Thursday, April 28, 2011

"If I Could Find Anything Blacker Than Black, I'd Use It"

Two days ago, my reputation as a member of the middle class intelligensia was almost in tatters.

It started innocently enough. I was talking about the Royal Wedding with some people from North London and unthinkingly remarked that I thought that Kate Middleton would make a lovely queen. Obviously this was the wrong thing to say. If you are a Guardianista, you must regard the Royal Family and everything they do as an absurd and rather vulgar anachronism. I had committed a thoughtcrime.

Luckily, I got away with it. My companions thought that I was satirising the cap-doffing attitudes of Middle England and laughed politely, unaware that my statement was free of any irony or cynicism.

"She'll be a lovely queen."

But the whole sorry episode weighed heavily on my conscience. I knew that I had committed a major transgression and only an act of atonement would enable me to look my fellow cognoscenti in the eye. But what? A box of organic vegetables or a bottle of artisan-made balsamic vinegar wouldn't be enough this time. I had to perform the Hadj.

The following morning, I began a long, difficult journey of pilgrimage to Margate, home of the newest contemporary art gallery.

Margate was once a promised land for the working classes. Families could escape from the drudgery and, sometimes, squalor of their daily lives and spend a couple of weeks in a fantasy world of music hall shows, fairground rides and sunshine:

But the two weeks passed too quickly and then it was back to the unlived life. For many Eastenders, the dream was that one day they would go back to Margate and never leave, spending their final days breathing fresh air. The whole town was fuelled by working class dreams (although, incongrously, Eliot wrote the third part of 'The Waste Land' here: 'On Margate Sands. I can connect nothing with nothing').

The last time Margate really buzzed with life was in the 1960s, when mods and rockers terrorised the bank holiday crowds:

Then the package holiday arrived. People quickly realised that for the same amount of money they could have a holiday in Spain, where the sunshine was almost guaranteed. Like many so British coastal resorts, Margate went into a long, slow decline, beset by high unemployment and under-investment.

Which brings us to the present. How do you revitalise a depressed area? Industry is no longer an option and the dreaded 'retail park' may create a few hundred jobs (if you can persuade retailers to set up in a town with no money), but it's a Faustian pact which ultimately does more harm than good to the local economy.

The only answer is to attract more middle class people into the town and the best way of doing that is to build an art gallery.

Once, the notion that an economically depressed town could be revived with an art gallery (and a modern art gallery at that!) would have sounded absurd, like something out of Sim City, but the evidence is irrefutable.

The phenomenal success of the Tate Modern, which opened in 2000, has shown that contemporary art is far more popular than many people believed and the last decade has seen an unprecedented number of successful gallery openings; many in very unlikely places. When these galleries opened, people were suprised by how quickly new businesses started to appear.

This was the rationale behind the Turner Contemporary in Margate. It wasn't a universally popular idea - many locals would have prefered a leisure centre - but the gallery had some very vocal supporters, including local girl Tracy Emin:

(If the Royal Family met with an unfortunate end, I would quite happily install Tracy Emin as the next queen of England)

Like all great building projects, the plans and budget for the Turner Contemporary underwent a number of revisions and compromises, but thanks to the tenacity of its supporters, the gallery was eventually opened earlier this month by Emin and Jools Holland.

From a distance, the Turner Contemporary is underwhelming, but the gallery is more impressive as you get closer:

Designed by Sir David Chipperfield, the Turner Contemporary boldly faces the sea. Some have questioned the logic of placing a valuable art collection in such a vulnerable position, but the building feels very solid.

I was pleased to see that the steps were packed with visitors and as I walked through the entrance, I was struck by how the building was already buzzing with energy, less than a month after opening:

This atrium is hugely impressive - a wonderful use of space involving mirrored walls and this stunning view of the sea:

I wasn't completely convinced by the steps up to the first floor. Inspired by Turner's enigmatic last words, which could have meant either "The sun is god", "The son is God" or "The sun is God", this all looked a bit like something out of art college:

But I liked the next exhibit. I tried to read what it was all about, but there were so many people in the gallery I became distracted and decided to read more on the gallery's website when I got home, but oddly there doesn't seem to be much content about the exhibits.

As far as I can tell, it's a mural of work by young people from Margate and reflects on the town's past, present and hopes for the future:

I wish that I'd read the blurb more thoroughly.

This section contains the great Turner quote "If I could find anything blacker than black, I'd use it."

At this point, I should explain (for anyone who is blissfully unaware of the Turner Contemporary) where Turner comes into the story. This is from the gallery's website:

“Where therefore, and in this very town of Margate, he lived, when he chose to be quit of London, and yet not to travel” John Ruskin

Turner’s connection with Margate was the founding inspiration for our organisation. He loved Margate for the sea, the skies, and his landlady Mrs Booth.

He first came to the seaside town aged 11, having been sent by his parents to school in Love Lane in Margate. He returned to sketch here aged 21 and from the 1820s onwards became a regular visitor.

Visitors who are expecting a collection of Turner paintings will be disappointed. There is only one picture in the collection, although the gallery hopes to remedy this. Admittedly it's a pretty impressive painting, but did it really need a 'tensabarrier' in front?

This installation looked promising:

Inside, there is a collection of backlit engravings of Margate. It's a nice, contemporary take on the traditional 19th century engraving and the images are really good, but unfortunately it is impossible to look at them without seeing a reflection of the works on the wall behind. It's a great pity and I'm surprised that nobody has done anything about this (a simple black curtain across the centre would solve the problem).

This remarkable installation, by Conrad Shawcross, was far more successful:

In the art world, people are forever talking about 'the space' as being almost as important as the exhibits and in general, I'd agree. The Turner Contemporary is a fantastic 'space', but there's just a little too much of it. I would have liked to have seen some more exhibits. There is clearly some work to be done (including the amount of content on the website), but the gallery has got off to a good start.

At the moment, to coin Dr Johnson's description of the Giant's Causeway, the Turner Contemporary is "worth seeing, but not worth going to see", at least, if your journey is longer than a couple of hours. It took me over three hours to make the 90-mile trip from Lewes.

On the plus side there's a nice cafe in the gallery and it's only a matter of time before a succession of chi-chi resaturants and shops appear in this nearby road:

The future definitely looks brighter for Margate. Sadly, this will be the last new gallery in Britain for the foreseeable future.

Even if the Turner Contemporary doesn't have enough exhibits to justify a day trip, there's plenty to see in Margate and if you prefer your resorts to be a little more genteel, Broadstairs is only a couple of miles away:

I've never been to this part of Kent before and was impressed by the number of quirky, interesting buildings, including the original model for 'Bleak House', which towers above the beach:

Charles Dickens was a big fan of Broadstairs:

I had obviously come on a quiet day:

As Dickens might have said, "I searched in vain for a fish and chip emporium that was open for travellers and instead, decided to embark on an agreeable perambulation of the town's environs".

The alleys and back streets revealed many eccentric features, like this nautical gate:

It goes without saying that I am a big fan of 'David Copperfield', so I didn't miss the chance to visit the house which was owned by the model for Betsey Trotwood and now contains the Dickens Museum. It's strange to think the young Dickens sat in this very room:

The museum was a little disappointing. Apart from a few letters written by the author, it was mainly a collection of Dickens-related ephemera (with no pictures of Steerforth), but with an entrance fee of around £3, it was still worth a visit.

I finished the day by having a brief drink in Deal with an old schoolfriend. He has just joined a French punk band and told me some hilarious stories, which would be a whole blog post in itself. I know that he hates anything to do with blogging and social networking, so I will shamelessly steal his anecdotes.

After our drink, I began the ridiculously long journey back to Lewes. At first I resented the fact that it took over three hours to make a 90-mile journey, but on reflection, if we had more motorways and better rail links, everywhere would turn into commuterland.


The Poet Laura-eate said...

Looks like a white elephant warehouse to me and I am shocked (if no longer surprised) they put such a monolith in such a prime position. Shame most architect's definition of a 'landmark building' appears to be 'landscape blot' and not something which will stand the test of time for centuries and actually complement its setting and history.

Loved your photos of the real Margate though, however depressed. I don't doubt the new addition will be economically welcomed.

Re Kate Middleton, I too think she's a lovely gal and am glad the Royals have dispensed with the idea of forcing their young to marry people not of their own choosing for the sake of keeping the inbreeding going. I do think her family are a bit vulgar and will prove an embarrassment to her though. On a positive note I thank her and Wills for my extra bank holiday and think it's nice how the occasion is bringing so many people together and has such a genuine ring about it as if it really might stand a chance of lasting. If I watch any of the news though it is to see and hear the crowds and what they say rather than watch the spectacle itself.

Helen Brocklebank said...

It's quite difficult, the whole political protocol of the Royal Wedding - my friends on Facebook keep urging me to join Republic (I always want to put an exclamation mark on the end of it), which - despite my devotion to Peter Tatchell - I find really tedious. My house is not festooned with bunting, and we arrived at the Co-Op too late to buy The TT a flag to wave at the telly, but I'll be watching it anyway. I think I'm a reluctant monarchist. Reluctant to admit it, that is.
However, I am far from reluctant about Margate - I've always longed to go, and now it has an art gallery, I can drag the whole family along with me without having to pretend it's an ironic trip. Culture, innit.

Steerforth said...

This is spooky - you have both commented before I published the post. I must have unwittingly published half a blog post earlier on (perhaps I should have stopped there!)

magiciansgirl said...

Re: the barrier in front of the Turner - trust me, it's needed. At the museum I work at I've witnessed children fling themselves against paintings (in front of their non non-plussed parents), a student use an unvarnished Frankenthaler as a support for the note pad they were writing on (apparently the wall 6 inches over looked less sturdy than a piece of stretched canvas) and not long ago we found mysterious bloodstains on the yellow silk upholstery of an early 19th century settee. I could go on, but I won't. In any case, I like the building itself, but it's a little like putting a casino on the beach - surely, if you are there, you are not looking at the view. I'm glad the gallery is getting visitors and attention - often times contemporary art can be a tough sell to the public.

Brett said...

A wonderful rambling blog post. From a royal wedding to mods & rockers at the seaside to a Turner Museum with almost no Turners to Dickens to a French punk band.

So there are still punk bands? Anyway, thanks. A five-minute vacation!

Martin said...

Another excellent post. From our ambivalent relationship with the monarchy (helped by fashion conscious Republicans) to the totally justified situation of the Turner Contemporary in Margate.

Accessibility is the key to full appreciation of the Arts. We're gradually overcoming our class-induced reticence toward those aspects of culture we've been led to believe, are not for the 'likes of us', but there's a long way to go.

It's a shameless plug for Poetry24, but Clare and I set this up to encourage people to express their thoughts about what's going on around them, in poetry.

MikeP said...

You are forgiven.

Moving right along, did you discover Morelli's in Broadstairs? Sensationally unrestored (or was, a couple of years ago...) Italian caff overlooking the sea.
Have a look here:

Steerforth said...

Kim - I can see your point. I'm shocked by the canvas anecdote, but I shouldn't be. I've seen enough people mistreat books over the years.

I thought the Turner would have been safe as it was covered with glass, but it is on loan, so I suppose the gallery's paranoid about anything happening. I just wish that they could have hung the painting a litle higher so that the barrier isn't the viewer's field of vision.

I used to think that contemporary art was hard to sell to the public, but in Britain at least, it seems to have become very popular during the last ten years. Maybe the whole 'Brit-Art' phenomenon made it fashionable.

Brett - I've just looked at the band's YouTube clip and they seem to be more folk-punk - a sort of French Pogues. They seem to do a lot of shouting.

Martin - thanks for the Poetry 24. I'll post a link to this excellent website on the homepage later on.

Mike - I'm ashamed to say that I walked straight past Morelli's. It was empty and four of the staff were sitting outside, having a very animated conversation in Italian. I thought I'd leave them to it.

I wish that I'd gone in now.

sukipoet said...

I am an American and unsentimental but watched part of the royal wedding this morning and found myself crying. goodness. love all the ritual actually.

hard to believe you have a town on the waterfront that has not been yuppified and slicked. Here, I dont think any such places exist anymore.

but i do agree, bring some artists into an area and things start to look up.

Steerforth said...

Yes, I found it very moving too - much more than I thought I would. The combination of the visual spectacle, the music, sense of continuity and, above all, hope, was very powerful.

Re: Margate and other seaside towns, I think that Britain is far less mobile than the USA - both socially and in terms of transport links. I can't think of any other reason why these places have remained so resistant to the property boom.

Bev said...

Steerforth - lovely post, and I think your visit to Margate was not penance enough. Get yourself to large vat of champagne instead.
And as for um. challenging towns with new art galleries. We're on the band wagon down here in Hastings too with a new gallery opening in September. The cafe will be nice too, as it will be run by some local (ex- DFL's) who have two lovely, child friendly organic (ish) cafe's already here.

Gardener in the Distance said...

Believe me, being in a semi-republic like Australia, doesn't make for better government. I watched the wedding tonight and the overwhelming feeling I got from it was that everyone felt a happiness together. That's not very common.

Sam Jordison said...

Lovely post Steerforth. (Sometimes I feel sad that I'm going to have to kill Kate too, come the glorious day and the Great Cleansing. But, I suppose I will reflect, like Hamlet, that she made love to this employment...)

I'm definitely going to have to visit both Margate and Broadstairs after reading this. You make both sound fascinating.

mtFF said...

I love it that you went to Margate and Broadstairs, not only to see the gallery but there is something so lovely about going in search of the hidden past, and that is connected, somehow, to the royal wedding and to how much more connected we all used to feel to the monarchy, to the soil of our country etc.
As for paying penance to the Guardianista, I think it's WAY cooler of you to be in your own finely crafted skin than to be one of the sheeple who use irony and the mask of intellectual superiority as a protective cloak against the uncontrollable enormity of the big bad world. Humility and genuineness are so much more attractive and compelling..
My 2cents, anyway..

Gabriela Von Bohlen said...

I dislike it when everyone who is "intelligent" despises the same things. I suddenly realized that every writer I know hates Lidl. I started yelling "wrong" opinions about how much I love shopping in Lidl – "just like a trip to Germany" – and it's so amusing witnessing their horror, when someone likes a forbidden thing... (I adored the royal wedding).

Anonymous said...

Oh, please, please, NOT Queen Tracy Emin. Surely even the weirdly attired Eugenie or what's her name, her sister, would be preferable. All right, only marginally, and, I suppose, TE does have some talent...
I'm a regular at Tate Modern, but really only so that my grandchildren can race up and down the ramp...

Steerforth said...

Tattyhouse - I'm really looking forward to the new gallery in Hastings, but in the meantime I'll content myself with the college's end of year show - the 2010 one was great.

Gardener - I agree. I don't understand people who think that scrapping the monarchy would improve our lives. In the 21st century, when corporations are taking over our lives, tradition can act as a brake on political corruption.

This strange, nebulous and in many ways absurd thing called "The Crown" feels like solid ground, compared to the shifting sands of capitalism. It no longer has enough power to undermine our civil rights, so where's the incentive to get rid of it?

Sam - when you stage the Great Cleansing, sadly we won't get Tony Benn taking over as Lord Protector. Instead we'll get some knobhead like Richard Branson as president and the disappearance of the Crown will open the doors for politicians to increase their power and sell out to multinational corporations.

The fact that Margaret Thatcher didn't get on with the Royal Family and found their concerns about social division tiresome convinced me that we're better off with a monarchy.

Motherhood - Thank you. When I write a blog post, I'm consumed with self-doubt about what I've written, so I really appreciate your comment.

Gaabriela - I know exactly what you mean. I shop at Lidl and always feel as if I have to justify my trips there as if I'm doing it in an ironic, postmodern way.

I found the late 1980s particularly suffocating. It wasn't just enough to be left-wing, you had to be left-wing in a particular way. I value free thinking and honest debate.

Anon - I'm not convinced by Tracy Emin's work, but I think her life is her art and I love her passion. She's charismatic, funny and never, ever dull. That's why she'd be my queen.

zmkc said...

You're right though - she will make a lovely queen.

Anne said...

Great post, Steerforth - thank you.

Yes, Kate is pretty. Life gives her a prize for that, and maybe it's not fair, but she also gets a prize for *staying* pretty, which is totally within her control. So props to her for staying slim and being gracious and so on.

As for Tracy, totally agree with you on her star quality. Her drawing may be rubbish (I think so) but she is stellar, gracious, thoughtful, passionate and inclusive.

Or maybe David Attenborough?

Funny how no one's likely to say this sort of thing about Richard Branson.

Miss Whistle said...

I find it very hard, from afar, to know where to stand in the monarchy debate. I am a Guardian reader and I still get weepy over the pomp and circumstance of it all (particularly hymns, it has to be said). But then again, I am a Darwinist with a romantic notion of God (again, it's probably the hymns).

Great post. And I'm delighted to have found your blog (via Mrs Trefusis).

Steerforth said...

Miss Whistle, I'm delighted to make your acquaintance, particularly as I have now read your excellent blog. I notice that you come from Aldbury - isn't that the village that appeared in an episode of the Avengers?

If you read the Guardian but like royal weddings and the King James Bible, then you're no different from George Orwell, who acknowlegded that his socialist utopia would be full of uniquely English anachronisms. To paraphrase Churchill, I think that a monarchy is probably the worst system in the world, apart from all the others.

Miss Whistle said...

Dear Steerforth,
You're absolutely right. An episode of the Avengers was shot in Aldbury. Also, less memorably, a hunting scene from Bridget Jones 2. I'm not sure it made the final cut.

Ah, Orwell. I shall take that comparison and wiggle in the face of anyone who questions me. Thank you!

I look forward to coming back often.

Miss W

Anonymous said...

i took part in making the mural by young people (the black,white & green picture) i really enjoyed it and yes its a mixture of past present and future pieces of Margate. :)