I went to Margate last week, drawn by my interest in poet, T S Eliot and artist, Jeremy Deller. Ever since, I’ve been mulling on what these two men might have in common and on how important the visual is in relation to writing and thinking creatively. So, a few notes on making connections in Margate.
∞ It was in November in 1921 that T S Eliot went to Margate to recuperate due to nervous exhaustion. He’d been advised to take a complete rest from his job at Lloyds bank in London. He frequently sat in this shelter.
∞ Alan Bennett and Andrew Motion are among those who successfully campaigned to preserve the Nayland Rock shelter. It was here, by Eliot’s own account, that he wrote part of The Waste Land. A letter to a friend explains, “I have done a rough draft of part III … I have done this while sitting in a shelter on the front — as I am out all day except when taking rest.”
∞ These are the lines that appear towards the end of Part III of The Waste Land:
“On Margate Sands.
I can connect
Nothing with nothing.
The broken fingernails of dirty hands.
My people humble people who expect
∞ Sitting in the Nayland Rock shelter Eliot was trying to piece together a view of the world in 1921, now shattered by the First World War, and of a society that was in the process of being re-configured. He was trying to make connections. In the end, The Waste Land became a collection of fragments with gaps and fractures between them. It is for the reader to make the connections.
∞ As I sat in that same shelter last week, on a grey November day, it was easy to imagine Eliot’s mood, his sense of bleakness as he looked out over the grey sea, the expanse of sand. That said, he seems to have been prolific in Margate. I wonder how much that was due to the effect of staring out at the ever-changing abstract ‘painting’ of sky, sea, sand?
∞ I headed round the bay to Turner Contemporary to see Jeremy Deller’s English Magic, first exhibited in the British Pavilion, Venice Biennale, 2013. Now in Margate until 11 January 2015, it’s a must-see exhibition: bold, thoughtful, witty, searching, absorbing. And Turner Contemporary is the most visitor friendly gallery I’ve ever encountered. I urge you to go and see it…
∞ How to define Deller’s practice – artist, curator, visual thinker? Whatever you call it, what he does is to make connections. Almost a century after T S Eliot, Deller’s practice is also gathering fragments and glimpses. Here, he invites us to join the dots between the financial, social and political forces that shaped our lives towards the end of the 20th Century and continue to do so. If that sounds a tad heavy going it isn’t. Deller has a light touch with weighty subjects.
∞ Question: in no particular order, what connects: a Palaeolithic hand axe, a tax haven, a hen harrier, Tony Blair, a Range Rover, civil unrest in the 1970s, scrapyards, David Bowie, Roman Abramovich, Venice, William Morris, steel bands, an inflatable Stonehenge, birds of prey, block printing, the Iraq war and weapons of mass destruction, the collapse of the Soviet Union, portraits made by prisoners?
Answer: Magic. Magic in the form of trickery but also in the sense of wonder and delight.
∞ I found delight and wonder: in being invited to hold a Palaeolithic hand axe that might be 400,000 years old; in the “extreme beauty,” as Deller refers to it, of birds of prey observed in slow motion in the film at the heart of the exhibition; in the complexity and thought behind the handmade, revealed through the textiles of William Morris; in the subtle sounds of a steel orchestra that followed me around the gallery.
∞ Of trickery is there is plenty: who shot the hen harrier on the Sandringham estate and where are the bodies? Where are those WMDs, Mr Blair? How did Abramovich get to park his yacht in Venice? And more.
∞ Deller’s skill is to offer the trickery and the wonder. The result: I didn’t feel hit over the head with a message, rather I came away with questions breeding in my mind. A week on, I’m still thinking about the exhibition.
∞ English Magic is a powerful visual essay that reminds me how potent the visual can be. Objects, images, imaginative murals provide cues that stir thoughts, invite us to reconfigure what we think we know, or prompt us to recall what we may have forgotten. As Deller says in the catalogue interview, in a gallery: “you lose the inhibitions of your usual thought processes…you become free as you float through time and space…”
∞ I wonder what T S Eliot would have made of Deller’s fragments and glimpses and the fractures they reveal between the powerful and the less powerful; of this view of what happens to “humble people” when collective responsibility breaks down?
∞ Towards the end of The Waste Land, Eliot writes: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.” The visual fragments that Deller has brought together can be shored against, our amnesia or a collective sleepwalking…
∞ Deller refers to the three murals that form focal points through the exhibition as “revenge fantasies.” The final one shows a huge image of a hen harrier lifting a Range Rover in its talons as if prey. It reminds us that we are a part of, not apart from, the natural world; might the forces of the natural world have the last say?
∞ The views from the foyer of Turner Contemporary of sea and sky allow the visitor to clear thoughts and enter the wonderful gallery spaces with an open mind. I can’t help thinking there must have been something about his staring at the expanse of sky, sea and sand that allowed Eliot to “float through time and space,” as he drafted his poem.