Text by Emily Sack
The small seaside town of Margate boasts Turner Contemporary, a gallery that celebrates JMW Turner, who made Margate his home for a number of years, and local and international artists from further abroad. The building designed by David Chipperfield Architects is a rigidly geometric structure that mirrors the sails of the boats that frequent Turner’s paintings.
Within the airy interior, the North and South galleries are devoted to Turner and the Elements, an exhibition that moves beyond classifying Turner as “a painter of colour” and further examines his relationship with the natural world. By dividing the gallery into five sections: Earth, Water, Air, Fire and Fusion, curators Inés Richter-Musso and Ortrud Westheider illustrate Turner’s fascination with the latest scientific and technological developments of his time. One of the notable revelations the viewers experience with the organisation of the exhibition is that the works in the Earth segment are almost exclusively from the earliest points in the artist’s career, many dating to the late 18th century. It is as the artist grows and matures that he moves to the sea and skyscapes for which he is best known, and which demonstrate the most experimentation and energy. The show exhibits almost 90 paintings by the renowned British artist, including many watercolours that better demonstrate the innovative experimentation than the more formal oil paintings.
A majority of Turner’s work does not simply study one of the elements but rather explores the forces of nature that result in a “Fusion”, the fifth element explored in the exhibition. In some of these paintings the integration of air and water is so profound that the horizon essentially disappears leaving little distinction between sea and sky. Despite his interest in scientific discoveries, Turner had a sense of theatrics that he employed in the vibrant colours utilised and, at times violent phenomena, depicted. An exhibition text recalls a visit of two peers to Turner’s studio in August 1845 where they were confronted with a surprising procedure. Upon ringing the bell, the door was opened a few inches and a woman’s voice asked what they wanted. When they replied that they wished to see Turner, the door was shut in their faces. After a time the woman let them into a room in total darkness. There the gentlemen were left to wait until their eyes adjusted to the lack of light. Only then were they allowed to go upstairs to Turner’s studio. The painter explained to them subsequently that an interval of darkness was necessary after the bright light of the August day to sensitise their eyes to the fine nuances of colour in his pictures. In this way, Turner expands his role as an artist to become a sort of illusionist or entertainer – the purpose is not to simply depict a scene but rather to create a drama and a narrative beyond the ephemeral vignette.
Turner Contemporary is simultaneously exhibiting work by contemporary British artist, Hamish Fulton. Fulton is a self-declared “walking artist” whose first UK public solo exhibition is aptly entitled Hamish Fulton: Walk. The separation by two centuries has an obvious effect on the disparate aesthetics of Fulton and Turner, but both men emphasise the importance of place and have personal ties to Margate and north Kent. Fulton performs individual and group walks throughout the world, which he later documents in a variety of media and styles including photographs, text, and graphic diagrams. The walks Fulton participates in are a sort of pilgrimage, but they are about the journey almost more so than the final destination – it is the process of walking and observing that are important. Building on meditation practices of Buddhism such as circumambulatory temples, the walk is a form of introspection, whether performed solo or as part of a group. On particularly poignant work is handwritten on gridded paper. The last line reads “no talking for nine days,” which highlights the highly personal nature of the practice that elevates the quotidian activity into an art form. Because a walk cannot be sufficiently contained within a gallery space, the works that make up the exhibition only reflect a finished product, not the entire piece. As richly varied as the terrains and cultures experienced, the works vary in size and placement in the gallery causing viewers to approach a low hanging work closely or step back to view a climbing line towards the pitched ceiling.
Set against the backdrop of a bright and crisp winter’s day, a visit to Turner Contemporary is a refreshing taste of nature outside the busy London environment. The natural light penetrates the gallery space imbuing the works with a life-like quality and the simplicity of display highlights the work of Turner in an innovative way. Turner’s influence throughout subsequent art history is obvious in the work of the Impressionists, but beyond the nineteenth century, the paintings remain dynamic and exciting for artists interested in depicting place.
Turner and the Elements, 28 January 2012 – 13 May 2012 and Hamish Fulton: Walk, 17 January 2012 – 7 May 2012. Turner Contemporary, Rendezvous, Margate, Kent, CT9 1HG. www.turnercontemporary.org
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Hamish Fulton Walk – Installation view
Turner Contemporary 2012
Courtesy David Grandorge