Sunday, September 02, 2012

Whitstable Biennale: art and oysters

retaining wall; photo by Val Phoenix
Well, my belated investigation of Kent + art continues with a day trip to the opening of the Whitstable Biennale on Saturday.

Availing myself of the Biennale Bus from sunny London, I arrived outside the Horsebridge Art Centre just before 13:00 in time for the launch, which consisted of many people hovering outside the Biennale HQ (a rather functional black box) and sipping beer. Finding myself elbowed out of the HQ, I set off down the beach, hoping rather than expecting to encounter any exhibits. This is because, try as I might, I could find no map on the website.

This information did, however, appear in the guide I picked up on my travels and so I hotfooted it back to the HAC to hear Jeremy Millar's guided tour of the artists film on show on the ground floor. I was somewhat late and so arrived midway through his discussion of Maya Deren's Ritual in Transfigured Time, and had the unusual experience of sitting in a darkened room with a group of people listening to someone give a running commentary on a silent film.

I had to break off from the talk to nip upstairs to see performance duo Internet enact their very self-referentially awkward piece Acting, an hour-long reflection on performance, shyness and repetition. I found it funny and especially enjoyed the audience interaction (I'd wisely avoided the front row, fearing being called upon), with one audience member asking a puppet whether he was influenced by Brecht's Verfremdungseffekt. You had to be there.

That done, I went in search of food. Now, Whitstable is known for its oysters, and these were EVERYWHERE. On the seafront, in the bars, even in shop windows as decoration. But, being a vegetarian, I was immune to their allure, and ended up enjoying an enormous English breakfast in a cafe.

Sated, I made my way to my next exhibit, an installation called Hollow Moon, by Tom Gidley, which was installed in an out-of-the-way Scouts Hall. Entering the darkened room, I heard a rather detached woman's voice relating a strange encounter with a missing building, while a dancer circled a room, interacting with pieces of pottery. Spotlit in the Scouts Hall were some of those very same objects. I watched, intrigued and bemused, and tried to determine the meaning behind this, while a young boy next to me looked very serious and equally bemused.

This pairing of video and objects was also used to great effect in Emma Hart's Monument to the Unsaved #2 (M20 Death Drives), which I found with great effort hidden on the other side of a large industrial site in a Sea Scouts hut. I didn't mind the hike, because it gave me a chance to explore the beach some more, picking my way over groynes and past the beautiful beach huts. Someone was throwing a birthday party in one, adding to the festivity of the occasion. Once I'd located the Scouts hut, I was greeted by a marvellous multi-media sculpture of wing mirrors reflecting video, plus an installation of plastic bottles, cocktail glasses and trinkets. Even after listening and watching, I am not sure of the connection of the objects to the piece, but the audio/video aspect was entrancing, as Hart related a frightening cut-up of a near-death experience on a motorway. The wing mirrors were a brilliant device for this, and I had to have a close-up look afterward to see how she did it (flatscreen TV!). This was undoubtedly the artistic highlight of the day. Then it was a mix of sunset-hunting and time-killing before the late-night departure of the Biennale Bus. 

The festival continues through the 16th, with different activities throughout the time. The website does not indicate any entry fees, but some events do have fees, as do most of the publications. There is also an app, which may have some of this info, but, not having a smartphone, I didn't try it.

A most enjoyable day, and I am now dreaming of my own seaside cottage or beach hut.

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