Folkestone Triennial review – the art must fit, or get lost at sea

The third Folkestone Triennial is at its best when artists such as Richard Woods and Bob and Roberta Smith tailor striking works to the town’s geography

A small house sits marooned on the beach at Folkestone. It has a seasick tilt, as if washed up by tides to the shore. Children try to peer through its tidy windows, but they are just blanks, illusions painted on a brightly coloured structure that turns out to be somewhere between diagram and sculpture. It’s a sight gag, this cartoon beach house – a three- dimensional joke.

Another house, almost identical, lies adrift in the harbour. A third is jammed in among the subtropical plants in the park. Richard Woods’s Holiday Home sequence plays upon desirable locations and second homes by the sea, but also upon jerry-built houses, too small for actual families, and tight spots such as cliffs and carparks. Folkestone faces Calais over the water; some people apparently think the house in the harbour might have arrived on an immigrant boat.

Woods has got the measure of the Folkestone Triennial. His houses are visually and politically acute; they speak directly to the place and the times; and they’re visible at considerable distance. This is significant in what amounts to an elaborate treasure hunt that sends the visitor, armed with a map, all over the town and wider coast every three years, searching for contemporary art.

Way along the shore, past the bodies sizzling on Sunny Sands, you clamber the cliffs to Bob and Roberta Smith’s message on the high Martello tower. “Folkestone is an art school,” the painted declaration insists, in ice-cream colours. The golfers on their last hole are paying no attention. “But what does it mean?” asks a tourist.

Richard Woods’s Holiday Home.
‘Visually and politically acute’: Richard Woods’s Holiday Home. Photograph: Thierry Bal

Four miles in the opposite direction, past the Lubaina Himid Jelly Mould Pavilion and what will one day be the stainless steel Bill Woodrow sculpture, if the welders ever finish, David Shrigley has concealed a neat quip. Among the Victorian lamp posts that run along gracious Clifton Crescent, he has planted one more, a bit stunted and angular, definitely missing the globe and the general elegance. It is made from memory – a modern version of the past, low and very slightly cheapened.

Folkestone’s economic base, according to the gaseous hype, is “in transition from seasonal tourism to creative industries” (Shrigley’s lamp perhaps sends up the latter). This once-faded town is certainly awash with studios, galleries and assorted “spaces”, many of them along central Tontine Street, bombed in the first world war and still showing signs of a run-down past. Having failed to get planning permission to build a visitor centre – local opposition apparently centred on perceived disrespect to the bomb victims – the triennial has set up HQ in the Quarterhouse, halfway down the street, with an installation by Studio Ben Allen.

Allen, who once worked with Olafur Eliasson, has erected a gothic cathedral of plywood traceries, mirrors at each end, so that the fan vaulting seems to run on for ever. This is beautiful, but too many architectural interventions in the 2017 Triennial put design some way before art.

Lubaina Himid’s Jelly Mould Pavilion
Lubaina Himid’s Jelly Mould Pavilion ‘succeeds on its own terms’. Photograph: Thierry Bal

The Balinese-British artist Sinta Tantra has applied geometric forms in seaside poster colours to the exterior of the Cube on Tontine Street. This concrete box certainly needs cheering up, but a coat of paint hardly cuts it. Wong Hoy Cheong has added a false facade of minarets to the Islamic Community Centre. Gary Woodley has painted black and white polyhedrons on one of the beachside tunnels on Coronation Parade, a glum and negligible experience not improved by being tricky to find.

That’s the problem with any art trail; the outcome is affected by the journey. The pilgrimage to the Rijksmuseum, say, can enhance every second spent in front of the paintings, whereas a hunt among the pubs and net-curtained windows of Folkestone for Amalia Pica’s many shells, configured in post-surreal arrangements, makes these sculptures seem even more trivial.

“Folkestone is an art school”: the legend is printed over and again, on banners, posters, billboards at the station and beach. To some extent, Bob and Roberta Smith – AKA Patrick Brill – has a serious point. Brill has amassed a directory of classes, facilities, talents and events in Folkestone: ideal for the would-be art student, simply outside of an institution. But more than that, his words urge you to look more closely at the town itself, at the earthworks on the beach, the classical arena in the Leas, the variegated colours of the Old High Street, even the bubble-bright buoys festooning the boats.

Antony Gormley’s Another Time XXI.
‘Too high and mighty’: Antony Gormley’s Another Time XXI. Photograph: Thierry Bal

Of course, Brill’s piece alludes to itself as a triennial commission (and performs as a marketing ploy, what’s more). It is as temporary as Lubaini Himid’s lovely pavilion on the beach, a giant jelly mould – starred inside like the Alhambra – standing on twisted sugar pillars. People sheltering inside, incidentally, may have no sense of the connection Himid is making between the history of slavery and sugar. But still the sculpture succeeds on its own terms, with its end-of-the-pier connotations.

Whereas Antony Gormley’s loan of two rusting Gorms, stock still and staring out to sea, aren’t such a perfect fit. One of these iron men can only be seen from the Harbour Arm when the tide is out, no doubt making it this year’s biggest draw. But the other is hidden in the last of the Coronation Parade chambers, viewed through dozens of linked and sea-weathered arches. Gormley is not short; his body cast of himself is too high and mighty for these modest surroundings.

The Gorms will go, but some of the glories of past triennials are still present all over town – most wonderfully, Christian Boltanski’s park benches, where you may sit and hear readings from the letters of first world war soldiers who passed through Folkestone on their way to almost certain death in the trenches. Perhaps some of this year’s strongest works will also be kept, specifically those with the keenest sense of place – Marc Schmitz and Dolgor Ser-Od’s giant shell-cum-gramophone, for instance, that seems to have fallen to Earth on the East Cliff. This puts you right on the spot. Lend it your ear and the sound of distant oceans is marvellously magnified; talk into it and your voice carries out and away into the wild blue yonder.

The Folkestone Triennial runs until 5 November


Laura Cumming

The GuardianTramp

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