Tuesday, 18 October 2011

The Turner Contemporary, Margate, Kent

The idea of a new modern art gallery in an east coast less-than-fashionable British seaside town was viewed with caution, disbelief, suspicion, if not considered by many as a downright waste of time. Would anyone go there? Could it bring people into the town in the winter season? Would it be appreciated by those who live out in the sticks?

Well, one hopes that these doubts have been dispelled: the building and facilities have been completed in the best possible taste. I like the clean lines of the structure and the mass of it is in scale with its surroundings. The inspiration, it seems to me, was to be that of the bulk of an ocean liner and it certainly sits comfortably in its landscape: the outline is simple and pleasing and does not jar with either the Georgian buildings on the esplanade nor the coastline.

The expectations of those who had the vision have surely been vindicated. Residents should have pride in a forward looking and classy development and well as having a cultural icon at its centre.

I admit that I went to see the building: it was the structure and its setting that drew me to visit. I also admit that I did not expect much of the exhibition, Nothing in the World But Youth. But I did the exhibition and youth in general a disservice. I was reminded of the creativity of those teenage years: we so often see the ability to take risks and the need for experimentation as negative aspects of youth. They can sometimes be but they were, and are, more often the years that shape tastes in fashion and music and teach the value of friendship or spirituality.

As ever, some youths are rebellious whilst others are saddled with responsibilities in advance of their years. Many are overcome by fears others by fantasy; some agonize over their bodies and sex, others celebrate it. Whilst some youths are bent on destruction others are idealistic and embrace our ecology, feeling passionate about sustainability.

All of these aspects of youth were demonstrated in the exhibition and what struck me most is that none of this is new. Photographs of gangs of street youths in the 1950's looked surprisingly familiar; similarly, sadly, girls gave birth to illegitimate babies. Conformity in the uniform of the gang or the need to be different and make a statement were no different than they were when adolescents were first called teenagers in the 1940's. In between the works of young people were dotted paintings and drawings by such well-known artists as Peter Blake, Daivd Hockney, Andy Warhol and even Turner himself: nothing could illustrate the point better.

Some visitors found several of the images disturbing but I prefer to think of them as challenging. What is the point of an exhibition that is merely window dressing; we all love to see something pretty, to appreciate a beautiful image or a sublime sculpture. But surely we need to question, just as we did as teenagers, and seeing the world through the eyes of a youth can remind us all that we too were once both fearful and brave, experimental and yet desperate to be one of the gang. And in showing the complexities and contradictions of youth I think the exhibition, Nothing in the World but Youth, succeeds.


PS The cafĂ© is excellent – better than those in most London Art galleries – so treat yourself to brunch or a delicious Catalan fish soup for lunch. If the soul is a little less than uplifted I often find good food helps!