Creative Folkestone Triennial brings the place and people together through outdoor art

The event has returned to the south-east of England a year later than anticipated

A year later than anticipated, the Creative Folkestone Triennial has returned to the south-east of England. Although studded with outdoor art from four previous instalments, the hilly, messy and charming seaside town of Folkestone seems able to conjure up endless intriguing venues for more.

Making and experiencing art outdoors is very different from making it for a gallery setting, says Triennial curator Lewis Biggs. “Many artists find it extremely challenging and difficult,” he says. “Others delight in the opportunity of working outside the ‘art’ context. The kinds of artists who are willing to exhibit outdoors, however, tend to have wider concerns than making a difference to the art market.”

This year's event offers 23 new commissions and runs until November 2. Some of the best pieces are those that connect and interact the most with their surroundings or the people, in a meaningful, multilayered and long-lasting way.

The best example of this is Nur, an installation at the Folkestone mosque. Composed of a 10-metre-tall lantern featuring colourful patterned panels and a series of audio, written and visual elements exploring the history of the site and ideas for how the building should be expanded, it is at once public art, a community project and a proposal for urban regeneration.

The patterns and designs on the lantern’s panels were created by children who visit the mosque after field trips to the beach. They look particularly beautiful when illuminated at night, transforming the lantern into an imposing, but playful beacon.

The local Muslim community in Folkestone isn’t large (at the last census it was 0.6 per cent of the population), but the mosque, despite its humble dimensions and appearance, serves a wider community. Shahed Saleem, an architect and creator of the installation, alongside Malaysian artist HoyCheong Wong and Folkestone artist Simon Davenport, says: “The daily congregation is relatively small, but it draws in from a wider area in the south-east for the bigger prayers.” People travelling from the north of England or Scotland also stop off for breaks and to pray on their way to and from the European mainland, he says.

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I like the idea of creating a visual language for Islamic architecture that originates in the community it’s coming from
Shahed Saleem, architect

As part of Nur, briefings and workshops were held with worshipers from the mosque to come up with an architectural vision for the centre, which will be redeveloped in two phases to accommodate its changing needs. The future revamped mosque, designed by Saleem, will feature larger prayer and gathering spaces, new wudhu facilities and more communal areas such as a kitchen and community hall. It will also feature a lattice screen facade inspired by the designs on the lantern.

“I like the idea of creating a visual language for Islamic architecture that originates in the community it’s coming from,” explains Saleem. “The patterns are set within a hexagonal tile, which is quite a characteristic pattern in Islamic architecture, so the facade references historic sources, but is then combined with the lived experience of the Muslim community here.”

That it’s an art project driving these material changes is exciting. It's also a model Saleem believes could be used on other mosques in the UK, many of which are located in existing or cramped buildings that don’t fully meet the community’s requirements in terms of size and facilities.

Another multilayered piece at the Triennial – though not in the same people-centred way – is the trio of works by Japanese artist Mariko Hori who lives in the Netherlands.

You come across her first boulder, which is shaped like its neighbouring topiary bushes, in the genteel Kingsnorth Gardens, close to the station. The caption explains that it’s made from a fake stone called Pulhamite, invented by landscape gardener James Pulham, that is filled with waste rubble to create its mass, but that deteriorates over time. You then come across a bench made from the material when walking up to the clifftop to see other works. The real "aha" moment comes when you make your way to the seafront promenade and take what is known as the Zig Zag path to the beach below.

Designed by Pulham and built in the 1920s, this famous winding path is made from the same material as the bench and the boulder, and it consists of atmospheric and highly realistic fake rock walls, caves and grottoes.

Hori’s third and final piece is a bigger boulder laid out on the beach below, among other large rocks. Her pieces have been filled with objects and toys collected from Folkestone residents (instead of rubble), and the material will be worn down in time to slowly reveal what’s inside.

There is something poignant and intriguing about this material that catapults you from the seaside town’s present to its fashionable past as a resort and back again. The artifice of its naturalness also speaks to our complicated and destructive relationship with nature.

In a similar vein, the melancholy leafless tree sculpture and fountain by Wolfgang Winter and Berthold Horbelt, stranded in an anonymous gyratory that cuts the town off at a strategic point, marks the passage of an old water course and replaces a tree that died in the run-up to the Triennial. It’s a neat exploration of urban trauma and an invitation to think of what could, or should, be on the site in question.

It is one of the Triennial’s quietest works that is its most haunting.

Surface Flows, by Tina Gverovic, features painted items of blue clothing strewn across the concrete ramp cars and lorries once used to board the ferry to France. It looks as if they are floating in water. It is a minimalist but highly effective ode to the town’s past as a busy ferry port, to the many arrivals and departures that took place here, to loss and transience. These blue palimpsests recall lives lost at sea, most recently those of migrants trying to make the crossing to the UK.

Despite some pieces that don’t hit the mark, or aren’t as substantial, the Creative Folkestone Triennial is absolutely worth exploring. Seeking the works out using the printed map provided or the what3words app is fun. As you wander around, the town reveals itself slowly, layer by charming and chaotic layer, and you end the day feeling that you have seen so much more of it than you would normally have on a day trip – and from several perspectives.

It’s the sort of full-on physical immersion into the fabric of a place that you don’t get much any more, now that everything is so screen-based and digital. And that, too, makes it worthwhile.

The Creative Folkestone Triennial runs until Tuesday, November 2. More information is available at creativefolkestone.org.uk

Updated: September 16th 2021, 10:59 AM