On Margate Sands, I can connect nothing with nothing…
T. S. Eliot – The Wasteland
During my year’s sabbatical from academia between my MA and PhD, one of the pieces of my patchwork of occupations was working as a Gallery Assistant at Turner Contemporary in Margate. Over the summer months of 2012, we had an installation on the promenade outside the gallery by Mark Wallinger — it was a “Sinema Amnesia” (a concept Wallinger had previously used in Canakkale in Turkey) showing “Wasteland.” The film was a constantly changing picture of Margate Sands, showing the scene from the previous day – there was a camera inside the Sinema, filming the view outside, which replayed on a 24-hour time delay. Sometimes, to a casual observer who entered the Sinema, it would appear at first that it was simply showing the view outside, but there were always differences to notice in the clouds or current of the waves, and on other occasions, there would be dramatic differences in the weather or the activity taking place outside.
“Wasteland” of course, is after T. S. Eliot, who spent time convalescing in Margate whilst he was writing the poem — part of my spiel was pointing out to visitors the wind shelter where he sat writing, and the film played on the notion of disconnection in the poem. It also resonated with Turner’s interest in the changing sea and sky in Margate — the gallery is built on the site where Turner lived with his mistress, Mrs. Booth, and he is reported to have said that the skies in Margate were “the loveliest in Europe” (its location at the tip of the Kent coast, straight onto the North Sea, makes for big skies and dramatic weather).
It was a treat to get out of the galleries — especially on sunny days — and it was generally better for talking to visitors (it’s no wonder many Gallery Assistants the world round look bored stiff — days go very slowly when visitors don’t want to ask questions): being in a small box meant they were a captive audience, and the work needed explaining unless people had read up on it in advance.
On the very last day of the installation, I was really given a run for my money, as not only were there more visitors in that day than there had normally been in a week, but Mark Wallinger himself along with various friends, was around, so I had to explain the work to visitors in front of him. There was also a very curious “visitor” who kept asking me questions who turned out to be part of Wallinger’s entourage! I think I passed the test, but it was quite a surreal experience. I was also annoyed that it was relentlessly busy because I would have liked to talk to him about Blake, who has been an influence in much of Wallinger’s work.
I saw some brilliant things on the film — people soon caught on that they could appear on the film when the tide was out, and there were some great (and mischievous) interventions; there were also some interesting wildlife moments — my favourite were the spiders dancing over the lens of the camera.
There were also times where little happened on the film and no visitors came. I used this time to get to know T. S. Eliot’s poem, and was struck by some remarkable resonances – or, ironically, connections – with other aspects of the work of and working at Turner Contemporary. I scribbled down my responses to various lines of Eliot’s poem; here they are, along with the lines that prompted them (Eliot’s lines are italicised).
Summer surprised us…with a shower of rain
We stopped in a promenade, finding a booth where we could stay
Fear death by water
Engulfed under its great weight, pushing down, pressing down;
A fragile figure beneath
I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring
Around a pool
What shall we do tomorrow?
Return and recall today
We stay, and watch the past unfold
Perceived the scene, and foretold the rest;
Knowing what had passed
I too awaited the expected guest
Who appeared, as clockwork, from a time past.
She is bored and tired
The broken fingernails of dirty hands
That wrote in the sand
My people humble people who expect nothing
Of art nowadays
But not all
The cry of gulls and the deep sea swell
Above and beneath this place
A current under sea
Prison and place and reverberation of thunder
Resounds in here, and there
Here us no water but only rock
Rock and no water and the sandy road
Down there, up here, over there
The road winding above among the mountains
Sharp, grey mountains, rising above the sea
And the chalky cliffs beyond
In a flash of lightning. Then a damp gust,
Once more, outside, creeping in, cold
Memories draped by the beneficent spider
Who danced for us
The boat responded
Shrimping in the sands; seeking crabs among the rocks
This arid plain
This scene; this stage