Seaside hide-and-seek

The Folkestone Triennial aims to revive the fortunes of an ailing town. But where is all the art?

As I stare out to sea from the Leas, Folkestone, I think about how some old seaside towns seem to be living posthumous lives. The Leas itself, a beautiful one-and-a-half-mile stretch of manicured lawn, overlooks the English Channel. On a clear day you can see the combine harvesters on the French side, patiently combing the rucked earth. Not today, though. It's just too hot and dry and hazy on this bit of the south coast of England. Absolutely nothing seems to be going on here - except for the occasional slap of a Union Jack high up on a pole. There are no people about, and no noise of holiday chatter either. The carriages and all those fine ladies with their knickerbocker-glory hats are long gone.

The only visitors to the former Metropole Hotel behind me, now converted into private flats, seem to be myself and my guide to the Folkestone Triennial, a new art event that has been brought into being to help regenerate this rather sad town. The 20 or so participating artists include Tracey Emin, Mark Wallinger and Langlands and Bell. In many major cities of the world - São Paulo, Venice, Istanbul - an art biennial or triennial feels like icing on a fat, sweet, overdecorated cake. Artists of international repute fly in from everywhere, often to purpose-built locations, and proceed to raise glasses to each other. None of these places really needs a big art event of that kind. The events are blessed to be there, as are the artists. It's a question of mutually reflected glory.

Nothing like that is happening in Folkestone today. Folkestone is not glorious in anybody's eyes. The west end of town still has its stalwart veneer of Victorian/Edwardian grandeur, but walk further east, in the general direction of the harbour, and you begin to notice the dereliction and the declining sense of civic purpose. The ferries have stopped and holidaymakers don't really come here any more. Even the railway bridge that the Orient Express uses twice a week seems in need of repair.

This is a rather unusual variety of triennial, created to address a very particular situation. There are no pavilions or galleries in which the art is displayed. You don't go to a single location to find it. There are no paintings. There are very few discrete objects. Nothing is screened off from the wider life of the town. Bits and pieces emerge, here and there. In fact, in order to find the Folkestone Triennial at all, you need to be hardy and curious.

Armed with a map of all the sites, I'm starting in the old ballroom of the Metropole. The piece in here, Disco Mécanique, is by David Batchelor, and it consists of colourful balls made from old sunglasses bought in Brazil - hundreds of them, all suspended from the ceiling. They turn and turn in front of the ballroom's windows, reminders of evanescent gaieties. The piece chimes well with the ballroom's ghostly, white-stuccoed charm, its mirrors mirroring no one.

Out on the Leas, I sit on one of the benches facing the Channel. There is a small, suspicious-looking, Tardis-like obelisk at my back, with tiny pepper-pot holes down one face of it. When I sit down, it begins to talk to me. Someone - a local person - is reading out a letter about the pain of going to war, of being separated, perhaps for ever, from friends and family. Thousands of troops embarked here, en route to the battlefields of France. There are other obelisks, behind other benches, telling other stories. There are always so many stories to be told. This project, orchestrated and devised by Christian Boltanski, involved gathering precious documents hoarded in attics by Folkestone people.

An old lady called Ivy joins me as I stare at a square of ground created by Mark Wallinger, close-packed with large pebbles. Each pebble is numbered - one for every solder who died on the first day of bestial slaughter in the Somme. Ivy was born during that war, she tells me, leaning on her cane. She is wearing pearls and a green pleated skirt. Her hair is kept in place by a fetching hairnet. She stares across at the Leas. "This place used to be kept so perfect," she tells me. "There used to be big houses with servants, lovely hotels . . ." She smiles at me cheerily. "You can't go back, though."

"Will the triennial really make a difference to Folkestone?" I ask my guide, Peter Bettley. "It's just a tiny part of a master-plan of regene ration for Folkestone," he tells me. "This town needs reanimating. People need to think that it is a stimulating and interesting place. Art is just one piece of the jigsaw."

Unfortunately, the collective impact of the works is not really sufficient to make it worth visiting. There is much here that is interesting, but not so interesting that you would want to travel far to experience it. Sometimes the distance between two parts of a single work can be maddening. Adam Chodzko has made a wonderful film - it's the single really outstanding piece in the show - in which he tells an entirely invented story about the town's ill-luck.

Folkestone's misfortune can be blamed, he alleges, on the fact that the Leas Cliff Hall, a huge concert venue overhanging the Leas cliff, is supported by four inverted steel pyramids. Inverted pyramids bring bad luck. The film, in which local people "testify" to the curse of the pyramids and then get involved in a collective rite of exorcism, is a delight. But it is much too far away from the explanatory signboard beneath the building itself, which hugely lessens its impact.

Tracey Emin's contribution is meant to highlight the town's high incidence of teenage pregnancy. She has cast a series of baby clothes in bronze, and then over-painted them to look like the real thing - a child's sandal, a jumper, a bonnet. Teenage pregnancy is hardly a Folkestone-specific problem, however. Then there is the difficulty of finding the darned exhibits in the first place. If you are very lucky, you can spot them about the town, but Emin insisted that they should not be accompanied by anything that would indicate their presence - no title; no caption of any kind - which makes it extremely difficult for anyone seeking out the work.

Next time, Folkestone needs to indulge less in super-subtle games of hide-and-seek.

The Folkestone Triennial continues until 14 September. For more information log on to:

This article first appeared in the 07 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, British childhood