Margate and the Turner Contemporary

Arriving at Margate town centre and driving up along the beach towards the point of fascination, we were immediately struck by the contrast of the half decrepit, down-trodden, old fashioned symbols, scattering the scenery of the strange sea-side town, against its stark modernist silver structure of which is the new Turner Gallery.

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Edmund de Waal in the foyer of Turner Contemporary (below) and a wall of graffiti within walking distance from the gallery (above)

Having read Tracey Emin’s biography, I had some inclination of what to expect, though I hadn’t imagined it quite so literally. Walking along the pavement beside the beach, I remember thinking, I wouldn’t bring my children here to play on the sand or dip their feet into that water. The streets were shabby and the restaurants lining the beach were hardly the sort of eating place you could relax in. It’s a shame to think that so much has been spent on bringing the gallery to the town but so little has been done to regenerate the place in its entirety. The potential is great, with little idyllic spots here and there, and the marks of a hidden underground arts movement taking shape beneath the obvious, the smell of the sea in the air as you walk up to the older parts of the city to view the broken fairground rides, shackled up away from the tourists view, though you will glimpse something of it at the beginning and end of your journey because a large part of “Dreamland”, which in its heyday was the name of the fun-fair resort, has been turned into a car park.

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Grade II listed Scenic railway in Margate which was damaged by an arson attack in 2008

Walking into the gallery, after some minutes trying to work out where the doors were because it’s all so smooth, and dark, and very big, prodding the senses; a way of reflection upon the grandeur and splendour of achievement, the usual assessment of the artificially fabricated Art Space, can be made. Upon entering the initial setup: A Very Large Space, with a very large window overlooking the beauty of the sea, which wallows into the unknown, perhaps the human reminder of the temporality and triviality of everyday existence and our obsession with the mundane and repetitious, as we walk among the lots of people in the room, space enough for one to run or dance if you wished, showing off ceiling heights of intimidating proportions, with the current shows within dedicated to Mondrian, Spencer Finch and Edmund de Waal.

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Spencer Finch Exhibition at Turner Contemporary (above) and Belgrave Road Margate (below)

Perhaps I wasn’t in the mood. The whole gallery-going experience all seemed a little bit too contrived and superficial this time. The aim of this particular gallery was to reinvigorate the whole area by raising the profile of the town and restoring the area, as the Tate has done for St Ives. And in a sense this effect is happening. The gallery has shone a cultural spotlight on the area which may gradually lead to further development. Turner described the Thanet skies as “the loveliest in Europe”; it doesn’t take much to see that with its 90 minute train journey to London. It’s possible; Margate could go through the kind of renaissance as somewhere like Brighton.

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Edmund de Waal at Turner Contemporary

However on our visit this seemed a long way off. The contrast between the run down areas of the town and the chin stroking art connoisseurs didn’t feel good. What was it they were discussing standing in their couples, often one with a hand on the face looking at what seemed like a basic Mondrian, while the other prattled knowingly about some insincere art trivia. You can’t help but wonder if these people have ever made a brush stroke, and if they had, did they know that it wasn’t very difficult to paint in the Mondrian style. I know I’m missing the point. It’s not about that, it’s about innovation, stepping outside of the box, doing what nobody else has done before… The show is an interesting presentation of Mondrian’s development which resists the temptation to focus on his most famous works, instead demonstrating how he found his feet stylistically while always having a love for colour.

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Turner Contemporary design by David Chipperfield which has been criticised as being alienating and brutal though I found its grey finish did blend with its environment to a certain extent. It was more what it represents culturally which clashed with its surroundings (right).

Spencer Finch I thought could be interesting. Not so much for my companion on the day Rob who thought his more colourful pieces where visually scraping the barrel somewhat. With their accompanying art spiel about colour tinting altering throughout daylight hours being your usual blah-blah art speak. Finch’s works are partially inspired by a small number of Turner paintings which are displayed in a dimly lit corridor before you enter the main gallery space. I liked his use of light and the presentation of some of his very subtle and sculptural works satisfying.

On the day though there was something not quite right and I think it was the clinical white simplicity of the art amidst the clinical white modernism of the art establishment that grated too much with this rundown location- and in a wider sense with the current climate of political, social and environmental unrest we are witnessing elsewhere in the world at this time.

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