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The Waste Land Research Group. Courtesy: Turner Contemporary

On Margate Sands. 
I can connect
Nothing with nothing.

In 1921, TS Eliot moved from London to Margate for a number of weeks in order to recuperate from an emotional and physical breakdown. Living at the Albemarle Hotel in Cliftonville, the lore goes that Eliot spent his days sat in the Nayland Rock Shelter on Margate Sands, working on Part III of his epic poem The Waste Land (1922). The shelter is a ten-minute walk from Turner Contemporary—situated on the other side of the sands­­—that is currently playing host to an expansive research-led exhibition exploring the potential relationship between Eliot’s poem and the visual arts.

Journeys with ‘The Waste Land’ is the culmination of a three-year research project, set up by the gallery in 2015 in order to re-think traditional curatorial processes. The selection of artworks and objects in the exhibition came out of the conversations had by a voluntary research group—The Waste Land Research Group—founded by members of the local public. Formed through an open call, their weekly meetings, discussions, workshops, walks, trips, and studio visits fed into their decisions. The group also designed the layout of the space, wrote the exhibition texts, and devised the public programme. Their research and thoughts, which centre on ideas of gender, myth, and journeying, are a primary resource for the spectator - fed back into the experience of the show. Headphones are located near objects in the exhibition, playing recorded audio clips from members of the group talking about their responses to the work. 

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Installation shot. Photo: Thierry Bal

A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stop no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock.

The discordant, fragmented nature of Eliot’s poem is mirrored by the exhibition, in which twentieth-century modern artists are mixed with historic pieces, archival displays, and new contemporary commissions. Eliot’s innovative inter-textual technique—the use of quotes and external sources, cut, paste, and collaged—broke with the high culture of the period, and embraced the spirit of Dada. Images and references were shattered; the onus was on the reader to put it all back together. Similarly, at Turner Contemporary, there is nothing completely cohesive; the experience is manifold, with exciting moments and parallels to be drawn between groupings of work, in pockets of the space. Like the poem, there is a frisson and polyphony of sounds, voices, and social experiences: an invocation of both the collective and individual.

Modernists figured the First World War as a crack across history. The first room focuses on the historical context of The Waste Land, with haunting works by Käthe Kollwitz, Olive Mudie Cook, and Paul Nash emphasising the destruction of the war. The elegiac mode echoes in Mark Power’s photograph ‘France, Paris, Rue Bichat 04:00’ from 18 November 2015, recording a deserted street in Paris in the wake of the terror attacks. Rozanne Hawksley’s wreath ‘Pale Armistice’ (1987), made from white gloves and funeral flowers, articulates the complexities of commemoration—who do we remember and how?—honouring her grandmother and the many other women widowed during WWI. 

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‘The Shore’ Paul Nash. Courtesy: Turner Contemporary

For many, Eliot’s poem defined the immense catastrophe and the depth of the war’s consequences, particularly the brutalising of affect, and the destruction of illusions about European culture and society: the modes in which we communicate or make sense of our place in the world. Lee Miller’s ‘Portrait of Space’ (1941) implies the strangeness of a deserted land, the tear in the tent literalising the abruptness of being ripped into this new world. John Stezaker’s collages visually elucidate the poem’s technique. In the exhibition notes, the Research Group quote a letter from the artist, in which he explains that his ‘fascination with the fragment’ was borne out of Eliot’s poem.

But if Albert makes off, it won’t be for lack of telling.
You ought to be ashamed, I said, to look so antique.
(And her only thirty-one.)
I can’t help it, she said, pulling a long face,
It’s them pills I took, to bring it off, she said.
(She’s had five already, and nearly died of young George.)

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‘Mask CCV’ John Stezaker. Courtesy: Turner Contemporary

In the far corner of the first gallery, the Research Group have placed Walter Sickert, John Smith, Edward Hopper, and Paula Rego together in a fascinating portrayal of loneliness and psychological tension. Throughout The Waste Land, notably towards the end of Part II, Eliot creates a vignette of the intersections between individuals in post-war society. There is an emphasis on male aggression and female numbness as coping mechanisms. Rego’s triptych, ‘Abortion Sketches’ (1998), provide one of the most powerful and anguished references to explicit lines in Eliot’s work. The isolated female figure is presented unflinchingly, moving from her hospital bed, to the bucket, and back. Sickert’s ‘Off to the Pub’ (1912) represents the artist’s engagement with marital ennui, part of a series of melodramatic works that often portrayed husbands leaving their wives at home in favour of the pub, off to spend their small earnings on drink. Smith’s short film from 1999, titled ‘The Waste Land’, in which the artist narrates Eliot’s poem, is set in a dank pub urinal. The conversation between two women in Part II, quoted above, is relentlessly interrupted by the closing call: HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME. Hopper’s ‘Night Windows’ (1928) presents an anonymous woman in her small apartment, an intimate, voyeuristic insight into urban living. The painting creates an expansive and evocative comparison to the passage in Part III, where a young typist gets home from work, divvies food out in tins, and lays her laundry and underwear to dry on the windowsills. 

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Installation shot. Photo: Thierry Bal

The second gallery is predominantly dedicated to video and installation works, perhaps alluding to Eliot’s focus on delayed effects and consequences, time and space: Tacita Dean’s vibrating ‘Sound Mirrors’ (1999) video, Carey Young’s looped sequence of commuters on London Bridge in ‘Lines Made By Walking’ (2003), and Benedict Drew and Nicholas Brooks’ strange and visceral ‘Sump’ (2016) installation. Leonora Carrington’s surreal costume masks, made during the 1960s for a stage production of The Tempest, bring to mind the surge of interest in spiritualism in the wake of WWI. Rosalie Schweiker’s tarot cards, produced in collaboration with the Research Group in 2018, testify the reported popularity of clairvoyants with grieving families. In the corridor gallery, artists like Berny Tan and Vibeke Tanberg explore the poem conceptually, breaking down the language in text-based artworks. Annotated copies of The Waste Land are lined up in vitrines, emphasizing the multifarious readings and opinions brought to bear on the poem. 

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Installation shot. Photo: Thierry Bal

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

In the infamous opening of lines of The Waste Land, Eliot bitterly subverts the regenerative power of nature. The catastrophic destruction waged on this now ‘dead land’ is the stage on which R.B. Kitaj set his painting ‘If Not, Not’ (1975-76); the water stagnant, the trees burnt and blackened. Kitaj also portrays the gatehouse to Auschwitz, although the painting was produced in the wake of the Vietnam War. The cultural disintegration and social collapse felt by Eliot is signified too; books are scattered, and a Matisse bust lies smashed. Ana Mendieta’s video­ ‘Burial Pyramid’, made a year prior in 1974­, provides an interesting counterpart. Lying underneath a pile of rocks, she stages a poignant scene of physical and symbolic regeneration, in which the power of her breath forces the rocks to roll off, slowly freeing her. The cyclical power of nature—and its relationship to the process of birth, life, and death—is also embodied by Cy Twombly’s magnificent, renowned paintings ‘Four Seasons’ (1993-4). Henrik Håkansson’s ‘A Tree Divided’ (2017), which hangs in front of Twombly, preserves a dying ash tree, as if suspended in perpetual life. 

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‘If Not, Not’ R.B. Kitaj. Courtesy: Turner Contemporary

In addition to the Mendieta work, selections from Nalini Malani and Emma Talbot introduce an intuitive, female voice into the narrative surrounding Eliot’s poem. In Malani’s watercolour series, ‘The Wasteland’ (2008), she frames the poem in relation to her own complex experiences of gender rebellion and identity politics within Indian patriarchal society. Similarly responding to anxiety and oppression, particularly issues of displacement and homelessness, Talbot’s silk hanging pertinently asks, “WHAT DO WE HAVE TO GIVE UP TO BE FREE?” The facelessness of her doll-like figures—vacant and anonymous—also embody one of the exhibition’s messages: the relevance of Eliot’s poem both then and now. As a member of the research group expresses, “It’s about the treadmill we’re all on; doing the same things; and making the same mistakes, no matter where and when.” 


Philomena Epps is a writer based in London, she has contributed to ArtForum, Elephant, Frieze, and The White Review, among others. She is also the founding editor and publisher of Orlando