Hannah Verster was contemplating the significance of T.S Eliot’s The Waste Land, which describes the concerns and fears of society after World War I, when she began wondering if those concerns, particularly about ecology, could be reflected in current fears about climate change. The result is a unique, interdisciplinary art exhibit helmed by the masters in visual arts student.
‘A heap of broken images: revisiting The Waste Land through art in a time of climate crisis’ has been created in collaboration with Western’s geology and earth sciences department.
Verster first approached Alysha McNeil, geoscience collections curator in the department of earth sciences, with the proposal of an art exhibit on The Waste Land and the idea of incorporating geological material into it.
“I was really excited about this collaboration,” said McNeil. “I am very impressed with how Hannah was able to incorporate geological specimen from our Dana and Suffel collections, which were gathered from locations either mentioned in The Waste Land or important to T.S. Eliot.”
The Dana and Suffel collections comprise international ores and high-quality minerals used for research or display.
Vester traveled to England in February 2023 to visit sites that served as inspiration for Eliot’s poem, and collected fragments of shells, rocks, sand and beach glass found along the southeast coastline of Margate, the town where Eliot had a nervous breakdown in 1921.
“The exhibit includes artwork by Reilly Knowles, Zachari Logan and Amanda White, as well as two of my own pieces,” said Verster. “Each work echoes the intertwining narratives of life and death, alienation and rebirth, and ecological devastation and restoration central to the poem.”
“Although the artworks included are not all explicitly linked to Eliot’s text, the exhibit considers threads of connection in the ecological sensibilities of Eliot and contemporary artists working in the context of anthropogenic climate change,” said Verster.
Eliot’s poem is made of five sections that discuss societal decay in the years after World War I. Verster and her collaborators have interpreted these themes to represent the modern-day climate crisis.
“In a world where the ecological issues set forth by Eliot in The Waste Land have been amplified to the point of climate emergency, this exhibit takes up The Waste Land as a generative frame through which to engage with contemporary artists who continue to explore environmental themes Eliot addressed 100 years ago,” said Verster.
“It is a beautiful display bringing literature, art and earth sciences together,” said McNeil.
The first section of Eliot’s poem, ‘The Burial of the Dead’, presents a desolate landscape where life struggles to continue. Themes of death, resurrection and values are explored through various symbols. Reilly Knowles’ contribution to the exhibit, Dolls, is related to this section, and references his own deep personal loss.
“Death and resurrection were a recurring theme in my work,” said Knowles. “I was also thinking about how bog bodies are transformed by earth and water. I meticulously stitched identical dolls, and then allowed them to be transformed by steam, plants and mud. Two sculptures were wrapped with plants and suspended over boiling water, and the third was buried for a time in a swamp.”
“Some family members had died during the COVID-19 pandemic, and restrictions prevented appropriate mourning rituals and space to grieve,” said Knowles. “Wrapping, tending to and burying the dolls were ways of mourning. They were proxy bodies when the bodies of my loved ones were distant.”
Eliot’s section, ‘Death by Water’, presents a contemplation on mortality and the inevitability of death, depicted by the tragic drowning of a figure in the Thames River. This inspired Knowles’ piece, Cemetery, which allowed him to experiment with ways that nature affect mortality through the exhibit The Cemetery.
“At the time of painting [The Cemetery], connecting with the earth was intimately tied for me with processing my mortality,” said Knowles. “I was trying to connect with these landscapes to come to peace with myself as future dirt.”
Despite a century’s passage between Eliot’s work and Verster’s exhibit, the parallels are apparent. The state of disruption caused by World War I and the Spanish Influenza then, and the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis today highlight the fragility of society at various levels but provide an opportunity for adaptation, the artist said.
“I found spiders nesting in old clothes and bricks nestled deep inside the roots of old stumps along the banks of the Deshkan Ziibi (Thames River). I came to understand the refuse as part of the landscape, part of the way we collectively live our lives, whether that be for good or ill,” said Knowles. “I began incorporating scavenged trash into my work as a way to find pleasure in this landscape in the face of climate grief, as it is a landscape which cannot return to an unmarked, pre-pollution memory.”
The exhibit opened for public viewing on July 17, 2023, and will continue until Aug. 21.