Visual art, film and performance at the seaside: Whitstable Biennale 2014

By Mark Sheerin | 03 June 2014

Mark Sheerin dips his toes into the waters as the Whitstable Biennale responds to the rich texture of the Kent seaside town by serving up a recipe of film and performance art

a films still of a woman striking a pose
Louisa Martin, The Lighthouse Scenes 1 & 2
A spike of a tent sits on a shingle beach on the North Kent coast, the temporary HQ of Whitstable Biennale. This event is a perverse endeavor. Visitors must forego the lure of sun, sea and seafood, in favour of a grueling round of film, performance and sound art. The seaside town is a lovely setting, almost too lovely on a summer’s day.

But art has always been a passion. How else could artist Rachel Ruepke pack out a sea cadet hall in a back street in the mid afternoon? Her piece, as advertised, was about worry and involved three actors, two of whom formed tableaux vivants, while the third read from an archive of letters of complaint.

It soon emerged that there is an innocence about demanding compensation or a refund, a belief in justice, if not goodness. Ruepke had rolled all her texts together to make a litany of complaint without end. Her two centre-stage performers took up a range of positions which, by happy accident, were reflected by the guide to semaphore on a white board on the wall.

There was a mystery here which proved difficult to penetrate, perhaps it too was a code. A nearby performance, in a beach hut, proved a bit more accessible. This was the domain of artist John Walter, who asked no more of his visitors than that they consider joining him for a gin and tonic and, perhaps, a gypsy tart.

My arm was twisted on both counts and Walter explained that the tarts, made with blended sugar and evaporated milk, are a local specialty. But given that his outfit was made out of a colourful riot of packaging foam and pom poms, Walter himself would have stood out on the high street.

He tells me he is in character as Nano Neon, and with camp cartoonery, carves out a language just as strong as semaphore, but a lot more engaging.

Further along, the town has a remarkable quayside where craft stalls and food stands look out across an industrial dock. Whitstable may be alive with contemporary art, but locals are still shopping and unloading asphalt from ships. It was here one came across a film and a sculpture by Laura Wilson; this was as site specific as could be.

Wilson has filmed the boats, digger trucks and bulldozers which keep this harbour so busy, along with some of the men who work here, plus a flock of seabirds which fly around them.

The moving of aggregate rock is a Sisyphean task and patience is called for. Mountains of the stuff are relocated one clawful at a time. Wilson’s film was in a shipping container not far from a sculpture made from blacktop with the help of the local stevedores.

To the ongoing chagrin of sun lovers, two more films at this year’s Biennale clock in at around one hour in length. One of these, by Mark Aerial Waller, is a collage of found footage and still photographs, which draws you in with its strangeness, and soon raises a smile. How not to be won over by the bad acting and haircuts in a heavily quoted 1981 episode of television sci-fi drama Sapphire and Steel?

The retrospective charm of dated television was an interesting counterpoint to some aging footage of performances by Vito Acconci and VALIE EXPORT. Sound and picture were so deteriorated that the sudden appearance of Wet Canuck was a rude interruption. Whereas the YouTube star has boycotted the gallery system, the more serious pair appear to have been reified by it. Waller’s film is full of questionable performances.

On the surface of it, XDO XOL, the title of Jeremy Millar’s contribution is the most cryptic aspect of his work. In terms of content, we know where we are and who we are with: we are, apparently, in some Kent salt marshes with a vagrant who lives in a concrete bunker. A story of sorts unfolds as he discovers a pair of bleached bones, fashions a flute, and, with the help of a hacksaw blade, digs out some marrow.

Millar’s piece is well staged, staking out a makeshift auditorium from blankets, in a postal delivery office. The cinematography is stunning and the seagrass and cloudy skies are as central to the piece as the limited actions of the enigmatic character at the heart of his tale.  He in turn could have leapt of the page of a Dickens novel, a Magwitch type if ever there was one.

Meanwhile, in a church hall nearby, it was theatre of the mind. The Arka Group created a sound piece for three participants at a time, in which you were invited to take a chair, put on headphones, don a hood and clutch a piece of black rock. The result was a fairly quick transportation out of the seaside town and into the realms of eternity and infinity.

You could make a case for more black hoods to be used in contemporary art; they ensure a captive audience. And the darkness led credibility to a voiceover which cast the listener as a meteorite hurtling towards earth. It was a poetic piece of writing with cosmic touches, which put you into a triangular relation to the other listeners, who seemed also rendered immobile by this piece.

By ignoring the geographical context, Arka were bucking a trend at this year’s Biennale, which saw all the previously mentioned work making reference to the town in some way. Good art festivals thrive off rich locations and with its traditional shops and mix of social classes, Whitstable is a place to conjure with. And it was a local artist, Rosa Ainley who dug up one of the most interesting local angles.

With two headphones on a white plinth, hers was an unassuming piece of sound art. But the story she had to relate was compelling. By cutting up interviews with a chorus of local people Ainley related the rise and fall of a pharma research lab in nearby town Sandwich.

The Pfizer building was more like a Utopian city than a place of work and many of those who you find between your ears were ready to praise the corporate giant. It was a source of unlikely pride.

But the everyday Kent accents are at odds with the cutting edge and futuristic complex, by which money was pumped into the region, only to drain out just as quick when hard times hit. Ainley’s subject might equally have worked as a radio documentary, albeit one without the evocative power of her cut and paste audio play. She has spotted a great story.

As evening closed in, the crowds gathered in a boat shed to hear a music performance by Samuel Levack and Jennifer Lewandowski, otherwise known as Das Hund. And far be it from me to fail to mention the backing musicians, The Pilgrim Shells. Together they made a reverb-heavy New Wave sound, with experimental lyrics and electro stylings. And if the singing was flat, it was meant to be.

Like most of the artists in town, Das Hund eschewed the summertime vibe for something a little darker and a little more off kilter.

Whitstable may be beautiful and visitors to the beach may be expecting the art to be somewhat more picturesque. But whereas you might spend three minutes looking at a sunset, you can spend hours in town right now looking at visual art from the less commercial end of the spectrum. And in the long term, that’s just as good for everyone.

Click below to launch a gallery of images.

The Whitstable Biennale runs until Sunday June 15 - with a special performance on Saturday June 21. See for more details.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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