A visit to the seaside by Xiaohan Wu

Xiaohan Wu at City Arcadia

“Leave all the stress to the sea – in conversation with artist Denise Startin at Arcadia Gallery
My name is Xiaohan, and I am currently studying at Warwick University for an MA in International Cultural Policy and Management. As part of my course I am currently on a short work placement with Coventry Artspace who suggested I explore my interest in curation further by interviewing Denise Startin, a Coventry artist currently exhibiting at Artspace’s Arcadia Gallery in the city centre. It was the perfect task for a hot summer day.
I felt calm from the moment I stepped into the gallery. At first glance, all the works are about a person by the sea, sitting on rocks, leaning against a painted beach hut, reading a book or the newspaper, staring blankly. In the middle of the space is a pile of sand on which sits a red-and-white striped beach chair with a hat on top.
Denise studied at the Royal College of Art and has exhibited work at Compton Verney, Coventry Biennial and Whitechapel Gallery, London. The title of her exhibition is Hints for British Tourists, which was inspired by a pamphlet of the same name. In the original pamphlet, there is a particular sentence that intrigued her, ‘One of the reasons I like Britain and the British, apart from liking the Sunday Times, cheese cake, Constables in the Tate, ‘apples and pears’ and not to mention the liveliness of their pubs is because their idea of a holiday is not just lying around on the beach and drinking.’
With the pandemic, Brexit, and now air industry chaos, making it harder for people to travel, family holidays have become difficult. We agreed that everyone wants to go to the beach when they are stressed or unhappy, especially during the summer. Perhaps the heart is saying, ‘Don’t worry any more, leave the burden to the sea’. For Denise a summer seaside holiday was definitely something central to growing up and British culture. She described what she wants to bring to the audience in this exhibition, “I was interested in evoking memory, senses of place, evoking, you know, times away, or time with family, or time off, or time to just think when you’re on holiday. There’s a lot of dead moments, there’s lots of excitement building up to going on holiday, but sometimes when you’re on holiday, there’s a lot of boredom. So, I guess that’s what I was trying to bring, a sense of stillness to the idea of being on holiday.”

Situated in the centre of England, Coventry is considered far from the seaside. But I grew up in inland China, where the nearest coastline was more than 1,700km away! In my mind the sea is a place full of sunshine, sunsets, smiles and happiness, but I didn’t go there very often! It wasn’t until I came to England that I was struck by how different the sea could be, how cold and hot, how calm and crazy it could be. I have been reading Virginia Woolf’s books recently which describe a lot of seaside images. Denise’s evocative photographs of beach huts and grey skies have helped me visualise the British perspective of the seaside. What I feel most from the exhibition, and what strikes me as particular to the British experience of the seaside, is the calming power of stillness it has.

At the end of our conversation, I couldn’t help asking a question as a tourist, ‘Where do you recommend I travel to in Britain?’ She shares with me three of her favourite places: North Wales, Whitby, and the Jurassic Coast (where she took the images in her exhibition). As she talks about the coastal paths and the changing weather that she loves, I am beginning to realise how important the sea is to the psyche of this island nation.

Text and image reproduced from https://coventry-artspace.co.uk/blog/a-visit-to-the-seaside-by-xiaohan-wu/ (accessed 15/07/22)