Monday, 12 August 2013

Curious Margate

I happened to have a day to myself this week when some plans fell through so I decided to make the most of it and went to Margate to have a mosey around the art galleries.
Margate is a strange town.  Its hey day was in the Victorian era and remnants from this bygone age are everywhere.  Only Fools and Horses fans will probably remember Margate being featured in the boys jolly to this seaside town and it also boasts the UK's oldest wooden roller coaster in the Dreamland amusement park; a site that has been closed for a number of years although the old sign still hangs over the entrance.

Margate is also the hometown of Tracey Emin, the British artist famous for her controversial installation of 'My Bed' at the Tate Gallery.  In recent years Margate has undergone a major regeneration project, at the heart of which is the Turner Contemporary Art Gallery, opened by Emin in 2011 and the gallery will welcome its one millionth visitor this summer.   Exhibitions at the gallery rotate on a regular basis and it is currently hosting the "Curiosity: Art and the Pleasures of Knowledge" exhibition.  This sounded suitably bizarre and eccentric enough to attract my attention. 
The entrance to the gallery greets you with the symbol of all it stands for.  The turning pages of a neon book hang above the reception desk as a representation of the galleries status as a Visual Arts Museum.
The foyer exhibition is not always connected to the rest of the gallery and often my favourite pieces are here.  This visit was no exception.  In the foyer you are greeted by large bronze statues by Juan Munoz. 
Munoz created the sculptures, entitled Conversation Piece III from the informal painted portraits of families and other groups engaged in conversation, often outdoors, that were popular in the 18C.  Munoz said of them "You're watching what's taking place, but you cannot answer back".  The pieces are near life size, supported by large bulbous bases and it is quite eerie moving between them as they do appear to be locked in an intimate moment in time that you cannot partake in.
When you are ready you made your way upstairs to the Curiosity exhibition
Here you are greeted by the first of the curiosities - the Sheepdog.  The body of a stuffed dog with the head of a sheep sown on, reminiscent of the popular taxidermy of the Victorian era where showmen tried to pass off man made creations as real examples of mythological creatures.
Also here are further examples of 'Curiosities' including a table of books to allow visitors to explore the strange and macabre at their leisure.  I lost a good half hour flicking through the books; their subject matter is fascinating.
The rest of the gallery did not allow photography (although I saw some tourists sneaking photos when the stewards weren't looking) but amongst the exhibits you could see a giant, overstuffed walrus, a woman making Flemish traditional headdresses from anything she could find in the toilet of an aeroplane mid-flight, walls of African masks, a stuffed King Edward penguin from 1909 that has never been displayed before, video footage of a photographer entranced by the smallest details of his studio whilst under hypnosis, a sculpture made from brass hearing horns that sings when you are close to it and intricate pen and ink work by Da Vinci.

Upon leaving you are greeted by the view from the balcony over the sea.  This day was looking particularly grey and dismal and the sea decidedly choppy and yet there were still people sunbathing on the sandy beach in their bikinis while I was huddled in jeans and a long sleeved shirt.  Crazy people!
You can also contribute to the gallery by adding your thoughts to the wall of curiosity.  A lot of people use the opportunity to question religion and the existence of God, others to ask why the ironing pile never gets any smaller.
 There are items of curiosity everywhere, you can even purchase them in the gift shop.
The exhibit is on until the 15th September and I highly recommend a visit.  It is free although there is a donation box (recommended donation of £3 per person) that you can donate to if you enjoyed your stay.  There is also an interactive family room which is fantastic for kids.

After exhausting the possibilities of the Turner I ventured back outside in search of more visual stimulation.  You see, the Turner isn't the only place in Margate where you can view art.  The Old Town is well know for its creative district and features a number of independent shops and cafes, each with their own distinct personality.
Meander down the narrow streets and you will find vintage shops next to antique dealers and specialist tea houses squashed between independent fashion stores.  All stores feature creative window displays, often bearing absolutely no relation to whatever the store specialises in.
There are a number of student art galleries as well that you can just walk into at certain times of the year.  The students can be found gathered by the entrance, chatting with their lecturer and explaining any of the pieces to interested people.  Most of the pieces featured are for sale and are the final year art projects completed by students at the various local HE and FE Institutions so you will be most likely to find them in July and August.  The below pieces are all by students from the University of Kent.
The gallery is inside an old industrial building known as The Pie Factory that used to be a butchers and, surprise surprise,  pie shop.  Inside you feel a million miles away from the bustling street and the industrial interior has its own stark beauty.

The theme of Curious Margate runs throughout the Old Town, inviting you to discover hidden details.
The old fixtures and fittings are to be found throughout the building; exposed brick work and wrought iron are in abundance.
Moving on through the Old Town you come across pretty squares filled with cake cafes and Italian deli's.  When the weather is warmer the tables are always packed and queues spill out of the shops into the street.  I spied the Lord Mayor tucking into a cupcake and a gossip in the Cupcake Cafe.
You know that this is a creative town.  Even out on the streets the art permeates the area.  All through the Old Town are wall murals of animals and people (including a life size Tracey Emin).  They are hidden behind displays, secreted by grates in walls and large and proud on street corners.  The mysterious artist is only known as 'Stewy' who openly admits to being inspired and influenced by Banksy.
 Rough Trade is an Aladdin's Cave of curiosities.
Inside you will find vintage clothing, artisan jewellery, coffee and cake, furniture and antiques and even a hairdresser.  It disappears down a slope and into a cavern filled from floor to ceiling with treasures for sale.
Margate feels like a town caught between the Victorian and the modern, celebrating its history whilst moving forward with the times, a haven for artisans and creatives who flock to the town and the unique atmosphere.  Move away from the sandy beachfront, the sunbathing tourists in their deckchairs, the ice-cream vans, seafood vans and the promenade arcades and you discover a truly unique place.

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