Never being one to do things by halves, when I decided to drive my Mini to Turner Contemporary, I took the opportunity to cram a jam-packed schedule into two days and explore Kent.
My time in Canterbury started with a scrummy picnic lunch punting on the Stour. I’m a Cathedral addict and Canterbury has long been one of my favourites in England. If you haven’t been, shame on you. With wide-ranging, mostly French, influences, the building presents a harmonious and inspiring interior.
All photographs are my own unless otherwise stated
Buildings of the Gothic era, particularly Cathedrals, were ornamented appropriately to the function they served. Such ideas of decorum ensured that a Saint’s shrine and its surrounds required the most lavish design and sculptural decoration and reflected the valid aesthetic ideas of the period. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket became a ‘medieval celebrity’ after his brutal murder in the Cathedral on 29th December 1170 and he is buried in a majestically designed chapel, approached by increasing architectural richness on the climatic processional pilgrimage routes.
The monks of Canterbury regarded him as a second Christ. Like Christ, he returned on Palm Sunday, presided over his ‘last supper’, was struck down by enemies of the state and had five wounds inflicted on him. Poetic hagiography is incorporated into the Trinity Chapel where red and white stone symbolise Becket’s blood and brain; the red also depicts Becket as a martyr and the white shows his inner martyrdom. This analogy has strong Christological references as blood and water spilled from Christ’s side wound.
This trip included many favourites for me: cathedrals, ruins, the seaside and the work of Antony Gormley. Nowadays, his sculptures are ubiquitous in cathedrals and one is suspended in the crypt. Made of recycled iron nails from the repaired roof, Transport hangs above the site of Becket’s first tomb. The 6ft floating man reminds us that we are temporary inhabitants of our bodies; they house our souls and are the instruments through which we are able to communicate our emotions. The piece expresses transience and reflects the way in which sacred spaces communicate a sense of time and eternity.
After popping into St Augustine’s Abbey (founded in AD 567 by St Augustine during his mission to convert the pagan Anglo-Saxons to Christianity), I headed to Richborough Roman Fort and Amphitheatre. Although Richborough is now over two miles from the sea, it was once a bustling port that saw the first Roman landing – hard to believe now when looking at the surrounding countryside.
After struggling with English Heritage’s poor signage, I finally found St Augustine’s Cross – a 19th century cross of Saxon design marking what is thought to have been the site of St Augustine’s landing on the shores of England in AD 567.
After a wonderful day, I arrived at a gorgeous B&B in Broadstairs before heading off to a wonderful dinner in Ramsgate. The coastal villages seem to be stuck in a time warp – old chippies, amusement arcades and enormous beaches – with shabby, run down seafronts.
That’s not to say that they aren’t charming in parts as Kent really is a beautiful county but some of these places feel like they have been left behind.
Early the next day, I drove along the pretty but somewhat dilapidated coast to Margate.
Margate must have been wonderful in its heyday but is now very sad, mostly boarded up and shut down.
Turner Contemporary, the brand new public art gallery, is an imposing landmark and rises from the site of the lodging house where Turner stayed in Margate. The view outside probably hasn’t changed much since his visits. Sitting on the seafront, the building needed to be tough and robust. After the initial shock factor of the arresting structure, designed by David Chipperfield architects, its charm becomes apparent. Formed of six interlocking rectangular blocks, the two-storey building can evoke boat sheds or connecting artists’ studios.
Flooded with natural light, the interior consists mostly of polished concrete and glass – a simple and clean design that is both austere and beautiful. Chipperfield wanted art to be experienced rather than viewed and has made the open spaces like studios. He succeeds, at the same time creating an intimacy conducive to wonderful exhibitions. It is a triumph, perfectly in tune with its purpose and location.
Turner spent time in Margate throughout his life and many of his works feature the Kentish coast. Turner Contemporary celebrates his connection with Margate and one or more of his paintings will always be on display in the gallery. The current exhibition Revealed: Turner Contemporary Opens takes inspiration from Turner’s 1815 painting of a volcanic eruption on the island of St Vincent. Turner was fascinated by the power of nature and this painting captures the drama. His works give the viewer sensory experiences transcending their surroundings to become part of the scene.
Image via www.anothermag.com
The only permanent work, Michael Craig-Martin’s neon Turning Pages invites you to begin your metaphorical journey around the galleries.
I don’t have a bad word to say about the current exhibition. Daniel Buren makes use of the large window and walls. His work frames the outside panorama, using mirrors to reflect and amplify the glorious coastal scene and a vivid yellow to further lighten and brighten the galleries.
Douglas Gordon’s text work Afterturner, on the treads of the staircase, plays with Turner’s supposed last words. Though the stairs have generated criticism for being tucked away and simple, I had no trouble finding them and felt a grander structure would have been out of place and detract from the large open plan resonance.
Ellen Harvey’s newly-commissioned Arcadia is a scale reconstruction of the gallery Turner built to house his work, filled with engraved lightboxes with views of present-day Margate. There are also great works by Teresita Fernández and Russell Crotty.
For me the star of the show was Conrad Shawcross; his ingenious installations Projections of a Perfect Third seek to understand the musical chord. Shawcross is fascinated by science and philosophy and this dramatic installation brings together different threads from his practice. His mysterious, enigmatic structures leave you in awe, staring at the near-sublime rotating form that hangs above you, whirring in perpetual motion no matter what. Shawcross’s machines are designed with no specific working purpose, suggesting a quest for a perfect ideal. They are intricate manifestations of his thoughts and ideas showing the skill of his craftsmanship through beautiful, mesmerising forms. The giant rotating wings (like helicopter blades or windscreen wipers) captivate viewers, leaving them standing engaged but lost.
Strangely, Emin, Margate’s most famous daughter, is not included in the exhibition but her pink neon sign, I never stopped loving you, is installed above the door of the nearby tourist information centre and harbour master’s office. The work is almost invisible in daylight and I had to ask someone to point it out. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) I wasn’t in Margate at night to see if the work is more effective, dramatically illuminated on the front but, when the sun is shining, it is lost to the surrounding architecture and Emin’s thoughts remain unheard.
Due to the amount of walking, this was a flip-flops only trip but, in my hurry to get down to the beach to take photographs looking up at Turner Contemporary, I didn’t spot a large slimy patch of seaweed and managed to launch myself down the lifeboat ramp. Splat! Ouch! That’ll teach me not to wear flat shoes!
Once a popular seaside resort (the famous Dreamland is expected to re-open in 2013), Margate is now rather run-down. The perfect weather when I visited only served to highlight the town’s shabbiness. Turner Contemporary is meant to be a catalyst for regeneration but, as much as I adored it, I’m not sure that this alone is enough. The effect Turner Contemporary will have on the town and whether it will initiate the long-awaited Margate renaissance remains to be seen. The locals have already embraced it, nicknaming it ‘The Turner’, but will it trigger the much-needed regeneration and prompt change?
On the way home, I stopped at Reculver where the 12th century towers of a ruined church stand defiant among the ruins of a fort and monastery. Finally, oysters and a wander in Whitstable before returning to London. And all in less than 2 days.
Of course, if you aren’t feeling quite that intrepid, the train will get you to Margate in only a couple of hours and you too can spend the day at the seaside.
All photographs are my own. More can be seen at: http://www.facebook.com/media/set/fbx/?set=a.187173014662889.42704.121039074609617.