Thursday, 26 July 2012

Margate: 2008 to 2012

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After my first visit to Margate, a little over five years ago, I developed something of a low-level obsession with the place and, in 2008, often found myself on the train from Victoria to the seaside. I'm not entirely sure what it was about the place that captivated me so, but I loved the big-time, small-town contemporary art gallery in a huge, ex-Marks and Spencer shop on the High Street; the burgeoning network of perky artists trying to make something of the vast swathes of empty shops and spaces in the Old Town and on the High Street; and the glorious, mostly empty expanse of beautifully sandy beach only two hours from London.

At least they were mostly empty beaches back in 2008, but my, how things have changed! I went on a day trip yesterday for the first time in just over four years and the beach was absolutely heaving with people. The Old Town is virtually unrecognisable, filled up as it is with ludicrously overpriced Brighton-esque vintage tat and retro clothing shops. And of course, the addition of David Chipperfield's new building for Turner Contemporary (the very same gallery that used to operate out of the high street M&S) has given Margate's Harbour Arm an "iconic" landmark where previously there was only a glorious view of the sea.

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What with so many eyes turned towards Margate, undoubtedly due to the arrival of this new Turner Gallery, it's hardly surprising that the gentrification has begun in spluttering stages, but I must admit that I was surprised by how quickly things had changed. Margate used to feel like an undiscovered secret, like a weird and wonderful little world that those who knew about were able to have all to themselves (selfish, I know). Given the amount of media attention the place has received over the past year, it was only a matter of time before people began paying attention to Margate's peculiar charms.

Despite the cutesy shops and cupcake cafes of the Old Town, Margate's High Street - just a few feet away - is still blighted by swathes of empty shops. Stragely, the Turner's crumbs of gentrification have failed to reach quite that far. Which, of course, is where Mary Portas enters the equation.

I didn't realise, though I probably should have, that Margate was to be *sarcasm alert* one of the lucky recipients of Mary "Queen of Shops" Portas' benevolence with a Grant-Schapps approved government regen/kickstarter grant of £100,000. Unsurprisingly, Portas has been pissing a lot of people off in Margate as of late, swanning around town filming footage for her reality TV show documenting the "rehabilitation" of grant-recipient towns. During a town meeting last month, when objections were raised to TV cameras being in the room, Portas apparently suggested that if the cameras weren't allowed in, then she wouldn't be staying; and if she wouldn't be staying in Margate, neither would the government's money. Regardless of such behaviour, there is something rather revolting about Portas essentially using government money to bankroll a television programme about a tokenistic regeneration programme (£100k is chump change in this context) for personal and professional gain.

Elsewhere in Margate, speculators are beginning to move in given that property is incredibly cheap and relatively plentiful. You can buy a five-bed house in Cliftonville for less than the cost of a studio flat in Bethnal Green. Redevelopment is on the cards for the amazing, though utterly derelict, Cliftonville Lido which was ruined in the 1978 storm which also destroyed Margate Pier. The Lido was never rebuilt, though has been subject to numerous redevelopment plans in the past few years, the latest of which fell by the wayside after its developers went bust thanks to the Icelandic banking crisis. The latest proposals to incorporate the Lido, by Margate-based Lido Views and Kent and Sussex Property Development, look set to turn a beautiful stretch of Margate's beach into - what a surprise! - blocks of high-rise flats and a luxury hotel, something totally out of keeping with the area.

One rather splendid Margate institution which is all-but unknown to most tourists is the Walpole Bay tidal swimming pool, dating to around 1900. It's not pretty, and the lovely art-deco funicular that used to transport swimmers from the town above has been closed down, but it is enormous and brilliant fun. 

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For all its problems, Margate is still an extremely charming place. Now that outsiders are paying attention again, here's hoping the town can maintain its identity in the face of those who would transform utterly it for financial gain.

(I didn't have my camera with me yesterday, so these are old photos from previous visits - the harbour beach is rarely so empty now!)
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Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Bread and Circuses

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Some men are hurled headlong by over-great power and the envy to which it exposes them; they are wrecked by the long and illustrious roll of their honours: down come their statues, obedient to the rope; the axe hews in pieces their chariot wheels and the legs of the unoffending horses. And now the flames are hissing, and amid the roar of furnace and of bellows the head of the mighty Sejanus, the darling of the mob, is burning and crackling, and from that face, which was but lately second in the entire world, are being fashioned pipkins, pitchers, frying-pans and slop-pails! Up with the laurel-wreaths over your doors! Lead forth a grand chalked bull to the Capitol! Sejanus is being dragged along by a hook, as a show and joy to all! "What a lip the fellow had! What a face!"----"Believe me, I never liked the man!"----"But on what charge was he condemned? Who informed against him? What was the evidence, who the witnesses, who made good the case?"-----"Nothing of the sort; a great and wordy letter came from Capri."----"Good; I ask no more."

And what does the mob of Remus say? It follows fortune, as it always does, and rails against the condemned. That same rabble, if Nortia had smiled upon the Etruscan, if the aged Emperor had been struck down unawares, would in that very hour have conferred upon Sejanus the title of Augustus. Now that no one buys our votes, the public has long since cast off its cares; the people that once bestowed commands, consulships, legions and all else, now meddles no more and longs eagerly for just two things: Bread and Circuses!

Juvenal

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Plays, farces, spectacles, gladiators, strange beasts, medals, pictures, and other such opiates, these were for ancient peoples the bait toward slavery, the price of their liberty, the instruments of tyranny. By these practices and enticements the ancient dictators so successfully lulled their subjects under the yoke, that the stupefied peoples, fascinated by the pastimes and vain pleasures flashed before their eyes, learned subservience as naively, but not so creditably, as little children learn to read by looking at bright picture books. Roman tyrants invented a further refinement. They often provided the city wards with feasts to cajole the rabble, always more readily tempted by the pleasure of eating than by anything else. The most intelligent and understanding amongst them would not have quit his soup bowl to recover the liberty of the Republic of Plato. Tyrants would distribute largess, a bushel of wheat, a gallon of wine, and a sesterce: and then everybody would shamelessly cry, 'Long live the King!' The fools did not realize that they were merely recovering a portion of their own property, and that their ruler could not have given them what they were receiving without having first taken it from them.

Etienne de La Bo├ętie, 1548 

Friday, 20 July 2012

A Midsummer Night's Dream of Amsterdam

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I can still remember the first time I came to Europe on my own, with my then boyfriend, the summer after my first year at University. After a few weeks of travelling, the cities began to melt into each other: cathedrals, central squares, cobbled streets, magnificent art in bland museums. For a variety of reasons Amsterdam was the one European city I always avoided. Dutch art never did much for me; my personality means I don't enjoy the slow-down, spaced-out highs of weed, negating the obvious attractions; and if Amsterdam was the "Venice of the north", well, I preferred to reserve my affections for the real thing. Even after living in Europe for nearly ten years, yesterday was the first time I'd ever been to Amsterdam.

And so what of it? Well, Amsterdam is certainly a picturesque city, but it's not for me. Of course, it's probably unfair to make such a judgement after a single day's visit, and I can hardly fault Amsterdam's for being full of touristing Americans. I hear more foreign languages spoken in Hackney than I did yesterday in the centre of Amsterdam. Though the buildings are gorgeous (and I can definitely get behind a place where playgrounds are on boats!) and the canals are charming, it's all just so polite, so mannered, so neutered and nice. Venice it ain't.

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Last weekend we went to a dress rehearsal of Purcell's The Fairy Queen at Glyndebourne. This is in no way connected with yesterday's trip to Amsterdam, but no matter. I mention it only because, unlike Amsterdam, it was so wonderfully outrageous and over-the-top ridiculous that it definitely warrants a visit. Rather shamefully in this year of chest-thumpingly nationalistic celebrations, there are no performances of Purcell at the Proms, so if you want to get your fix, Glyndebourne is the place to go.

This is a revival of Jonathan Kent's 2009 production of Purcell's seventeenth-century curiosity. The odd mish-mash of Shakespearean dialogue with the most heavenly baroque music (played superbly by the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment) takes some getting used to, and, on more than one occasion, I wished I could skip over some of the theatrical scenes to more singing. The staging is stupendously crackers, in the best possible way -- a twenty-first century take on splendid baroque set pieces. At one point it's like the sumptuous, seventeenth-century portrait of a young Louis XIV as Apollo has come to life as an operatic set piece. Kent's production even makes up for an admittedly lacklustre end with a magical surprise for the audience after curtain call.

Glyndeboure are streaming the opera live on Sunday evening (22 July) on the Guardian's website, where it will then be available until 17 August. 

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Florence Trust Summer Exhibition 2012

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I am wedded and honeymooned; returned from honeymoon and back in London, a city which I am more and more convinced is one of the best there is for living in. It's sometimes difficult to get a handle on just how great London actually is when you're living in it, when you're too close to it. It's like trying to make out the scale of the Shard from standing right underneath it. All you can see of the city is what's right in front of you at that particular instant: tourists stopping to crane their necks at every unusual cornice; perfectly manicured, semi-suburban neighbourhoods in Highbury; the utter lack of an El Salvadorian restaurant.

A common refrain has started to develop among a lot of my friends, which is something along the lines of how much they want to move out of the city and set up a commune-type thing anywhere that isn't London. When I've just come back from Berlin or had a rubbish day or am just in a certain kind of mood, I think that this sounds like an inspired sort of idea. They get broadband in the country, right? I could have horses again and space and peace and quiet and lots of other nice things. But after honeymooning in Bali, which is a little like living in the countryside for two weeks, I honestly just don't think I could hack it. A man who ran one of the resorts we stayed in said he moved to Bali when he realised that he only liked the thought of having city amenities at his fingertips, not the reality, for the reality was that he never took advantage of London living. In spite of all of the things about living in London that really irk me, I'm just not ready to go anywhere. I'm happy to be here, for here is where things are happening my friend. Unless, that is, you are a connoisseur of self-help workshops and rice-based cuisine, and if that's the case I suggest you hurry yourself to Bali.

To make up for my two weeks in the desert that is a honeymoon, I went on a massive art binge Thursday last, stopping by a good eight galleries (before capping off the day with some comedy on a roof at Dalston Roof Gardens, courtesy of Spoonfed). Of the lot (Limoncello, Florence Trust, Victoria Miro, Parasol Unit, WW Gallery, Fold, 50 Redchurch St and Studio 1.1), the Florence Trust was by some distance the most interesting show. Not least because the space is amazing (St Saviour's church in Highbury), but also because it was by far the most diverse group of artists and so provided much in the way of mental and aesthetic stimulation.

During the course of the year, the church is sliced up into ten studio spaces for a year-long residency programme which is capped off with an open exhibition. I don't think I'd really heard of the Florence Trust before I knew Ben Woodeson (who is an FT resident this year, and recently strung up an electric fence in the hallway for my most recent show at Flat C - Pink Does Not Exist), whose work primarily triggered my visit to the show. It was interesting to see more ambitious versions of Ben's work previously exhibited elsewhere this year, namely Health & Safety Violation #41 -- some 4,000 matches and a random timer spelling out the phrase "keep in a dry place and away from children". At the discretion of the random timer, the work literally bursts into flames, leaving an almighty burn mark on the wall after the main event. There was also a much larger version of the marble-filled, exploding-balloon sculpture which hung from my bathroom ceiling in the Flat C show. Given that the version in my bathroom hung rather terrifyingly above one's head there was something a little bit neutered about seeing the balloons tacked to a board at eye level, but, with each of them in a various state of destruction and marbles scattered all over the floor of the church, it was still a satisfying piece of work.

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Wandering around trying to find Ben's work, at the west end of the church I walked head first into Corinne Felgate's absolutely massive sculpture, Bigger Than the Both of Us -- an overwhelming number of geometric patterns painted on board swathed in an unholy amount of glitter. Scratching my head, wondering what in the hell was this all about, I looked down to read the plan of works in my hand. When I saw that the subtitle of the work was "Piet Mondrian's complete oeuvre of geometric compositions replicated in glitter" I couldn't help but laugh aloud. I have to say that while the work itself does little for me, I do like a good chuckle. It doesn't happen often enough in art exhibitions.

Nicholas Johnson's acrylic paintings on paper were like looking at crystals under a microscope, but were unfortunately (or maybe not!) more captivating when reproduced in the catalogue than in real life; reading about her works in the catalogue, I felt I could fall in love with the works of Hanae Utamura, but I was disappointed by the confused installation -- an HD video loop of someone running up and down a garret tower in front of a floor strewn with plaster. The catalogue described an artist who attempted to cast the waves of the ocean by pouring wet plaster into the sea. I couldn't see the link between the artist who made such clever, elegiac works with the uninspired video in front of me.

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The work of JL Murtaugh was an unexpected treat. A self-described agent provocateur is an artist I nearly always expect to be dreadful, but perhaps it helped that I saw the work before I read the blurb. Though if I'm honest, I'm still not entirely sure what the works actually were. Entitled Psalm for the Solvent Estates (after Booth and Charlemagne), described as a colour-coded economic classification and reconfigured hymn applied to Aberdeen Park and Europe, there were apparently twenty-two parts to the classification/hymn of which five were painted onto various walls around the space. Like a partially-eaten pie chart painted at various points around the room, each was accompanied by a verse from the "reconfigured hymn", e.g. Some almighty power sevenfold rich in energy shal sanctify our song. Looking at the works, I felt like I'd stumbled upon an artist who is just treading the line between potential genius and utter chancer.

I'd tell you to go and see it, but it closed last Sunday.

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