Turner Contemporary is positioned between Margate and the North Sea. A main road bisects it from the town, but there is regular, fighting contact with the tide (a battle which duly reconnects it to the seaside settlement). The secure concrete plinth on which the gallery is perched will prevent the building pickling in brine, especially with every north eastern storm that threatens to flood this dramatically exposed location. Pitched zinc roofing weathers saline air and seagull shit while the white, glass panel façade reflects the rare north light. This skin can, according to Holger Mattes, the building’s project architect with David Chipperfield Architects, sustain a force of wind and water similar to that of a bomb exploding. Only 20 meters and a public pathway diffuse this oomph from the gallery – David Chipperfield himself remarked, “the line that defines the land and water is an ambiguous one”.
I thought that there was nothing special about Turner Contemporary when I first saw it. It didn’t speak to me or to its surroundings. It seemed aloof and arrogant; bland. I had to write about it but I felt I had nothing to say.
I went a second time, staying overnight, so as to experience it at different times of the day. I walked around the gallery; viewing it from different angles. But the longer I looked, the louder the silence grew.
Ensuring the movement of people through a site is inevitably a question of good design. A crucial part of this is the positioning of readable and well-placed signage: turn left here, exit this way, the cafe is through the double doors. Wayfinding is the design of movement, the steering of human traffic. It is the unspoken voice which guides the visitor through their encounter with a place, one which might be completely unfamiliar, but is as easily navigated as a space you’ve wandered through many times. The more complex an environment, the simpler the solution needs to be.
A strip of small blue cuts through the ashen sky; a tone of cobalt vivid enough to burn through the clot of clouds. It looks as if a blunted scalpel has torn through a thin grey membrane to reveal some kind of… And then, after a moment, blinking, I realise it is indeed the sky. A great silent blow to the gut – let us call it a kind of bruising. Given time, this mark will become a mere shade, but a trauma remains. It is the kind of phenomenon that cannot be recorded, no photograph could capture it. Instead, it slips through the creases of the iris and becomes seared into the back of the skull.
At Turner Contemporary the ‘frame’ is the undoing of spatial proximity. The outside turns in on itself, both obscuring and making visible. The familiar is dispelled and the distant is perceived with a closer intensity. It is almost as if the seascape is being interrogated, as the observer’s introverted gaze is no longer self-contained, seeking, directing and altering their frame of mind. Arnaud Millet writes that “The innocence of the gaze is a way of creating a tabula rasa, of unlearning how to look in order to finally become capable of looking.” An almost cinematic vision of the world becomes visible, as the sea appears shallow and flat.
Andrew has worked at Turner Contemporary since it opened in 2011. Along with Julian and Martin, the two other members of the facilities team, he cleans and maintains the front of house, toilets, café area, galleries, learning studio, event spaces, offices, windows, walls (inside and out), paintwork, floor, roof and all of the electrics in the building. The hours are nine to five, but Andrew prefers to get in earlier. “I normally do eight ‘til four. I like to get in when there’s no one here”. Before starting a shift he walks his 16-year-old English bull terrier along the beach. “I’m up at five with the dog, I have no choice, she gets me up. The Turner is in my day, every day. If I’m not cleaning it, then I’m walking past it.”
By the time of its opening, Turner Contemporary had earned its nickname. But unlike the popular terms of endearment plucked from the heart of the home and bestowed upon the Gherkin, the Cheese Grater, et al, the new gallery got stuck with the Shed. Or — as its architect David Chipperfield has quoted his own critics — just a shed. Chipperfield took the dig and built a foundation. He told The Independent: “A nice shed facing the sea with good light that the people of Margate feel is theirs and others will come to see. Anything more than that is wrong. That's what we wanted it to be, just a beautiful shed.” He said it again to Icon and Architects Journal. He now uses the word in passing; it’s become the agreed vocabulary.
White at sea is a dangerous companion. Sea-smoke, water’s white breath, envelops ship and crew in a haze of muffled creakings. Exhaled by the icy sea, droplets meet with a carpet of warm air and condense; light rays encounter their wet lustre and scatter every which way, cloaking the world in flat, impenetrable whiteness. In The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Coleridge describes the “fog-smoke white” out of which the albatross appears, a hue-less herald from the ice-white sea. Though the albatross carries with it a breeze that breaks the stupor of the turbid fog, the Mariner shoots it down. Its whiteness is too much to bear. Melville’s Ishmael, too, fears the misty void and the white creatures it harbors: “It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me”. This sea breath is white-dread, masking “the muffled rollings of a milky sea”.
To take any one of a number of marine studies – Waves Breaking Against the Wind, for example – is to experience the illustriously greying waters of a British coast in a sempiternal state of mild annoyance. Living for a number of years on an island as small as Great Britain necessitates, at some point, an encounter with a windy shoreline; whether it be a sort of shivery, sub-par bucket-and-spade ceremony or a pleasantly uncomfortable offseason dog walk. And so we can all understand what it is Turner painted. I picture Turner with his dad in a Berghaus jacket, or Turner with blue lips in a swimsuit insisting that ice cream is profoundly and urgently necessary. Turner eating a sandwich and watching the waves from a parked Mondeo. Turner as a wet Jack Russell. We may never have experienced the coast in Kent, Norfolk, Cumbria or Shetland as sublime or awe-inspiring or anything other than pleasant, but we can imagine how it would have happened for Turner.
There was something about the horizon the day we arrived in Margate. We were so excited to see the sea again, wide and open and far away from London. It looked strange, dissolved. We saw it from the train. We commented on it, but didn’t really characterise it. It looked atomised maybe, but in a smudged, congealed way. A radiantly dim mass of some sort, draped from the sky, as if the sky and the sea were tacked together. The light pouring out. The sea was still and silvery grey. There was a feeling of anticipation. Perhaps just for the overcast weather to disappear.
On the 6th of November 1921, T.S Eliot wrote a letter in his hotel room in Clifftonville. He was alone. The letter was addressed to his close friend Richard Aldington. In it, he explained that it was not ‘nerves’ that had been affecting him that summer, as his doctor in London had originally thought, but rather ‘aboulia’. ‘Aboulia’ or ‘abulia’ which derives from the Greek word for ‘will’- is otherwise known as ‘DDM’ (disorder of diminished motivation) is a condition often linked to depression or anxiety. It can be described as ‘a withdrawal into negative coldness with a consequent loss of mental vigor and physical energy’. It is located somewhere between vegetation and pouring your heart out.