Whitstable Biennale (The)
South East England

Whitstable Biennale

Black Fireworks


On our walk into Whitstable we pass the genteel suburban gardens housing: grottoes, fangless cats, wheelie bins, ‘Knock very loud’ and ‘Sod the dogs-beware of the kids’ signs. As we walk from the station I wonder, as I always do when in Whitstable, if late resident Peter Cushing walked this way before us and is any of his DNA is still clinging to the pavements. We pass Gina’s hairdressers whose sign looks as though it should feature in ‘That’s Life’, the white and grey dove that live together on the gables of ‘The Oyster Bed’ B&B and the freemasons lodge which we had wondered about approaching to show Alex’s films in.

I am here with my companion Alex Pearl who has been commissioned to make work for the Biennale. He is nervous and worries that the projector will not work or that his films will look slight.

We arrive at The Horsebridge Arts Centre and Sue Jones, the biennale curator, is her usual friendly self, wearing a stripy skirt, which she said she found on EBay. A hero of mine, Brian Dillon is here: an editor of the fantastic Cabinet magazine and author of the eloquent and emotional In the Dark Room: A Journey in Memory, a book which reflects aspects of: Bachelard, Benjamin, domestic interior and the poignancy of, for example, the familiar squeak of a door. I restrain myself from bounding up to him Labrador-like. He is very serious and requests that we cover the door. We agree to black out the room for Alex’s work and to put up the plastic lettering that says ‘Whitstable Biennale’ on the container that houses Phil Coy’s film, Facade. I try to say goodbye to Mr Dillon but he doesn’t look up, he is making his curatorial debut and is intensely focussed on the schedule. Alex and I joked that perhaps he only speaks Deleuzian. I order a new Brian Dillon book on Amazon, maybe if I love him psychically he will love me back.

We walk round and I steal Adam Chodzko’s masking tape. He looks tense as he too blacks out the inside of the old Nelson pub where his films will be shown. A kayak hangs in the other small sitting room, dangling above the highly patterned red and black 1980’s carpet. It reminds me of the phrase most notoriously used by Alan Clarke to describe the ‘troubles’ of North Ireland: ‘an elephant in the room’. Actually there was a huge oyster boat in a garden around the corner. When I was little we had to keep the church hearse trolley in our garage and this fascinating and terrifying artefact produced a similar response in me. I wanted to touch it and I was scared to.

Adam recently, I am told by my supervisor Mark Fairnington, advertised for people who thought they were God to contact him.

Sue’s assistants, Jack and Emma were wrestling with blackout material on the Horsebridge doors. Alex and I went looking for a staple gun. We found lovely Michael Harding oil paints (as used and loved by Hockers and Hodgkin) and soon to be used by me too when I get round to making paintings of Anne Frank’s wall for a show at Transition, but no staple gun.

Lucien Freud thinks a fight with a man and sex with a woman is the only way to get to know someone, Duchamp, chess. Alex and I plumb each other’s grouchy depths when we try to put the vinyl lettering on the container in high wind and horizontal rain. I get moody and demand an ibuprofen. Alex apologises to me in his blog The Pearl Fisher.

That night, before I go to sleep, Alex tells me the ghost of Peter Cushing is living in our bathroom. At 4am I awake in time to see the glass door swing slowly open. In the morning while I am in the bath Alex gets a message from a student calling him the ‘King of new technology’ I get out of the bath and slip, blackening my toe.

The wife of Pearl’s Tale

Today is the day. We wake up early and Alex discovers that Brian Dillon has emailed him and requested he take his last blog post down as it offends him. Alex starts to sweat and says he wants to go home. I look at the paper and see that someone I have met at Sarah Lucas’ house is dead. I only know Sarah through another friend. She seemed charming and generous. She believes in fairies and says she is too busy to bother doing a whole wee when she goes to the loo. Sebastian Horsley’s friends think he killed himself after seeing himself represented on stage as a louche degenerate.

We walk to the museum, a slice of cheese building that houses miniature Whitstable pearls and cockle huts. My first bit of official art viewing is Karen Mirza and Ruth Beale’s film and archive The Voyage of Nonsuch.

The film room is dark and a baby is blinking her eyes in there. I sit next to a man in military dress. I am reminded of a train journey I took to Rome where, as it approached evening, an elderly man got on at Perugia, politely pushed the seats together and got into bed beside me. The strange intimacy of being in a darkened room, smelling another viewer’s perfume whilst the projection plays out is always exciting for me. In Gustav Metzger’s film room at the Tate Triennial there were a group of schoolgirls in there and I noticed that no man felt able to enter this curiously intimate space. The words of the film were repeating and it sounded like an archive unfolding. I felt the weight of my PhD and left. I thought of my sister’s description of he National library of South Africa contained within the garden of the Dutch East India Company and surrounded by honking Egyptian geese. This Imperial ruin had continued as a repository of knowledge.

I asked the naval officer what he thought of the film and he said it lacked the thrill of the sea for him. He said he felt like he was in school in the film room, ‘But perhaps I am just stupid’. He had been a Royal Navy diver, the previous occupant of the huge copper diving suit that hangs in a case in the Whitstable museum. He told me that his job had involved pulling bodies from the sea after torpedo hits – often his friends.

I saw two women: one Karen and one Ruth and with my Miss Marple/Jamie Oliver persona bounded towards them announcing I wanted to write about their work for AN and could they tell me about their films? Ruth asked me if I had been to Hackney Wick, folded her arms and walked away. It reminded me of an anecdote told by Mary-Ann Caws. She had been told she must meet a woman whose research overlapped her own. ‘You’ll have so much in common’ said her friend, but when they met at Joseph Cornell’s private view, the women couldn’t shake hands, like two magnets they just couldn’t touch. Maybe that’s how Ruth felt, or maybe she was just bored with trying to explain her work. Karen talked briefly about working with other artists and how she enjoyed it. She had previously worked with Brad Butler. I said I had always wanted a twin to go to school with for strength and protection and did she feel it was a bit like that? She frowned and said ‘Erm maybe’. I thought I might have been irritating her too now, so I left. I ate some cake with Alex and shook hands with the charming Naval diver Jim.

I was reminded of a fascinating talk by Neil Cummings that I heard at Wysing. Neil described a film he had made but was forbidden to show. It focussed on the auction house Christie’s and the social nature of the art world. Even the million-dollar world of Warhol purchasing boiled down to how people felt about themselves.

We had missed Katie Paterson’s work which had aired at 7.30 am. Many of the locations for Katie’s work were unknown. Beautiful alchemical poems: ideas such as a black firework, a light that flickered in time to the world’s thunderstorms and the sound of a star dying as the Newsagent’s door opened. They also got around one of the problems faced by the Biennale, which is finding space to exhibit. Katie’s work is instead atomised around Whitstable and barely intrudes upon it, it could easily remain unnoticed and therein for me, at least, lies its appeal. Like a glow-worm it recedes as you approach it and it is the promise of seeing this rare and natural thing that is exciting. Like hearing a cuckoo and trying to see it-I know it exists but where? On our last night I lay in bed with food poisoning as Alex went to look at his Ghost films and I saw some fireworks through the hotel window. Are those Katie’s? Alex came back and he had failed to see Katie’s lunar light either. I was more intrigued and pleased than frustrated; they remained romantic stories in my imagination. I had already conjured their images.

My sister arrives with a bag of gin and some violet creams and we head off to the Royal British Legion to look at Alex Pearl’s bingo film Call. I have seen these two films before and found them transfixing. The caller thinks he is a debonair host, but he looks powerless as the women chat and ignore him. I was there in the Bingo audience as Alex filmed Call and it was a hugely enjoyable experience for me. I have five sisters and I enjoyed being between two others Bette and Linda, who scolded me for not shouting out or my full house, told me how to do the lucky strikes and helped themselves to my free scampi. I felt like the youngest sister again, totally safe and excited and cared for.

Alex was pleased to hear that the woman I spoke to at the Royal British legion liked his film and that the Legionaires sat in the room and watched it. This he felt was a mark of success.

Lucienne Cole’s 67 Made in Heaven in the bingo hall is about to start. Everyone is very excited and once inside they are taking photos on their iPhones. The bingo hall is stunningly beautiful and it was for this reason that Alex had wanted to film in there. Smiley face iced buns and cups of tea are handed out for free. I miss the queue and Lucienne very sweetly said she was sorry but that I had to sit down as the performance was about to begin. Behind the wall of the slot machines, a brass band plays Prokofiev’s Battle of the Knights. It is thrilling, occasionally a conductors hand can be seen and the top of a horn. The iPhone had stopped and I felt that stomach vibration that an organ makes induces in ones gut. After this a blond woman starts to tap-dance to The Smith’s ‘Heaven Knows I’m miserable now’ in the central aisle. Passionless and miserable, she does the forward circle moves of a 1930s show film and I think how awkward tap-dancing can look without a smile. She seems exhausted and blank and I am reminded of the conversation I had just had with my sister about anti-depressants. The music stops and she continues, her marching feet suddenly audible. She pulls the jumper down that was riding up her boobs, a punctum I suppose Barthes might say, and finishes with a wave and a salute.

Then it is all over. We get the abandoned buns and the tea as everyone files out. I talk to Janet from the canteen and she says she remembers me. She says she enjoyed it, she just wishes those people would come to Bingo too. I agree with her. The hall is overwhelmingly exciting and I had a lot of fun when I played Bingo there.

We met another interesting man at the HQ who was one of the trustees of the Biennale; he had lived on one of the fortresses at Shifting Sands for six weeks and like Xavier de Maistre’s Voyage Around my Room had spent five days in one room.

We met the people whose shed housed Anna Lucas’ Things that had stories rubbed out, investigating perception and vision. Their son had rung up to tell them: There are hundreds of North Londoners in the garden’.

After eating at the Whitstable Royal Fisheries Company I was sick, so sick and I only got to see the start of Alex’s film, as with a lemon juice letter it was just starting to become visible as the light faded. The catholic red velvet and the Madonna that came from Walsingham in Norfolk, the glitterball and the Martini glass. Alex had to wait a long time to see it as it was almost the longest day of the year, bad news for a vampire.

Hung-over and weak we left before I could meet up with Mimei Thompson and I took the ‘I love dogs’ badge I bought her, home with me. The service Oyster Cabs offer is akin to being abducted by a highwayman. ‘London bound’ he threatened and sped through the streets ‘Don’t worry it’ll have airbags’ I said to Alex in the front.

I am going back to meet Alex’s mum and dad for the first time this Wednesday. I am terrified but I am really looking forward to opening the door of the Harbour News and hearing a dying star.

My Whitstable Biennale highlights: Katie Paterson’s work, Lucienne Cole’s 67 Made in Heaven and Alex Pearl’s Call. The Airstream caravan and the lovely artists within it, Sue Jone’s WWII spirit and determination and appreciation of the artists and the lovely trustees and people of Whitstable that we met.