Hyacinths for Winter with “Eliot’s Soil”

T.S. Eliot opens “The Waste Land” ‘mixing memory with desire’.

“Eliot’s Soil” is a major new work by the artist John Newling.  Starting in April 2017 Newling has transformed many copies of T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land” into sustainable soil.  Samples of the soil will be distributed to people visiting the installation in Coventry Cathedral Chapel of Christ the Servant, part of the exhibition Journeys with “The Waste Land”.  Alongside this work, and using the soil, Newling has created a work entitled “Eliot’s Note Books”.  These works take the soil in its various stages of change and transformation, to reconstruct paper from it.  In this manner each page of each note book contains the words of “The Waste Land”.  The note books evolve as a line of small sculptures implying an imagined line of editing.  There are 434 paper sheets in the work reflecting the 434 lines in Eliot’s poem.  The final books of the work are entirely constructed in a soil that, if placed in the earth, would grow and sustain life, supporting the exhibition’s themes of fragmentation, journeys and regeneration.  Accompanying this work is a film of the processes involved in the production of the soil and the evolution of returning the soil to paper.

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“Eliot’s Notebooks” John Newling 2017

John Newling’s display in Coventry Cathedral shows the transformation of Eliot’s text into the display of Eliot’s notebooks and soil, with a further work in the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum “Eliot’s Last Draft” 2018 to link the two venues.  A screen plays John Newling’s film of the process.

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John Newling (centre) with his composted Waste Land with Mike Tooby, Luke Beard, Imogen Parker, Karen Parker
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Luke Beard in conversation with artist John Newling

The project involved the shredding of several hundred copies of ‘The Waste Land” poem and the construction of the text into soil that can sustain vegetative growth. The soil will consist of, approximately, 80% text and 20% vegetable matter.  There will be several different copies of “The Waste Land” poem copied and shredded in the work.  In this manner the province of the texts are known and become a part of the soil.

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John Newling and shredder

The transition from text to soil is a slow process of carefully adding text to vegetative matter.  Each day vegetative matter will be mixed in with the shredded text and urine as an accelerant of the process.  Everything from coffee grounds in the morning, an excellent source of Nitrogen, to vegetable scraps in the evening, the work is intimately connected to everyday life.

The text to soil happens inside two compost tumblers which are checked and turned each day.  The spinning of the tumbler allows air to circulate and the tumblers themselves being made of metal, generate the important heat to trigger the slow decomposition of the text.  More text was added to the mix as the material evolved.  Newling says “for me it is a beautiful and wondrous process closely observing this transformation.”

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Shredded paper and compost in the making.

As with Eliot’s poem the process was started in April “the cruellest month”, the text very slowly changed colour, but with the words still visible amongst the small pieces of vegetable matter.  As Spring moved to the warmer temperatures of Summer the process accelerated, and the fragments of the poem slowly became a soil to sustain natural growth: another kind of language.

Newling claims: “I do see the soil as a melding of a great work of human language within the great wok of natural process; both sustain us and both help us grow.”

The Research Groups from Margate and Coventry visited John at his studio and Wendy Freeman made the following observations:

Beneath an overcast sky, standing amongst spreading umbrella fruit trees in John Newling’s orchard, paraphernalia for soil making, expertly honed for his garden laboratory experiments, were explained with passion by the artist.  An array of soil samples of varying stages of decay and fermentation were viewed and discussed with the Margate and Coventry Waste Land Working Parties.  The grass was green, but beneath its uniform surface lay many samples of collated soil types exploring geology and microbiology.–Art and Science unite.  Resurgence and growth potential underlined Newling’s unique professional practice, enquiring and contributing to the new expanding frontiers of Global Ecology.  A memorable and inspiring studio visit that emphasised the virtuosity of his conceptual work.  His contribution to the Journeys with “The Waste Land” exhibition will appeal to all age groups and provide a continuing legacy with food for thought.  More than enough to cheer up a depressed Mr T.S. Eliot ….A waste land it was not!

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John Newling and Research Group studio visit.

Eliot’s Waste Land text makes reference to several species of flower in the poem.  Hyacinths, the hyacinth girl, are mentioned and as part of the Journeys with “The Waste Land” exhibition at the Herbert Gallery and at Coventry Cathedral we have sourced packets of Hyacinth bulbs for sale from Taylors Bulbs of Spalding.  Now is a perfect time to plant hyacinths for early indoor flowing…and we think that these will bring  colour and happiness in the dark winter months.  They are on sale at the Herbert museum shop and also at Coventry Cathedral reception.  Take a handful or so of “Eliot’s Soil” available to take from the Cathedral display, and plant some hyacinths to become part of the journey of fragmentation to regeneration.

‘You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;
‘They called me the hyacinth girl.’
-yet when we came back, late, from the hyacinth garden,
Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not speak

T.S. Eliot “The Waste Land” lines 35-39

Eve’s Hyacinth Haiku

Hyacinth perfume
and blooms are memories of
joy and mythic youth

Eve Fleming is a member of the Coventry Research Group.

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