Michael Rakowitz, April is the cruellest month, 2021. Installation view of “Waterfronts” commission with Turner Contemporary. Photo: © Thierry Bal

“Waterfronts”: Sculpture Along England’s Edge

A gigantic worm burrowing through a museum, bouncy sea barriers, a statue of an Iraq War veteran, and a walking map silhouetting a woman’s profile: these are some of the temporary sculptures currently installed along England’s southeastern coast as part of “Waterfronts,” a project exploring ideas of borders and nationhood. Embracing playfulness while raising serious questions about belonging and exclusion, “Waterfronts” features new works by seven international artists selected by the New York-based, independent curator Tamsin Dillon. Launched by England’s Creative Coast, which consists of several regional art organizations, and led by Turner Contemporary and Visit Kent, the exhibition offers a thought-provoking art tour along 875 miles of coastline, where vessels land every day bearing migrants. At a time when Britain has left the European Union and the coronavirus pandemic has complicated border crossings and emphasized the vulnerability of our bodily defenses, the project feels especially timely. 

Katrina Palmer, HELLO, 2021. Installation view of “Waterfronts” co-commission with Metal in partnership with Estuary 2021. Photo: Thierry Bal

At Southend-on-Sea, the northernmost point of the project, British artist Katrina Palmer has created two works investigating language, identity, and edges. The first is a sculpture based on a sound mirror—a concrete structure built between the World Wars to detect the sound of incoming enemy aircraft. Palmer stenciled HELLO in black letters on the convex bowl of the “mirror,” inverting the structure’s defensive purpose with a message of welcome facing out to sea. Yet, as Palmer has noted, Southend’s geography thwarts this outward reach; situated on the Thames estuary, the town, in fact, faces the English coast, so her greeting has an ironic insularity.

Palmer’s second, web-based work, RETREAT, is accessed via a QR code on the locked door of a Victorian gunpowder store, a reminder of longstanding military activities in the area. Contrasting with HELLO, RETREAT, in bold red, seems to urge withdrawal. Visitors can experience RETREAT via the site helloretreat.org, which features a short story of the artist’s ventures (and retreats) along the coast, a looped video of pedestrians forever setting off down Southend’s pier, and a collaged audio recording of sounds from her walks. The story ruminates on the inadequacy of language to capture actions, interweaving fragments of Southend’s military history with Palmer’s impressions of surrounding nature and the faded seaside town. Created at what Palmer calls “the precarious edge of England,” both works are subtly imbued with uncertainty.

Jasleen Kaur, The first thing I did was to kiss the ground, 2021. Installation view of “Waterfronts” co-commission with Cement Fields in partnership with Estuary 2021. Photo: Thierry Bal

Proceeding southward, the next stop is Gravesend, at the mouth of the Thames River. Visitors are struck by an eye-catching sculpture at the water’s edge that depicts a Sikh head with a top knot emerging from marbleized waves on a lime-green base. Created by British artist Jasleen Kaur, a third-generation Punjabi immigrant, The first thing I did was to kiss the ground celebrates the town’s large Sikh community; it was inspired by the flamboyant “Palki” floats in Sikh processions. Thinking about the different ways that Sikh migrants have retained their heritage, Kaur draws a connection to the decor of the local Gurdwara temple through the fake marble waves, while the top knot suggests resistance to assimilation. An accompanying sound piece incorporating the singing and stories of the Saheli Women’s Group played for several weeks on Gravesend pier, which has a ferry service to Tilbury Docks, the historic landing point for numerous ships bearing migrants.

Above the wide, curving beach at Margate stands American-Iraqi artist Michael Rakowitz’s powerful April is the cruellest month, titled after the opening line of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922). Eliot wrote part of the poem from a nearby shelter while convalescing from a nervous breakdown, and the horror of mankind’s inhumanity similarly permeates Rakowitz’s sculpture. The statue—based on Daniel Taylor, a veteran who served in Basra in 2003— wears lacerated fatigues and points an accusatory arm toward London, where the British Parliament voted for the Iraq invasion. Personal items, including medals and coins donated by Taylor, local residents, and Veterans for Peace U.K., are embedded like fossils in the surface of the figure. At the base, a quotation from the English soldier/poet Siegfried Sassoon (Rakowitz’s ancestor), denounces the First World War as “a war of aggression and conquest.” A nearby statue of a sailor searching the horizon, erected in memory of a failed surfboat rescue, contributes additional layers of meaning to Rakowitz’s work; his figure might equally serve as an indictment of the British government’s tough anti-immigration stance and failure to prevent recent migrant drownings.

Michael Rakowitz, April is the cruellest month (detail), 2021. Installation view of “Waterfronts” commission with Turner Contemporary. Photo: © Thierry Bal

Janus Fortress, a massive white plaster head by Chilean artist Pilar Quinteros, sits on a clifftop overlooking the town of Folkestone, the English terminus for the Channel Tunnel. With one face looking toward France and the other turned back inland, the work references the double-faced Roman god of doors and transitions, Folkestone’s history as a Roman settlement, and its position as a gateway to Europe. Janus, who represents beginnings and endings, movement and change, seems an apt monument for this border town, as a deeply divided Britain seeks to forge its path as a single entity. Quinteros intended her sculpture as an embodiment of instability and transition, to be eroded by weather and touch, which would eventually reveal a second sculpture within. (This natural decomposition was disrupted when the work was vandalized in early September and the inner sculpture, a black skull and crown, was stolen. It has since been rescued. The restored sculpture will serve as the centerpiece of “The Day of the Crowned Death,” the closing procession for the Folkestone Triennial, taking place on the Mexican Day of the Dead, November 2, 2021.) Like Kaur’s top knot sculpture in Gravesend and Rakowitz’s soldier, the form of this work may be less interesting than the concept behind it, but that does not detract from its effectiveness as a public artwork.

In Hastings, the famed site where French invaders conquered the English in 1066, Greek artist Andreas Angelidakis explores ideas of defensive barriers with Seawall, composed of eight structures resembling the concrete blocks used to resist the encroachment of the sea. Installed in a public square, the bulky forms prompt a double take. Their hefty, solid appearance is a deception; made of composite foam and vinyl digitally printed to resemble concrete, they can be pulled over and clambered on like giant children’s play blocks. There is a delightful absurdity to this recontextualizing of the sea barrier. Angelidakis, who describes himself as “an architect who doesn’t build,” employs surprise and humor to invite serious reflection on our impact on the environment and, by extension, the use of barriers to keep people and the elements out.

Pilar Quinteros, Janus Fortress Folkestone, 2021. Installation view of “Waterfronts” co-commission with Creative Folkestone. Photo: © Thierry Bal

Further along the coast at Bexhill-on-Sea, British sculptor Holly Hendry has constructed a spectacular reddish worm on the lawn in front of the De La Warr Pavilion, which eats its way up through the balcony to emerge on the roof of the Modernist building, home to a public gallery. Invertebrate, which resembles a huge industrial pipe crossed with a climbing frame crossed with Eric Carle’s beloved hungry caterpillar, is made up of canvas-covered sandbags joined with segments of metal ducting, brick, and bars that snake, twist, and arch. The sight of the creature’s parts coiling up through the building raises questions of porousness and the susceptibility—of structures, materials, and bodies—to invasion. Hendry is concerned with the anatomy of things, turning them inside out, exploring beneath their surfaces, and thinking about connecting systems. Situated on the seafront, Invertebrate undermines assumptions about defenses and borders; it asks us to think about whether permeability of borders might even, on occasion, be a good thing.

Finally in Eastbourne, Mexican artist Mariana Castillo Deball has created a walking tour and colossal chalk painting near the dramatic chalk cliffs. Walking through the town I followed a pattern on the pavement that became the magnified silhouette of a woman’s profile was inspired by archaeological excavations of a Roman-era female skeleton and the body of a Frankish woman, unearthed with funerary objects dating to the Iron and Bronze Ages. Castillo Deball amalgamated the two women into a head-shaped path through Eastbourne, marked with blue segments of rope and objects referencing grave goods. Without looking at a map, it is difficult to get a sense of the image while following a foot route through the traffic and bustle of the town. Castillo Deball’s giant white geoglyph depicting a hairpin found with the Frankish woman is more striking. The walk from the clifftop to the hillside site gives stunning aerial views of the work in the landscape and of the coastal geology.

Holly Hendry, Invertebrate, 2021. Installation view of “Waterfronts” commission with the De La Warr Pavilion. Photo: © Thierry Bal

Perhaps what is most is remarkable about “Waterfronts” is how the artists have drawn on the specific cultural, political, and environmental histories of these coastal towns to create works endowed with universal meaning. Rakowitz’s soldier is an instantly readable image, yet he brings together references from across geographies and time periods, from literature and poetry, to send a strong anti-war message that doesn’t differentiate between the rightness of one conflict and the wrongness of another. Castillo Deball animates history with her interactive works in and around Eastbourne, inviting the public on an intriguing journey that merges fact and fiction. Public sculpture can often be disastrously bland in trying to appeal to the broadest possible audience; the artists in “Waterfronts” avoid this through intelligent, multilayered works that ask urgent questions about who we are and where we belong.

“Waterfronts” runs until November 14, 2021. More information is available at englandscreativecoast.com.