern art that would attract visitors to the town, but also benefit the town by leaving behind public art on permanent display. In the first part of that it has succeeded very well, drawing in a steady stream of visitors during the heady summer days when the festival actually runs. To judge how well it has succeeded in the latter aim it is perhaps worth seeing the public art in place during the grey, unseasonal days of winter.
Emin’s ‘Baby Things’ and Wentworth’s ‘Racinated’ were two of the eight artworks that have remained on public display since the first Triennial, although a couple may be stretching the definition of public art somewhat. If art consists not just of a picture but of its frame, the context, the setting in which we observe it, then public art is defined by the way it is presented within the open spaces, by the way it informs and is informed by those spaces. In which case, the public art that Folkestone has inherited from the first Triennial tells a sad story, a story exemplified by the abandonment inherent in Tracey Emin’s work, by the broken tree that Wentworth’s piece now happens to indicate.
The public part of Adam Chodzko’s ‘Pyramid’ is now pretty much limited to a noticeboard affixed at the foot of the cliff below the Leas Cliff Hall. The notice tells a ludicrous story: ‘A rumour grew in Folkestone that the town’s misfortunes were caused by the four inverted pyramids that support the overhang of the Leas Cliff Hall.’ There has, of course, never been such a rumour, but the construction of a myth to make us see a story in the happenstance of pre-existing industrial design is an intriguing way of presenting our relationship with our built environment, even if not entirely successful in this case. Nothing in the environment has been changed to give flesh to this bald story. Physically, the inverted pyramids remain; psychically, the town remains misfortunate. Something more than a statement on a noticeboard is needed to turn an idea for an artwork into actual art. Of course, Chodzko provided more, there is a video installation, not that you would know it from the noticeboard, and not that you can actually view it since the Visitor Centre where it is supposedly on display appears to be not only closed but stripped of all content. It makes the notion of public art particularly problematic if a vital element in the piece is not actually available.
Another of the surviving artworks, ‘Folkestone’ by Patrick Tuttofuoco, also involves a video installation, and so is similarly handicapped. What remains visible is the word ‘Folkestone’, painted in jagged letters on the harbour wall, like a welcome for the ferries that mostly no longer use the harbour. Stripped of context without the video, which shows Tuttofuoco following the route of the Orient Express which once departed from Folkestone, to collect the letters that make up the sign, this piece becomes less public art and more public works.
All of these works, either in themselves or in the public context within which they are now placed, offer variations upon a theme of abandonment and misfortune. Both of which are true of Mark Wallinger’s ‘Folk Stones’. Situated on the Leas, just above Chodzko’s ‘Pyramid’, Wallinger’s piece echoes Ai Weiwei’s ‘Sunflower Seeds’ or Carl Andre’s ‘Equivalent VIII’ in that it consists of 19,420 hand-numbered pebbles laid out as a pavement. The number is significant, it represents the number of British soldiers killed on the first day of the Somme, most of whom would have travelled to France through Folkestone. But already the white numbering is starting to fade, on some of the stones it has gone completely. Before too many more triennials have passed, this will just be a little pebbled pavement in the middle of the grass. To an extent the fading is an incredibly moving visual representation of our fading memories of the First World War, it is art that is meant to change over time. But public art feels as though it should represent some sort of permanence, and when the numbers have all gone will we still be able to look upon Wallinger’s piece as art?
With the possible exception of Emin’s ‘Baby Things’, Wallinger’s ‘Folk Stones’ is far and away the most affecting art on permanent display in the wake of the Triennial. Other pieces provide sometimes clever, sometimes simplistic versions of the same sad story, but without the emotional element that lifts Emin and Wallinger to a particularly powerful level. Of course, some artists use humour. ’18 Holes’ by Richard Wilson, just a little way along the seafront from Chodzko’s ‘Pyramid’, is a recreation of typical seaside beach huts, but fashioned from the 18 concrete slabs that had constituted the long-disused crazy golf course at the beachfront amusement park. Playful, in more than one sense of the word, it is still a poignant reminder of what a seaside town like Folkestone had once been but is no longer. Even without the connection to the old Rotunda Amusement Park, these three huts are likely to survive as public art simply because of the direct way they speak to how things were.
Others, like jetsam thrown overboard by the Triennial and washed up on the shore, are likely to survive, but whether they will survive as public art or as public amenity is not so easy to tell. The line is tested by Wentworth’s ‘Racinated’ and Tuttofuoco’s ‘Folkestone’, but it is perhaps crossed by Pae White’s ‘Barking Rocks’. In an unprepossessing back street, mostly given over to car parking and overlooked on both sides by the backs of houses, she has created a minuscule garden featuring a little pyramid of timber and a few rustic seats. Bronze heads of cats and dogs on poles lend it a slightly gruesome air, and notices proclaiming that ‘Fouling is heavily discouraged’ seem to belie the pet-friendly message otherwise presented. It’s a nice little space in an area that needs a nice little space, but I suspect that in time, if not already, it will be seen by those who use it as an imaginative bit of landscaping by the parks department rather than a work of art.
All of these examples of public art, whether intentionally or not, whether it is inherent in the artwork or its position or simply changing circumstances, seem to suggest the run down, the lost, the abandoned. It is an attitude perhaps best summed up in the last of eight pieces. Devised by Nathan Coley, it consists of lights set up on the roof of what was once the post office but what is now the heart of the grandly-named Creative Quarter, the lights spelling out: ‘Heaven Is A Place Where Nothing Ever Happens’. It is a sentiment that seems to speak for all that has survived from the 2008 Triennial.
The public art that is Folkestone’s legacy from the festival of modern art that is the Triennial seems to raise questions about: what is public? And: what is art? And, perhaps most pertinently: what endures?