Monday, April 16, 2012

May Be Smaller Than They Appear

I've been putting off writing for several months because it always feels a little odd to be writing about a visit to my hometown from the perspective of a traveler. However, it is time to get back into the swing of things and today the topic is art.

When traveling, I always try to make time to find and view art that moves me, whether that is a trip to the Louvre or simply wandering through an exhibition at a local library. And over the years, I have typically found that it is the lesser-known pieces which inspire me the most. In fact, some of the most "sought-after" tourist must-sees are often the least impressive. During a visit to the aforementioned Louvre, some twelve years ago, we made the obligatory pass by of the Mona Lisa. When I finally was able to fight through the crowd, my first though was, "It's so small." The canvas is much smaller than you anticipate and, to be brutally honest, it's not that incredible a painting. My favorite part of the Louvre were the sculpture rooms; many were completely deserted and offered a delightfully peaceful opportunity to enjoy the art on display.

My husband had a similar experience several years ago in Brussels, when he felt obliged to locate the Mannekin Pis, only to later call me and disappointedly note how small it was.

But back to art and my recent trip to Thanet. One of the primary local controversies over the past few years has been the use of exhorbitant amounts of taxpayer money to build the Turner Contemporary along the Margate seafront. Regardless of whether you approve or disapprove of its construction, let alone its architectural design, the Turner Contemporary is open and claims to be doing a booming trade educating the artistically starved Thanet residents.

Margate's Turner Contemporary

Before traveling home, my family decided that they should visit the museum to see what all the fuss was about. After all, it seemed wrong to criticize unless they had seen it for themselves. This led to a disgusted phone call from my mother, not to mention an equally disgusted letter from my young niece, both of whom shared the verdict that if this was modern art, it could go back to where the sun doesn't shine. My mother then insisted that I visit it, to see if I agreed with her assessment.

And so I found myself walking along the Margate seafront one cold January morning, my mother and another niece in tow. Fifteen minutes later, we were walking back the other way. Yes, that is how long it took us to explore the artistic treasures of the Turner Contemporary (including a restroom stop).

So what exactly did I find inside? I was fairly excited since the local media had been promoting a new exhibition, Walk by Hamish Fulton (on display until May 7, if you feel so inclined). I needn't have bothered. Upon entering the museum, my eye was drawn to what, in retrospect, was the only piece on display worth seeing - Rodin's The Kiss. The only problem with this was that I saw an incredibly beautiful bronze of the same piece in the Rodin Garden at Stanford just a few years ago. Still, this was in a rather nice setting, in front of a large circular window with views across the English Channel.

Kissing by the Sea
I attempted to explore this floor further only to find a locked door, the bathrooms, and a classroom where there appeared to be some sort of workshop going on. Upstairs, then.

Upon arriving upstairs, we encountered a wall with several arrows painted on it, informing us of the  distance and direction to London and Eastbourne. Further round the corner was the exhibition: a large wall painted with random facts about walking. On another wall was a television screen showing a video of people walking around and round in a square on Margate beach. Hmmmm..... In the middle of all this, sat a member of staff who did not acknowledge us but instead continued to read her book. We tried the doors to the other galleries but they were also locked and again, the incredibly unhelpful staff made no attempt to interact with us.

So that was our very brief (and oh so uninspiring) visit to the Turner Contemporary. I saw much more of artistic merit on the walk from the bus stop to the museum, than I did inside this multimillion pound structure's walls. (For the record, my mother was even more furious, proclaiming that it now contained fewer exhibits than it had on her previous visit).

To be fair, we later learned that the main gallery was locked in preparation for an upcoming exhibition of Turner seascapes. All the same, the most popular part of the museum was the tearoom. During my six week visit, I encountered many people who said they love to visit the tearoom but have no interest in the museum.

Fortunately, I did come across some much more interesting and inspiring art a week or so later, during a blustery walk along the Ramsgate seafront. Bordering a large area that is currently under construction, I came across a series of murals dedicated to the town, all painted by local artists, both amateur and professional. From paintings by schoolchildren to a piece charting the history of the town library, destroyed by arson a few years ago and now rebuilt, the artwork here was personal, full of life, and showed the interaction of art and local community. Sadly, I did not have my camera with me and I flew back to Kentucky the next day, but I hope it is still there on my next visit as it represented what I feel art should be.