The Folkestone Triennial describes itself as ‘The UK’s largest urban outdoor exhibition of contemporary art’. The huge collection of public artworks and installations spill across the town; turning the whole of Folkestone into an art gallery. At the end of the festival, three of the works remain as permanent fixtures in the town and the process to get new works commissioned for the next triennial begins. This year brings a mix of old favourites and new discoveries.
I’ve always loved visiting Folkestone. In the (distant) past it was for teenage day trips to France and weekends in Boulogne. But now I especially love it during the triennial and 2021 is a festival year – delayed from 2020 by the pandemic. We usually go at the end of the season, English weather is unpredictable but if we’re lucky October brings cold bright days and dark cosy evenings. Exploring on foot (or bike) is the best way to see the show and here is a snapshot of our tour.
As you walk west along the leas, away from Folkestone and towards Sandgate, there’s a hidden Martello tower. Head up the path in the bushes and you come across an extraordinary gleaming ‘portal’ by Cristina Iglesias: a mirrored tunnel that lets you look into the hidden wilderness within the tower. So unexpected, so beautiful.
From here, we followed the footpath down to the coast and came across our first new artwork installed for the festival: row upon row of colourful beach huts designed as a sequential piece by Rana Begum. The artist worked in partnership with the local council to create what will become another permanent piece, brightening up the shoreline on the long pebbly beach.
As we wandered back towards the town and through the Coastal Park, we reached the amphitheatre, home to a performance sculpture around one of the themes of the festival: the circulation of blood. We were lucky enough to see this piece performed live late in the evening with the sound of the waves adding to the melodies sung by the artists.
Walking along the boardwalk towards the harbour arm, (past a massive Gilbert & George mural), is another favourite in the shape of a giant bell suspended high in the air. This work by Norwegian artist AK Dolven is one of the permanent pieces in the town. When it was first installed, visitors could ring the bell. However, after a while the pull for the bell was removed due to ‘misuse’ (!), and it is now only rung on special occasions, often alongside the town’s church bells. I can’t tell you why I find this work so moving, but each time I’ve visited since it was installed in 2011 I stand in front of it and find myself lost in thought.
I don’t think you can call yourself an arts festival without an Anthony Gormley cast iron figure. Hidden below the Harbour Arm is just such a figure. I remember being here before; coming by train and boarding a ferry to Boulogne. I see this lonely human shape looking out across the harbour, the sea washing around his feet.
And finally… my new favourite place to talk it all over: The Old Buoy, a Belgian bar serving Moules frite and delicious Belgian beer.
Words: Francis Atterbury
We’ve picked a handful of the artworks on display this year, but there’s plenty more to find out here. The triennial is on until Tuesday 2 November. But whatever the time of year, this creative town is well worth a visit with plenty of the permanent artworks to see. Discover more on the Creative Folkestone website.