Metaphysical Margate: Werner Zellien records the ghostly beauty of an English seaside town

By Tanya Paulo | 31 May 2011
a photo of a lonley red roofed shelter on a deserted seafront
California Dreaming© Werner Zellien
Exhibition: Werner Zellien, Metaphysical Margate, Limbo, Substation Project Space, Bilton Square, Margate until June 19 2011

Werner Zellien likes to focus his lens on haunted places that harbour potential for momentous change.

His most famous project explored the abandoned mansion outside Berlin where the Nazis produced their ‘Final Solution. The mainly black and white photographs of the Villa Wannsee offered a silently enigmatic and chilling counterpoint to the systematic and cataclysmic genocide of the Jews.

For Margate he has produced a series of images he calls ‘Metaphysical Margate’, which is a second collaboration with the political philosopher Iain MacKenzie from the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent.

Happily the connection is not as sinister for this series of photographs, which originated as a commercial commission by architects Snohetta and Spence.

a photo of a deserted lido on a seafront
The Lido© Werner Zellien
The architectural project had to be abandoned because of spiralling costs, but Zellien remained in Margate over the winter of 2005/06.

All the desolation of a seaside resort in winter has been captured, but also something of the luminous glow from the skies, which Turner put on canvass when painting sea views at Margate.

Many of the photographs were taken at dusk and dawn, but the colours are unexpectedly rich. A seaweed encrusted pipe projecting into the sea dissects golden sands rippled by waves with an emerald stripe; an empty cafe window reflects a grey and blue slab of of sky.

These photographs show many traditional painterly touches; from the use of a small amount of red in the beach hut roof in the ironically titled ‘California Dreaming’, or the roads and paths that disappear towards an artistic vanishing point on the horizon. 

a photo of the large glass frontage of a seafront cafe
Space Station
© Werner Zellien
His buildings set against empty roads and skies look rather like the lost kid in the playground that nobody wants to play with.

A chalked message on a tarmac path “I need my own flat and money, please gov,” is the only sign of human presence in these desolate versions of Margate.

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