Of and For Turner Contemporary:
Writings on a Building

Upkeep

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, 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.”

Andrew, Julian or Martin do a ‘deep clean’ on Mondays when the gallery is closed, while “the rest of the week is about keeping it to a certain standard.” The first thing Andrew does in the mornings is to clean the toilets. After that, he takes a hoover, a mop, a bucket filled with water (as an ecologically-friendly building, no bleach is used inside or out) and starts on the café floors. The floor, peppered with brown splodges and blue flecks, is a pale grey colour, like flint. The marks are from spillages, mostly coffee and oil dragged in from the beach. The blue flecks are a reaction to when the polished concrete (or magnesite screed, as it is technically known) was first laid three and half years ago. In the gallery’s events room, Andrew points to stains on the floor: “That’s human, that’s human…. you can see everywhere that we’ve tried to scrub it. Here’s a really good example, half a cup of coffee, that’s there forever”. Eventually, the floor will lighten in colour, but for now it is still settling.

With no bleach Andrew uses Freshinit, a pink liquid that seems tepid in its ability to wipe away the accretion of stains, spillages and urine. In the men’s toilets the black floor beneath the urinals has discoloured. Andrew is right when he says it looks twenty years-old, not three. “I would have done the old fashioned 1930s urinals because they were tiled for a reason. Urine is acid, it’s corrosive and the floor is constantly being eaten away by it.”

On a dry day, sand and bits of shell are carried into the gallery and on a wet day it is mud and rainwater. The rinsing motion of the sea, sucking back and forth, crashes against the glass exterior. “If it’s a nice day we can feel it, but most of the year it’s bad weather. The sea is our enemy really, it’s a permanent battle to undo what it does.” After a storm, seaweed is thrown onto the roof so that Andrew, Julian or Martin must then go up via a harness and use a hose to wash away not only the detritus from the storm, but also seagull excrement and bones deposited on top of the building.

Before coming to Margate, Andrew lived in Denmark for seven years, in a town called Hjørring, “We used to call it boring Hjørring.” In East Kent, the Thames estuary meets the North Sea. Above Hjørring, the North Sea meets the Kattegat Sea. “The terrain is very similar to here. It’s pretty much like England, totally flat. I lived in Jutland, the mainland, just over from Norway. I was fluent in Danish … after a while you can see the English language comes from Danish, if you speak it, it sounds Scottish.”

Andrew’s favourite exhibition so far at the gallery has been Nothing in the World but Youth. As a teenager in Bethnal Green he saw The Sex Pistols perform “over a hundred times”. The first was in 1976 at the 100 club and the last in 1977, in Uxbridge, before he left for Denmark. “Back then, you were either in the The Clash camp or The Sex Pistols camp”. In May 1964, some 400 Mods and Rockers descended onto the beachfront in Margate – their frantic, violent encounter watched from afar by those in the town; a pounding pent-up conflict that resulted in 51 arrests and a dissolution of wandering teenagers (who, as a news report described at the time, roamed along the sea-front until late into the evening, missing the last train home).

The light inside the gallery does not correspond with the light outside. It can seem bright inside on an overcast day. Andrew describes the change in light: “I watch the Turner skies in the evenings – incredible skies, I’ve never gone down to watch the sunset, I like the sunrise, but when I’m working here sometimes the skies are green – how can you have a green sky? That’s when you look at the Turners and you see he’s got green skies.”

There is a watercolour, On the Sea Shore, painted by Turner between 1830 and 1835, in the gallery’s current exhibition. Turner used an industrially produced emerald green when it was first introduced in the 1830s. The green in the picture is almost translucent. Specks of red, brown, and yellow dotted over a wash of browns, blues and pinks. In parts of the gallery’s floor there are swirls from where the concrete was laid too quickly. In On the Sea Shore, the colour of the sky has the same sprung feeling, quick light moving across a sea, never a suggestion of settling, yet caught or settled, like the floor, into permanence.

In Notre dame de Paris, Victor Hugo writes of a crowd as an overflowing river or sea: “The waves of this human flood, constantly spreading, broke against the corners of the houses.” Since it has opened, Turner Contemporary has received over a million visitors. This has meant the wearing away of the building, but also an excitement, a surge, a steady current of interest from the outside world that (along with the oil and coffee and salt from the sea water) has become absorbed into the fabric of the building.

Sometimes when he is walking along the beachfront, past Turner Contemporary, before work, Andrew sees jobs he will have to do later in the day: “you do tend to notice – oh I’ll have to litter-pick that later. But if I’m on the beach I just look at it as what it is, it’s removed from me. I never come here when I’m not working. I see it before anybody.”

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