Whitstable is a small town on the
north coast of Kent. It is a propitious spot where people have worked,
lived and more or less thrived since ancient times. (1)
The sea has provided in many ways. Fishing probably attracted the
first settlers and it continues to the present day. There are traces
of salt workings from the eighth to the fourteenth centuries. Copperas
stones -- fossils torn from the seabed and delivered on to the beach
by the tides -- were collected and processed for industrial use
between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. The sea has also
given rise to trading: firstly along the local coast and later with
Scandinavia and elsewhere. And since about 1830, day-trippers and
holiday-makers have been attracted, in greater and lesser numbers,
to Whitstable as a seaside resort. Even now, though its heyday has
passed, many people come for the yachting and as second home-owners.
If we could watch all of this from a great distance, with centuries
compressed to fit into hours, we would see an accretion of tiny
dwellings and commercial buildings, clustering tightly against the
narrow beach. But we can see as well that this accretion can sometimes
be threatened and even destroyed, as whole streets are invaded by
sea water (in 1897 and 1953) or swept by fire (in 1869). More benignly
and commonly, buildings are demolished to make room for new ones
fit for new purposes.
Whitstable, like all living towns, ruptures from time to time because
of the force of change and through occasional acts of god. But unlike
other places its basic geography, too, can alter dramatically, as
territories are claimed from, or alternatively surrendered to, the
sea. In view of its susceptibility, flood defences have been built
to protect low-lying streets in the old part of the town. To the
visitor, the town feels both special and precarious. There is an
excitement here and also a certain sense of watchfulness.
An area of Whitstable known as the Horsebridge is currently in
a state of rupture or redevelopment. It is an important site in
the town. Oysters, for which Whitstable is renowned, used to be
brought ashore here, and the area became both a centre of activity
and a focus for the community. The streets are close-knit and intimate:
you are even, if you look around, introduced to people who once
lived and worked here -- there are signs for Terry’s Lane
and Bryce’s Alley, for example. In 1868, a Music Hall was
built within the Horsebridge, its audience a mixing of local people
and growing numbers of holiday-makers. Later, the Music Hall was
extended to become the town’s Assembly Rooms, where dances
were held. More recently, although beginning to deteriorate, it
served for a time as a community and arts centre. Finally, this
building and others next to it were demolished to make way for a
development that will provide arts and community facilities, housing
and commercial premises.
Watching from a great distance and with time speeded up, we see
this accretion grow and extend and implode -- and eventually begin
to take on a new form.
At an early stage, the artist Andrew Sabin was appointed to lead
a team of artists to create art for the new development at the Horsebridge,
both during the construction phase and for permanent inclusion in
and around the finished building. When I visited in September 2002,
their artworks took the form of subtle interventions during the
transition from demolition site to building site. The artworks contemplated
this moment of the tide, when
rupture turns into renewal.
The most visible components that autumn were sculptures that took
the form of a wall and
two windows: as such, the art engaged with two basics of construction
and habitation. The windows, made by Stefan Shankland with Andrew
Sabin and known as RGB Screens, were made of red, green and blue
plexiglass panels. They were set into the hoardings around the site
and allowed people to see in. While I was there, passers-by -- typically
fathers and sons -- stopped and pointed things out to each other.
Building sites are always an attraction, of course, and the bright
colours of the plexiglass seemed to acknowledge and play to this.
Looking through these coloured screens myself, I enjoyed the tidy
piles of building materials (brightly coloured plastic conduits,
metal mesh, metal rods) to one side of the site, and under my prolonged
inspection the workmanlike order became somehow elaborated and ornamental.
I relished, too, the careful orchestration of materials and labour
that this spectacle conveyed.
Construction was at an early stage when I visited and restricted
to one part of the development. It was a Saturday and everything
was still. For a time, I found myself fixing my gaze on low piles
of reinforced concrete -- part of the new foundations -- and I started
to imagine it as an excavation. Perhaps I was remembering Roman
archaeological digs, with their stacks of under-floor tiles? Instead
of picturing rapid, industrious addition at the Horsebridge, I imagined
painstaking extraction and analysis. Day-dreaming, I set the tide
of events into reverse -- no doubt triggered by the sense here of
the long inhabitation of this stretch of ground. (2)
But what I was really seeing, through RGB Screens, was one moment
in the history of this site, in which deposits and accretions were
taking hold above and below ground. I was
made conscious, however, that one day they too will be swept away
by a new development and lost to memory. The other artistic intervention
on the site, which took the form of a wall, was made by Andrew Sabin
with Richard Bradbury, Stefan Shankland and Doug Brown. As its title,
History Wall, suggests, this sculpture contemplates precisely this
type of loss or forgetting.
History Wall was a large steel cage which housed careful arrangements
of rubble and debris from the buildings which had just been demolished.
It was divided into nine sections, each with a different character:
one contained a mosaic of blue, maroon and yellow plaster fragments;
another held neat strata of planks, poles and pipes; another had
chopped up wooden signs which spelled out mysterious new mono-syllables;
there was a section filled with typewriters and filing-cabinet drawers,
and several others with arrangements of different kinds of bricks
History Wall was a commemorative piece which symbolically held
on to an ordinary, passing moment, for the duration of just a few
months. I saw passers-by pointing at objects in it, and heard them
commenting on things they recognised. One man photographed his friends
in front of the sculpture, creating his own memento of a day out
-- and of a curious object he’d probably never see again.
The neatness and order of the History Wall -- its beauty, even
-- connected strangely with the lush piles of building materials
waiting to be used. Feelings of used-up-ness and long
past significance combined with those of imminence. I was reminded
again of archaeological sites, with their padlocked cages of stone
fragments which are held in the promise that they will be reassembled
one day. I also thought about the final disposal, very soon, of
the contents of History Wall -- and of the enormous quantities of
waste that this type of development produces.
This, it turns out, is a preoccupation of Sabin’s. He once
visited a land-fill site and it was, he says, “an affecting
experience. It was a vast valley, with lorries arriving constantly,
and bulldozers pressing the waste into the floor of the valley.
It was a vast co-mingling of stuff.” The experience has even
moved him to suggest that “landfill sites should be made into
public places, with viewing platforms at their rims.” It is
partly as a sculptor, dealing in raw matter, that he reacts with
such passion to the scale of its disposal. He also responds as an
environmentalist to how the waste we produce disappears almost instantaneously
from our sight, diminishing our sense of responsibility for it.
At Horsebridge he has worked to slow the process down and make it
visible and a subject of contemplation.
History Wall follows on from other projects by Sabin and his colleagues.
There was the C-Bin Project, in which basket sculptures were sited
on shorelines in Picardie in North West France, in order to entice
passers-by to lob in plastic and metal waste washed up by the sea.
(3) Sabin’s sculpture, Bottle Tower, at the Ecos Centre, Ballymena,
N. Ireland, was also devised to encourage recycling. (4) And this
work continues: the permanent public art works at the Horsebridge,
mentioned previously, will include experimental rubbish bin housings
designed to raise awareness, as he says, “of the conflicting
sets of emotions that the act of disposal can provoke”.
Sabin explained to me how he and the other artists deliberately
waste materials for History Wall: “Any material that wanted
to show itself off had to be eliminated”, he said. A carved
stone from the old Horsebridge ambulance station was rejected, for
example. And ordinary bricks and breeze blocks were selected in
preference to decorative bricks. The steel grid of the cage gave
rise to an important effect, too: “it equalised matter, lowering
the special, raising the ordinary”, Sabin said.
The waste on display had, finally, the status of dirt -- described
by Mary Douglas in her remarkable book, Purity and Danger, as “the
by-product of a systematic ordering and classification of matter,
in so far as ordering involves rejecting inappropriate elements”.
Yet what Sabin and his colleagues had done here was to take this
dirt -- this matter which should, in the usual way of things, have
been quietly removed from view -- and reinstated it, if only temporarily.
They had deliberately disturbed the process of “systematic
ordering and classification of matter” taking place before
us on the building site. That this simple, and after all quite subtle,
intervention caused many people in the town considerable upset (6)
would suggest that there was further significance to this act that
needs to be explored.
Earlier in this essay, I described Whitstable as a watchful place.
I was responding to a sense of this small town being subject to
the influx of strangers -- and of invasions by the sea -- and therefore
needing to ‘gather itself in’. Perhaps there was a feeling
of violation, therefore, when the broken details of former lives
were displayed in the History Wall? To be involved with others’
dirt is an act of great intimacy after all. Was this why a jar of
pink paint was thrown at the art work?
Many people who protested against History Wall complained that
Sabin and the other
artists were not from Whitstable. They were seen as trespassers,
people who had no right to be there in a place “where the
lines of structure, cosmic or social, are clearly defined.”
(7) As such, Sabin (and he was singled out for criticism) became
what Mary Douglas calls a “polluting person”, who “is
always in the wrong. He has developed some wrong condition or simply
crossed some line which should not have been crossed and this displacement
unleashes danger for someone.” (8)
The tirade against Sabin was concerned, repeatedly, with the cost
of History Wall (which was modest) and with its claim to be art
-- and with the idea that the artist had no right to make an artwork
in Whitstable, amongst the debris and the raw new beginnings.
We must sympathise, for we all create systems and categories by
which we live and which we defend. However, History Wall is important,
as much beyond Whitstable as within it, as a stimulus which “enable[s]
us to go behind the explicit structures of our normal experience”
(9). It is as an anomaly, as matter out of place, that History Wall
functions as art: like RGB Screens, it contemplates how we inhabit
the world. We create and destroy unceasingly, the tide coming in
and the tide going out.
Curator and writer
(1) The information which follows about the history of the town
is from www.whitstable-museum.co.uk
(2) It turns out, in fact, that recent excavations uncovered Victorian
sewers, wells and sea defences.
(3) See www.c-bin.org
(4) Other artists, too, have made artworks from waste in order to
draw attention to social issues. Stuart Brisley, for example, did
a sustained performance at the ICA, London, in the early 80s which
involved him displaying rubbish he collected from the surrounding
area; it included the waste of people living on the streets and
revealed their appalling living conditions. In 1997 Lucy Orta organised
a street kitchen in Paris, commissioning a chef to prepare meals
from ingredients thrown away in the markets, which were given to
(5) Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger, an analysis of the concepts
of pollution and taboo, publ. Routledge, London, 1966, p. 35.
(6) See www.horsebridge.org
(7) Mary Douglas, p. 113.
(8) Mary Douglas, p. 113.
(9) Mary Douglas, p. 37.