ON MARGATE SANDS – AN EXHIBITION INSPIRED BY THE WASTELAND BY TS ELIOT
When I was invited by the Lombard Street Gallery to create work inspired by the poem, The Wasteland by TS Eliot I jumped at the chance. I do not usually use a poem as a starting point for creating work, so anything that forces me to think differently is a welcome challenge. In my blissful ignorance, I did not at this point realise that the poem in question; The Wasteland by TS Eliot was considered to be one of the key works of the 20th century. It was 400 lines long and full of references to historical literature that I could not in my limited academic knowledge, access without the help of an app designed to interpret the poem. I own up that I am one of the masses that TS Eliot knew would not be able to decipher this poem, at the level at which he wrote it.
My approach, therefore was to look to the visual metaphors in the poem, and to build a piece of work that revolved around this. I work with the technique of digital photomontage which I felt would lend itself well to an interpretation of the poem because it is a montage of different viewpoints, historical references and conversations.
CREATING THE WORK
After much thought I decided to create five pieces titled the same as the five verses of The Wasteland. All the verse titles, except ‘A Game of Chess’ seemed to allude to the elements; The burial of the Dead’ to the earth, ‘The Fire Sermon’ to Fire, Death by Drowning, to water and ‘What the Thunder Said’ to air. I thought these elements worked as some sort of catharsis through the poem. TS Eliot wrote the Wasteland overlooking this beach from the shelter. Many of the photographs used in the montages are taken in Margate itself.
As I worked on each of the five individual pieces, they took on a life of their own outside of the poem, and one began to inform the other pictorially. The poem ‘The Wasteland’ has been a catalyst for the work, and the work, a personal response a poem I could only partly access.
THE BURIAL OF THE DEAD
TS Eliot wrote the Wasteland just after the first world war, when the enormous loss of life must have been palpable to everyone. I wanted this piece to be symbolic of the masses of people who died. There are various slabs and slipways along Margate Beach, which I thought could look like grave stones, due to their low profile in the sand. The slipway in particular to me, looked like a crucifix, and I placed a pile a stones on top of it to allude to an unmarked grave. The beach itself is a waste land over-shadowed by bare branches, devoid of life.
A GAME OF CHESS
A game of chess is by it’s nature a political, strategic game controlled by two opposing sides. I wanted to show people as pawns in this game over which they had no control. I photographed people unaware and at their leisure in order to emphasise their innocence in the game. The shelter depicted in the image, is the shelter in which TS Eliot is said to have written the poem. I coloured the figures arbitrarily, but wanted to give them an other worldly quality.
THE FIRE SERMON
‘The Fire Sermon was preached by Buddha against the fires of lust, anger, envy and other passions that consume men’ I had taken a picture of people at a Christmas market from Charing Cross Bridge on a really slow shutter speed. They blurred into one another in a way that made them seem transient and ghostly. I combined this with flames that I had photographed at a fireworks night. I wanted to create a pyre of people on Margate beach. A bonfire is primal and cathartic, and seemed to fit with the sentiment of Buddha’s Fire Sermon.
DEATH BY DROWNING
This is the only one of the five images that I had a strong initial idea of what I wanted to do, and the only one, which I had to actively go and take photographs, which I hadn’t already taken on trips to the coast. I wanted to depict drowning not only by hands struggling in the sea, but with added hopelessness of being tangled up in ropes. Again I set this against a backdrop of Margate Beach.
WHAT THE THUNDER SAID
This image was the most challenging for me, because I thought it would be the most straight-forward. Thunder is a very abstract thing and hard to make into visual imagery. I tried to re-create stormy skies and lightning. I wanted the sky to be God-like and talking. I tried using people into the image, but couldn’t get it to work and then I returned to the words of the poem. The verse was overwhelmingly about the lack of water. I chose the beacon as I wanted some sort of conductor in the image and I included the fire bucket because although a bucket is designed to hold water, these often have sand in them. There is no rain in this image, just salt water and an empty bucket.
The Exhibition ‘On Margate Sands’ is showing at the Lombard Street Gallery in Margate from 3rd February to the 7th May 2018. It runs concurrently with an exhibition at Turner Contemporary inspired by the same poem called ‘Journeys through the Wasteland’ and several other related events in Margate.