It’s so easy to lose track of yourself. To find yourself morphing into a different type of person with whom you have little in common. Someone who doesn’t look – who doesn’t see the beautiful shapes in a ripped piece of wallpaper, or notice the startling effect of light and shadow cast on a busy pavement. You can very quickly become part of the melee who walk over them, heavy footsteps smashing the composition blindly. But that’s part of what I love about myself. Part of what makes me proud to be me. I notice these things. I find them more beautiful and interesting than most artworks in a gallery. The beauty of man-made nature. The stuff which is so natural to us it may as well be placed in the same category as trees and plants; concrete, tarmac, trains, windows, pavements and doors, shopfront reflections, burnt edges, peeling paint. They’re everywhere. The fact that others don’t notice them gives me a little rush, it makes me feel as if I’ve been treated to a personal glimpse of something. Like the children in the Narnia stories who see the portal to the other world, while others around them see nothing but a wall. My experience isn’t that dramatic of course but it has that same special feeling. It brings me joy. Sometimes I can stand at the edge of the tube platform and see so much beauty and art in form and shape that it makes my heart full. The other side of this coin is when I don’t see it. When my heart is sad and my eyes are down. When I look at the wall and see only degradation and the need for a paint job. I’ve been feeling like that recently and stopped seeing the beauty. But today I saw it again and it’s as stunning as ever.
One of my favourite things about this idiosyncratic little Isle we call the UK is the quintessential seaside town. There are few other things which encapsulate so specifically the unique facets of the British psyche into one small microcosmic burst of sublime kitsch consumerism, freezing waters lapping on dirty beaches and cheap, melting ice cream cones (with a flake, of course). It’s fabulous. Tasteful is sometimes lovely; a middle-class cup of Earl Grey on a Victorian garden terrace in Cambridge can be all well and good, but really it has comparatively little soul. Stick me on Margate beach surrounded by gobby kids with parents no less refined, half-blinded by the reflections from the arcade frontages which prove that all which glitters is definitely not gold, and I’m in my element. I can’t help but assume you are all suspecting that I am a typical product of my upbringing in this respect. That I relish these, to some, distasteful scenes with glee because of their centrality to the 1980’s childhood of a working class Southerner. Correct. But it is not only this geographical circumstance of birth which causes me to grin as soon as my internal satnav senses I am within 10 miles of a sugared doughnut shack; British seasides truly are on their own merit singularly enjoyable.
Growing up in Dartford in the 80’s and 90’s, Margate was our closest beach and still a fairly thriving hive of domestic tourism at that point. We would plead with our parents to take us there, as yet uninterested in foreign climes or the lure of saccharine Disney marketing. The swingboats at Margate beach were the highlight of our summer. How tantalisingly simple life was then! As we got older, Dreamland, that disintegrating grandfather of theme parks, became the focus of our pubescent attentions. The lure of its death-defyingly ancient roller-coaster structures stoking the fire of our naive, thrill-seeking bellies. The what we considered subtle experimentation with the mating ritual, (which in hindsight consisted entirely of stalking a group of usually slightly older boys, acting as if we hadn’t noticed them and reaching the end of a whole day having never actually spoken to them) was played out around the grounds of Dreamland like groundhog day. We could get angsty conversational mileage from that kind of near-encounter for days.
Then one fateful day Dreamland surrendered to the inevitable and impending padlock of the health and safety regulators. A thousand teenagers loitered, bereft, with only the arcades for entertainment. But soon these began to wither away too, the effect of the 1960s emergence of cheap package holidays abroad becoming visible on the face of the town. Less families, less fun, less income; more unemployment, more pound shops, more crime. Seaside towns have always been particularly vulnerable to the effects of economic shift; their seasonal nature meaning winter is often as bleak as summer is bright. But there came upon British seafronts in that era a tidal wave of degradation, half-empty swingboats standing then as monuments to a lost age of contentedness.
Margate soon became known to those who hadn’t spent childhood days there as a bit of a dive, its slightly more well-to-do neighbour Ramsgate wringing the mileage out of its nouveau-riche marina facade and characterless wine bars, attempting to emulate the seafront harbours of its continental competitors. Margate stuck to its guns; sun, sea, sand and some truly great fish ‘n’ chips. As with so many other nearby towns it is now only just starting to see some semblance of a recovery. Interestingly, this regeneration is seemingly part of a pattern; a swathe of curious ‘cultural quarters’ beginning to emerge from the wind-battered frontages of these former summer holiday havens. Folkestone, Margate, Dungeness; all have been sprinkled with a relatively recent dusting of artistic and culturally important spectacle. Without further research I can only speculate as to why this might be, but educated guesswork would lead me to suggest the gradual migration of the middle classes from London might have had at least a partial impact. Commuter towns now reach even as far as the southern coast, much as a result of the bordering areas outside London observing a continuing rise in living costs. It’s obvious then (to some councils at least!) that you would try to appeal to the interests and expectations of London commuters; to put in the worthwhile effort and investment which might encourage them to stay in your culture-rich but comparatively affordable and close to home surroundings.
Down at Margate, the most visible and high-profile evidence of this artistic injection is the new Turner Contemporary, all classic Chipperfield wide and light exhibition spaces and orgasmic interspatial elements. But it may not hold this title for long; I hear on the grapevine a most exciting rumour. It seems grandfather time may rewind his clock for Margate and resurrect my childhood pleasure park, Dreamland, like an old but cocksure phoenix ready to swagger back into the consciousness of the town.
Of course the obvious artistic link to Margate is through someone who may well not agree with my sickly-sweet love for it; Mad Tracey from Margate, aka 90’s artworld darling and one of my personal favourites, Tracey Emin, her often biographical works shocking staunch upholders of the British taboo with graphic representations of the gritty side of life in the town during its decline. Or maybe she would? Without her difficult upbringing amidst the area’s grim social scene and degenerate male contingent would she ever have achieved such fame and fortune? Tracey Emin’s wistful recollections of the area in her artworks have greatly influenced how much I enjoy her work. Aside from respecting the brutal honesty of her cathartic subject-matters and refusal to bow to the mummified art establishment, I feel an affinity with her attachment to the town in which I spent countless fun-filled days circa 1989.
It seems almost bizarre to me that I will soon be showing 3 of my own photographs in one of the new art galleries in this town for which I hold such affection. Aside from the encouraging fact that these modern and exciting spaces now exist there at all, it’s interesting that artists from the South-East are coming to Margate to exhibit instead of heading into London and seems to me indicative of a gradual shift in collective focus onto non London-based art. It’s high time we began to look locally at the wealth of unrecognised and underdeveloped artistic talent on our doorstep, not solely in my hometown of Dartford and around Kent but further out and beyond. London art has been done to death, let the artistic era of the provinces commence!
A selection of my photographs will be shown, along with the work of some of my fellow Dartford Arts Network members (Kasia Kat Parker & David Houston), as part of an exhibition primarily featuring the paintings of Tunde Odelade at the Pie Factory Gallery in Margate. The exhibition runs from 8th May – 21st May and is free to visit. For directions and further information see their website and if you’re in the area on 10th May do come in and say hi – I’ll be there milling around from 10am – 6pm.
When Cameron unveiled his Big Society idea in 2010 I thought it at best a vacuous PR stunt; an extension of the Putin-style photos of ‘friendly Dave in shorts cycling to work because he cares about the environment’. I’m only now beginning to grasp how much I underestimated the Machiavellian skills of the top tier and to see how this cleverly cynical ideology of free labour painted as community spirit is starting to permeate the consciousness of British society.
Spurred by a recent arts project part-funded by my local council, a movement has begun to grow in my declining home town. Dartford Arts Network, a dynamic creative forum for people wanting to get involved in local art projects, is now beginning to take off independently, a community reaction to the ‘cultural desert’ status of the town. Although the catalyst for the creation of this group, that piece of funding was the first nod to the arts I’ve seen bestowed by our council for a very long time, if ever. Let’s not forget that thanks to recent government policy hundreds of towns who were committed to the arts have found their essential funding budgets indiscriminately slashed; the arts predictably facing the chop first and considered dispensable, inconsequential, despite the fact that study upon study has shown engagement with the arts to be quantifiably beneficial to the wellbeing of both the individual and the community as a whole. An active attack from government in relation to arts and community has repeatedly stirred people across the country to take matters into their own hands; street parties, community events; art exhibitions. The ‘blitz spirit!’ the Daily Mail would cry, ‘we’re all in it together!’ But this sweetly served dose of fantasy leaves behind a decidedly unpalatable aftertaste.
There are tell-tale signs that the Big Society spoon-feeding is hitting the spot; in people’s comments stating that we don’t really need the council for this or that anymore as we can just do it ourselves, in the simpering and transparent mandate from above ‘Oh, but you do it so much better than we would’, in Poundland back to work schemes and Free Schools. Through a cleverly constructed confusion between community contribution and free labour, the proletariat are in danger of buying into the idea that it is up to us, not the state, to facilitate these aspects of our lives. As Unison said in 2010 “The government is simply washing its hands of providing decent public services and using volunteers as a cut-price alternative.”
It’s crucial that we as a community, as a country, insist on more. Not token gestures, but a sustained policy for the funding and promotion of the arts in the future remit of both the government and each local council. We cannot, and should not, do it all on our own. Communities must use these local arts initiatives to focus budget-makers on the impact it has on the high street and to evidence how they should be an influential part of town planning. Instead of endless private flats or more generic chain store retail, why not encourage independent designers and incorporate creative spaces? The arts are not a luxury for the rich or a pastime for the middle-class, but a rightful resource for all and integral to the very fabric of our daily life. Along with the rest of our valuable public services, fight for them before they disappear for good and whatever you do, don’t allow the bigwigs to pass the buck.
I’ve always liked Sarah Lucas. I both envy her clever creative wit and admire her ability to piss a lot of people off just through honest artistic communication. To offend meaningfully can be an inert skill in itself, often misused and derided by many but undoubtedly a significant catalyst in the creation of conversation, dialogue, debate and sometimes venomous expulsions. Tracey Emin, whose very name has become a dirty word among some cliques, is a contemporaneous example of this type of artwork; honest, too honest for most, but her works are the results of sad and poignant catharsis, sifting chaotically and urgently through the memories of a troubled childhood and beyond. Sarah Lucas, although addressing similarly taboo notions of sex and society, does so with far less heart-rending effect. Her works intend to provoke, flinging an upturned middle finger at critics and misogynists. Viewing them feels a bit like how I would imagine watching the Sex Pistols live would; a vicious, funny but unsettlingly serious piss-take.
Lucas’s recent retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery placed many older, familiar pieces alongside her current offerings. Well-worn but still fabulous classics such as Au Naturel quietly stole the thunder of recently completed wall prints, but in general the work continues with the subject matter and treatment she became famous for in the 80’s and 90’s during her time as a key member of the YBAs. Lucas treats her materials as punk musicians treated their lyrics; their presentation harsh and biting but ultimately forcing you, the recipient, to confront uncomfortable representations of a very everyday thing: sex, sexuality, the human body (or in the punks’ case, political and societal affairs).
It’s interesting what still makes us gasp today. In a tale as old as time (even beauty & the beast were at it in the end) it’s still sex which raises eyebrows and fuels the raging psychotic fury of Tea-Party loons, with half a second of nipple at the Superbowl inciting the blisteringly outraged complaints of half a million Americans. So despite our entirely natural urges and the booming global porn industry indicating that perhaps we should just give in to this one, it’s still, amazingly, a prime subject to ignite controversy. In some pieces Lucas uses skulls and teeth to represent the vagina, tapping into a commonly held belief that men are in fact afraid of it and highlighting the fact it is rarely positively portrayed. She’s certainly not the only person to call attention to this, feminists across the world have been saying it since the 60’s and actress Evan Rachel Wood recently made a similar complaint about public attitudes to the vagina following the editing out of a scene from her new film in which her character received oral sex “Accept that women are sexual beings, accept that some men like pleasuring women,” she said. “Accept that women don’t just have to be f**ked and say thank you. We are allowed and entitled to enjoy ourselves”. Facebook reactions to my sharing the artwork of avant-garde artist Casey Jenkins proved to be similar, consisting of a surprising (to me at least) mix of disgust, shock, anger and hilarity at the use of the vagina in art. Lucas challenges and mocks our repressed and discriminative stereotypes of sexuality through often brutal parody. Teeth as vaginas; scared of it now? A huge wall of penises; shocked yet? She cleverly references the insulting colloquialisms of popular culture with objects such as fried eggs and kebabs, transforming the slang from verbal to visual. Through forcing us to confront images which may embarrass us or which address negative stereotypes through distasteful representation, such as the sloppy fish for a vagina, she desensitises us to the very ordinary reality of our own bodies. Her less explicit works continue to explore sexuality, with humour abounding in pieces such as the headless self-portrait, which I at first took to be a balaclava, the exposed nipples staring brazenly at the viewer like the squinty eyes of a post-party raver.
My trip around the exhibition concluded with overhearing a fellow visitor whisper ‘is she a lesbian?’. I was (perhaps naively) surprised to hear this as her sexual preference had not even come close to crossing my mind, although the fact it came up at all serves only to hammer the point she is making about sexual stereoptying and association. Because although her work deals with this topic, it is not, unlike Emin’s work, primarily concerned with the emotional aspect surrounding sex, or even about relationships in any way. It is almost primeval in its exploration of our sexual selves and speaks to me virtually exclusively about social stigma and attitude. The day a carefully situated kebab fails to cause offence is the day our society will have finally learnt a valuable lesson. But what would Lucas teach us then?