A peculiar kind of biennial

The Whitstable Biennale

There is much good art to see in Whitstable, but it is unlike any biennial I have ever visited. Yes, it takes place every two years, is multi-sited and has developed new artist commissions specifically for presentation - something that is becoming a UK-specific biennial feature - but the similarities end there. It has none of the urgency and frantic busyness that are common features of many biennials, and in this edition, no real emphasis on visual art practice. There are no monumental sculptures sited in the public realm, few internationally famous art names, no circus coming to town.

Instead there is a quiet and persistent emphasis on how artworks are made and the process each practitioner goes through in defining their performance and project. There is almost a sense of “slow-art”, a foregrounding of thoughtfulness about what it means to be an artist, what it is to make art. This is explored through a range of text-based practices, from film through live-art performance to straight theatre, in a distinctly meta-textual programme. This theme is made explicit in Acting, the performance by Internet, which after a tedious start takes off into deconstructed and surreal realms, with an “overacting” dog and muppet puppets (both adorable). It continues in Jesse Jones’ dramatisation of an encounter group therapy session chaired by psychologist Carl Rogers. In The Selfish Act of Community, the role of psychological masks is explored at the very same time their removal is being intensely portrayed. With opposing symmetry, in This Alley Used to be Enormous on Me, artist Tim Bromage literally constructs his mask by sticking torn strips of masking tape to his face, transforming himself into a strikingly grotesque figure through which he performs his writing. There are two other performative surprises that lift this work onto a different level and suggest significant ammunition for his artistic future: no spoilers here though.

Other works sit more comfortably within fine art practice. A simple idea with high impact is Wars During my Lifetime by Martin John Callanan, which lists on newsprint all the wars that have taken place during his lifetime. There are 189 of them and he is only 30 years old. Emma Hart uses a sculptural installation to frame her narrative Monument to the Unsaved, which viscerally evokes an 80 mph car crash on the M20 motorway. In an innovative staging, her film is reflected in seven wing mirrors, effectively portraying the fragmentation of the experience while enabling visual interest and unusual depth of field for the viewer. The overwhelming noise and repetition of the soundtrack insists on the audience reliving the trauma as the victim must also do as part of the emotional recovery from the event. It’s a piece that has stayed with me.

Also ambitious and technically challenging is Tanya Axford’s The Path Made by a Boat in Sound (3 down), which combines a video projection of two spotlight dancers swinging in elusive interactions on the floor, vying for the attention of two musicians improvising a response to the pendulum’s movement. A mesmerising work, the music of cello and piano is beautiful and immersive. Less effective is Tom Gidley’s film and narrative Hollow Moon, which suffers from two competing themes that combine not to enhance, but to reduce each other.

There is a different programme of live events over the three weekends of the festival, including evening performances at the Royal Native Oyster Stores and late-night outdoor screenings at The Factory Cinema, a makeshift cinema on Long Beach. On the Saturday night I was there, the highlight from the evening was the clever, edgy, funny wordsmith and musician Jenny Moore. Her stage set included text projected onto an enormous white balloon, and songs with titles like “The Wilderness is so Over” and “Sometimes Money Matters”. Following that I caught the rather hard-core Jonas Mekas film, The Brig, from 1964, in the dark on the beach. How often can you do that?

This biennial concentrates on supporting emerging artists to develop new works for a specific style of presentation. As an event, it’s slightly scuffed around the edges and constrained by the available venues, spaces and resources of the town. Some works would benefit from editing and polishing, projection screens have seen better days, sound systems are not always state of the art.  But Whitstable Biennial’s character and strengths are not in the big budget spectacle, or highly-resolved monumental works, but in off-beat, small-scale nuanced pieces that explore the tributaries of the unexpected. It’s very much worth a visit.

The Whitstable Bienniale runs until 16 September, various venues, Whitstable

The seafront at Whitstable (Photograph: Getty Images)
FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism