BRIGHTON, UK — Memory is not the most visual of themes, so it is a challenging subject for artists. But inasmuch as contemporary artists need to be philosophers, memory is a big idea they frequently come to address. And UK/Danish artist Shona Illingworth demonstrates truths about the way we remember — and, more crucially, the way we forget.
At FACT in Liverpool, even the darkness of the screening room becomes a metaphor for the blindness caused by amnesia. The subjects of Lesions in the Landscape, the artist’s three-channel film, are a woman named Claire with profound amnesia and a former island community off the northwest coast of Scotland. The people of St Kilda were evacuated in 1930, so in both personal and cultural case studies, the capacity for memory has been taken away.
Illingworth is an engaging and fastidious interviewee, who launches right into the conversational deep end when we meet at the gallery. “My work with memory is not about a preoccupation with oral history or with the conventions and collecting of archival memory,” she tells me. “I’m particularly interested in memory as a very dynamic system that has dynamic agency in the present and is also fundamental to our capacity to imagine the future.”
But while dealing with the past and the future, Lesions in the Landscape is a slow meditation on the present. Filmed in silvery black and white, the remote setting is animated by a million seabirds; archive footage shows a camera-shy group of islanders caught forever on the day before they were relocated. The wide sweep of jumbo screens at FACT also suggest that memory is an expansive and immersive faculty, impossible to fully take in.
Our only points of orientation are the dogged self-affirmations of amnesiac Claire and a voiceover by world-renowned neuropsychologist Martin Conway. As Conway will tell you, we have many thousands of memories that never quite reach consciousness but which, like the turbulent seas around rocky St Kilda, have a constant effect on our lives. You can see why, in this context, evacuation is seen as something drastic.
Claire talks on film about the moment she came out of her coma, likening it to having been trapped in a tunnel. Illingworth has strong empathy with her remarkable subject: “She talks about returning home from hospital and not being able to recognize anything, not knowing what objects were, having to believe what people told her … having to believe that her children were hers.”
What Claire lacks is a sense of the now. “Memory is really important for locating us within space and time,” says Illingworth, recapping her collaborator from the world of neuroscience. “Where you have a sense of the past receding and the future manifesting, and a sense that you have gone from one place to another, that an episode has finished, you now move to another episode.” Without such an impression of moving through time, we lose all understanding of the present. You’d have to go to the ends of the earth to convey that somehow.
As beautiful as the film may be, Illingworth denies a purely aesthetic interest in the landscape. She says: “St Kilda is framed as a wilderness, within the aesthetic of the oceanic sublime, but that’s enormously constraining. It’s a self-perpetuating cultural construct.” The artist points out that there are empty ruined houses all across the Highlands. But she comes at the region as a former inhabitant rather than an outsider: Illingworth grew up at Cape Wraith, also on the northwest coast of Scotland.
“I don’t want to essentialize this for you,” she says before outlining a previous quest to understand multiple readings of a landscape. Illingworth found that asking a local person living in the Highlands to describe that landscape yielded minimal response, until she asked them to talk about an event that had occurred there. “Suddenly the description of that place became completely three-dimensional, detailed beyond belief. The difference between the two is that one mode was inhabiting that landscape and one was merely looking at it.”
In this case, making art is certainly a way of inhabiting both the life of Claire and the island of St Kilda. In addition to the 33-minute film, FACT is exhibiting a gallery’s worth of images, sounds, charts, and photos that correlate with the project. This is Illingworth’s Amnesia Museum, which she promises will evolve in dynamic fashion as the show travels around the world.
For now, the most striking pieces are a 1:1 scale model of dead tissue (the size of a golf ball) from Claire’s brain, the geomapped record of the day-to-day journeys of the artist’s team as they visited the island, and a sound installation that lets you hear the recording of an electroencephalogram charting Claire’s attempts to retrieve memories of her own trip to the abandoned Outer Hebridean settlement.
During her trip, the film’s subject was also fitted with a Sensecam, an automatic camera fixed at chest height that creates images to be replayed; these can sometimes cue vivid memories that she would otherwise be unable to access. In recognition of this hard work, Illingworth has nothing but praise for Claire’s commitment to making connections with the team and with the project: “The amount of effort she has to make on a minute-by-minute and second-by-second process to create and sustain [memories] is quite phenomenal”.
Yet while the film depicts a visitor to an island faced with the darkness of oblivion, there are ways in which St Kilda has never been so measured or so mapped. The stone walls and cleits (store huts) can be carefully plotted by satellites. The seabirds are protected and the sheep monitored in “one of the longest sustained mammal research projects looking at population dynamics, evolution and genetics”.
Those in danger of science overload, which can sometimes strike visitors to Liverpool’s Foundation for Art and Creative Technology, will embrace the poetic coda Illingworth gives her film, which is from the story of Pantagruel, a giant sea-voyager from the pages of Rabelais. “They hear these voices around the ship but can’t see anybody,” Illingworth offers by way of a gloss. But Pantagruel seizes these disembodied statements and smashes their frozen forms onto the deck.
There are plenty of facts in the current show at FACT, but Illingworth grandly shatters them with a poetic journey to a little-known destination.
Lesions in the Landscape continues on view at FACT Liverpool until November 22 2015. It then tours to UNSW Galleries (Sydney, Australia), Taigh Chearsabhagh Museum and Art Gallery (Outer Hebrides), and Dilston Grove & CCP Gallery (London).
Note: The writer’s travel expenses were paid for by FACT.