Brian Sewell calls it Slough-on-Sea, but I enjoyed a clash of old and new at Margate’s Turner Contemporary – and I don’t mean JMW Turner’s watercolours and Hamish Fulton’s walks
• Margate’s new Turner Contemporary gallery currently has a hit with a show of, you guessed it, Turner: which is good for the run-down town, but a bit of a bore if you’ve seen one squillion works by Turner already, superb though some of the evocations of weather in Turner and the Elements are (especially as they’re mainly watercolours, so much more immediate than his hefty oil works). Currently the Contemporary aspect of the gallery’s name is provided by Hamish Fulton: Walk, conceptual yomps commemorated by giant posters resembling homages to Edward Johnston’s London Underground typography and colour supplement ads for mineral water, adorned with poorly-letterspaced texts of de Botton-ish vapidity. A less ponderous meeting of new and old can be found on the ground floor, where two French stubs of previous exhibitions temporarily enhance each other: Rodin’s ever-fresh and ever-realistic “The Kiss” (1901-04) making a striking focal point to a massive picture window banded with translucent yellow stripes.
At first I thought the window stripes were an above-average Liam Gillick, or a follow-up to Sculpture Remixed, Wayne Hemmingway’s mirrored disco salon of sculpture at Tate Liverpool, in which a century of wildly divergent figuration pranced and preened equitably together in a fun but non-dumbed-down new context. Pleasingly, the window turned out to be by a far more substantial figure, 1960s French conceptualist Daniel Buren, who while famed for a rigorous adherence to stripes, has made architectural interventions using all kinds of beautiful plays on geometry and light, as this Lisson Gallery page shows. However for Turner Contemporary the wily stripemeister has indeed stuck to stripes, and stripes by the seaside can’t help but evoke deckchairs, which may seem a bit obvious; but as there is something wistfully seasidey about Buren’s work at the best of times, from the cheap fairground colours to the beach-hutty panelling to the decaying concrete public art, it was a clever commission.
Entitled “Borrowing and Multiplying the Landscape” (2011), the installation was a response to the site for the gallery’s inaugural show Revealed, and remains though that has ended, while Rodin’s famous couple are the lingering remnants of a display about youth culture, Nothing in the World But Youth. As might be expected of canoodling teens, they turn their backs on the view that inspired Turner – literally from this spot, as the gallery is built on the site of a boarding house he used to frequent. That bleak vista is now entrapped by Buren’s own spot: an untaped circular area of clear glass, like the blank pupil of a Big Brother eye logo, revealing sea and sky and container ships through sunny stripes that are mirrored into cloudy infinity on either side of the double-hight space. But attractive though the Buren is, especially on a dark winter’s day, it does obscure the seascape. While the mirrored walls enhance the space, it would be a shame if the stripes were permanent, as the window would be more spectacular unadorned, offering an unmediated frame for the scenery that so affected the gallery’s namesake (not that a specific sense of place is always apparent in his paintings).
Whatever your views on Turner, Buren, Rodin and co, a visit to David Chipperfield’s jagged white sheds – reviled as “Slough-on-Sea” by Brian Sewell and loved for its “genius loci” by Edwin Heathcote – is recommended. Just a step away is the rejuvenating old town with its quirky buildings and regulation arty-regen cupcake’n’retro outlets (see also Folkestone), and even on a stark Sunday when most were closed, there was enough on offer to pass a pleasant afternoon. For those in search of a grittier reality, the magnificently tawdry Margate of Tracey Emin stretches gappily along the heavy ochre sands, still home to many classic facades and attractions despite the shutters and burnt-out lots; lovers of decay should catch it before the historic Dreamland is restored as a vintage amusement park. In case any further reminder of the haves and have-nots were needed, Turner Contemporary currently has its own Occupy camp, a gaggle of plastic humpies wilting in the lee of the pristine concrete bulwarks like an offshoot of Mark Wallinger’s State Britain – nice to know that art can provide shelter when the Church of England can’t. But whether you visit with or without art intent (geddit), I have one vital piece of advice: go on a day when the weather’s too nice for Turner to have painted it.