Whitstable is better known for its whelks than its art, but its biennale is redressing the balance
On the mention of Whitstable, most people think of oysters. Or whelks. This curious little seaside town in Kent has imprinted itself on the national consciousness as the capital of British seafood. That plump maritime beastie, the Whitstable oyster, is widely acknowledged as the king of edible bivalves — apparently, they’ve been harvested here since Roman times. So the current attempt by art to storm the town’s reputation, to elbow out the molluscs and elbow in film, video and performance art, has little realistic chance of succeeding. Whitstable will always be an oyster town first, a film and video town second.
Yet watching the two attempting to coexist during the ambitious fortnight of the Whitstable Biennale is worth the schlep. I took the train from Victoria, turned left out of the station, past the masonic lodge, headed left at the Surf Shop, past the Crab and Winkle, and on to the Horsebridge Arts Centre, near the beach, where the biennale’s most substantial programme of film and video maintains a constant flicker. Regular readers will know already that I have a reluctant relationship with video art. On a crisp and sunny seaside day such as the one that favoured me in Whitstable, it seems wrong to the point of silliness to be sitting in the dark watching slow art movies refusing to end. But one of art’s chief tasks in our overly controlling and surface-trusting society is to fight the controls and question the surfaces, and sometimes that is a task best attempted in the dark, while everyone else is buying oysters.
Endurance is a startling film piece by the American Nina Katchadourian. It begins and ends with a close-up of the artist’s mouth, forcing a smile. In between these fixed grins, a fascinating, horrible and clever journey is presented. Somehow, Katchadourian has managed to have footage of Shackleton’s 1914 expedition to the South Pole projected onto one of her front teeth.
In perfect, gleaming dental miniature, you can watch dark little figures trudging across the ice and wobbly penguins clambering out of the water. Huskies rush out at you. Ships get stuck in the ice floes. And all the time that Shackleton is attempting to reach the South Pole, Katchadourian is trying to smile. Saliva fills her mouth like water in a bath. Her lips begin twitching and curling maniacally. One form of endurance is being measured against another. In the end, both seem equally pointless.
A second film worth staying in for is Bernd Behr’s deceptive record of housing going up in China. It’s deceptive because this isn’t any old housing: this is a posh new gated community that has deliberately adopted the “Bauhaus look”.
It was designed by Albert Speer’s son, Albert Speer Jr. Thus, paradox of paradoxes, the son of Hitler’s favourite architect is contri buting to the building of the new China by looking back at Germany in the 1930s. In an excellent twist, Behr’s film is backwards. Slowly you realise everything you are watching ends where it should start.
Whitstable has concentrated on performance art and film in its biennale because the town is not exactly overflowing with exhibition venues. Oyster huts, yes; Tate Moderns, no. So the biennale has had to trespass on all manner of unlikely locations. Finding them is part of the fun. Having plodded up to Clifton Road, I finally located No 28, where a cunning projection piece by Anna Lucas is playing in the garden shed. Looking through the shed window, you see a moving torchlight picking out some unlikely sights: buildings, faces, cities. It’s as if someone with a torch had entered a dark cave and found it filled with the ruins of a lost modern civilisation.
Back in the town centre, a disused pub, the Old Nelson, has been taken over by Adam Chodzko. When I went, the kayak Chodzko has designed to function as a floating coffin was not on display, because it was still in use, ferrying people between the Isle of Sheppey and nearby Deadman’s Island: on their backs, propelled by a ghostly rower. By the time you go to Whitstable, the funereal kayak should be back at the Old Nelson, although in August it will return to the estuary to transport visitors back and forth to Deadman’s Island, repeating the ancient corpse route favoured in Whitstable’s old days. At low tide, I’m told, the bones of dead criminals still poke up through the sands of the island.
Chodzko’s living room in Woodlawn Street makes another unusual biennale venue. At night, and only at night, it contains work by that marvellous but elusive cosmic conceptualist Katie Paterson. To see her work, you need to peep through Chodzko’s window, where an eerie light bulb will glow ecto-plasmically. This special bulb, developed by Paterson with the Osram company, throws moonlight rather than daylight. Its cool, silvery tone may cause some readers to howl.
Ever since Paterson bounced Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata off the moon and replayed the broken sound waves on a pianola when they returned to earth, I have maintained a fondness for her work. In another life, she’d have been a fairy. In Whitstable, she has programmed one of the streetlights to flicker in time to lightning storms happening around the world. Somewhere else in the town, on one night this week, she will let off a black firework at 2am. But she won’t tell us where. The only work of hers I was able to witness personally was a door chime she has installed at the newsagent on Harbour Street. As you open the door, you hear, if you listen carefully, a tiny whooshing noise. It’s the sound of a star dying.