On the 6th of November 1921, T.S Eliot wrote a letter in his hotel room in Clifftonville. He was alone. The letter was addressed to his close friend Richard Aldington. In it, he explained that it was not ‘nerves’ that had been affecting him that summer, as his doctor in London had originally thought, but rather ‘aboulia’. ‘Aboulia’ or ‘abulia’ which derives from the Greek word for ‘will’- is otherwise known as ‘DDM’ (disorder of diminished motivation) is a condition often linked to depression or anxiety. It can be described as ‘a withdrawal into negative coldness with a consequent loss of mental vigor and physical energy’. It is located somewhere between vegetation and pouring your heart out.
It is perhaps quite understandable why ‘nerves’ had been Eliot’s preliminary diagnosis. The summer had displayed a number of nerve tweaking cultural maladies. He had read the final chapters of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which were first published that June. He wrote directly to his fellow writer saying that, ‘though he admired the greatness of the text, he wished he hadn’t read it’. And at a production of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Primtemps in July he stood and clapped and clapped in wonder at the shows end. At the time he was half way through The Waste Land, lost for words and exhausted.
The act of ‘looking’ in Margate is different to anywhere else. There an old shell that has followed you around at the bottom of your rucksack might develop new features, as if it were alive. Its ecology moves like a Mandelbrot set in motion. The atypical gaudy colors in its skies are brought about from its open, north facing seafront, a geographical rarity on the English coastline. These colours sense subtle change; in temperature and in feeling like mood detecting jewelry – the kind you get from a 20p twist machine. The colours create unique sunsets and daybreaks. They became a source of inspiration for Turner. The sea, land and sky developed as the subjects and pallet for a number of his paintings. To look out across the bay, which sweeps just slightly northeastern from the train station, is the site of Turner Contemporary, which depending on the time of day, night or season-glints or glimmers, constantly evaporates or simply disappears. Opposite the gallery sits a shelter with a flat lid, lined by Victorian iron spindles. It is low and held up by glossy white and green poles. In 1921, ‘The Naywood Rock’ shelter was where Eliot would sit and draft out lines of poetry. Some of these would go on to make up ‘the Fire Sermon’ section within his The Waste Land. He was not staying in Margate, but a short while down the coast in Clifftonville, and from there he would take the tram down to the bay and walk across the sands. He would sketch locals on scraps of paper and look at the sky, look at the sea.
A dead theme park greets visitors to Margate when the train rolls into the station. Twisted ashen roller coaster tracks end abruptly. Dreamland seems never to have seen sunlight. In 1919, Mr. John Henry Ilses, a Theme Park tycoon, bought the site of ‘The Hall By The Sea’ (an entertainment hall established in the mid 1800’s) and a 16-acre sprawl of land. He invested vast amounts of money on building a theme park intended to be so vivid, so big and so exciting that people the world over would marvel at its brilliance – Margate to England would be what Coney Island was to America. Upon opening it was made up of: a zoo, a miniature railway, a 2,200-seat purpose-built cinema, cafés, restaurants, bars, shops and a 2,000-capacity ballroom, which would much later host superstar pop groups, such as The Who and The Yardbirds. The park’s most impressive attraction was finally constructed in 1920. ‘The Scenic Railway’ was a glorious wooden roller coaster that boasted panoramic views of the coastline from its 60ft peaks. Today the majority of its original structure is lost after an arson attack in 2008 burnt it to the ground.
Though it was temporal what is left of The Scenic Railway holds the memory of a timely brightness. For a while it offered all the subtleties and inconsistencies of Margate in one heart-in-throat moment. Eliot must have heard in the distance the roar of the iron wheels on the tracks and screams of joy. His vision of the world, at least during his time in Margate, was of parasitic plants growing in the cracks on the pavement. In 1921, Margate with Dreamland was on the liminal, a place of contemplation and immediate thrill, a place of healing and exhilaration. The curling lines of guests – candy floss and balloon string in hand – slowly became opaque and disappeared. Margate today is full of terse incongruities as both a Dreamland and a Wasteland. Walking through the streets, battered empty shops sit opposite lavish wine bars and in the Old Town, just down from the gallery, a burgeoning young creative scene has blossomed, displaying works in vintage shop windows and putting on small exhibitions. Back up by the station however, the scuffed exterior of Arlington house loams despondently over the town despite containing its most beautifully appointed apartments. The town is in motion like its skies and like its history. The town has a face and is pulling at its skin whilst looking in a bathroom mirror, hiding its wrinkles, stretching the skin of its cheeks, pinching at its brow.
In 2012, Mark Wallinger was commissioned to create a site-specific work on the promenade next to the gallery. The black box that was erected had, what might have appeared to a visitor, an open façade that looked out to the sea. However, mounted on the ‘camera obscura’-like cinema, a camera would record the sea and display it on a 24-hour delay. In an interview in The Guardian Wallinger said of the work, "The thought of showing a constant yesterday – a palimpsest of time, if you like – is a happy one." Titled ‘Sinema Amnesia’, the piece was related to a work he had shown in Çanakkale, Turkey two years before, there, the words ULYSSES was written across the entrance. For the Turner Contemporary commission, the words became THE WASTE LAND. “…there is something of the convalescent perhaps of Eliot and him restoring himself by writing this great poem. But thinking about it, a day is the smallest cycle of time in which one can compare like with like, ones own self with how one was yesterday.” Wallinger’s work often plays with the inherent ironies of time and history and the ‘Sinema’ was apposite and astrological. In and out of Wallinger's box the town was both trapped and free.