ABOVE THE beach at Margate, a chalky-white statue of a soldier catches the spring sunshine. A wreath of white poppies has been propped against his feet. Viewed up close, this man is not in good shape: his military fatigues are shot with holes and a gash in his forearm opening up surreally to reveal embedded objects that hint at the trauma he carries within.
April is the cruellest month, a sculpture by Michael Rakowitz, is the first of seven works to be unveiled as part of “Waterfronts”, an outdoor exhibition that will be displayed along the south coast of England until November. The Iraqi-American artist’s work is flanked on one side by a figure of a man looking out to sea—a memorial to lifeguards who drowned attempting a rescue mission in 1897—and, on the other, by a shelter where T.S. Eliot wrote part of “The Waste Land” in 1921 while recovering from a nervous breakdown. That poem’s opening words form the sculpture’s title.
“On Margate Sands/I can connect/Nothing with nothing”, Eliot wrote. On a visit in 2019, Mr Rakowitz had the opposite impulse: “I felt I was connecting everything with everything,” he says. The lifeguard figure prompted thoughts of a memorial erected by Saddam Hussein in 1989: 80 bronze statues of Iraqi officers, who pointed across the Shatt al-Arab river to Iran, where they lost their lives. “I started to recognise the coast as a rough edge where hospitality and hostility meet. The corniche of Margate became a portal to the corniche in Basra, Iraq, my family’s homeland.”
Intriguing connections have long been a theme of Mr Rakowitz’s work. In 2012, at Documenta 13, an international quinquennial held in Kassel, Germany, he linked the Bamiyan Buddhas to Michelangelo, his family’s arrival in America and his desire as a student to “learn how to build ruins”— uncovering, as the curators noted, “unexpected networks of connections between fact and fantasy”.