For her latest piece, ‘Lesions in the Landscape’ at FACT in Liverpool, Danish born artist Shona Illingworth presents a probing challenge to our traditional systems for recounting the past, exposing the fragile relationship between memory and identity, and the duplicity of fixed narratives.
The exhibition opens with an immersive sound and multi-screen video installation, over the course of which a complex, layered account of St Kilda, a remote North Atlantic archipelago in the Scottish Outer Hebrides, is slowly built. Interspersed within this are the experiences of Claire, a woman who, following an amnesiac trauma to her brain, has become reliant upon the accounts and testimonies of others to inform her of her past.
The piece draws striking connections between these two, otherwise unrelated, subjects. While Claire displays a visible lack of connection to the personal objects and family photographs that surround her in her home; St Kilda figures as a place similarly cut off from its own rich cultural heritage, which has been all but effaced by the romanticised constructions of others and then by the overbearing image of decline that marked its ‘last gasp’.
Despite being richly inhabited for over 4,000 years, the island’s declining population was eventually evacuated in 1930 when life was deemed no longer sustainable. All that now remains of this resourceful community is captured by Illingworth and presented to the viewer in a sequence of sweeping shots, which take in the crumbling stone buildings and cleits (store houses) that were left behind; along with archival footage from two days prior to their departure, in which the St Kildans appear strangely elusive and vulnerable, fleeing the camera as an act of resistance.
The construction of the islanders as naïve, primitive and ultimately ‘Other’ that (Illingworth argues) was ascribed to them in the wider mythology that developed around St Kilda, is directly critiqued by the narrative voiceover of the piece. By contrast, a strikingly rich cultural and religious identity is instead hinted at through the bold crescendos of Gaelic psalm chanting that fill the gallery. It is of course telling, however, that the singing can only be a modern recording, echoing voices long past.
Illingworth first met Claire through her long-term collaboration with Martin A. Conway, a neuropsychologist who has been conducting a major neuropsychological study using new sensory operated camera technology. Using this, Claire has been able to access certain ‘forgotten’ memories, which come flooding back in rare bursts of intense recollection whilst wearing the device. The promising results have raised questions around the nature of amnesia, suggesting that, despite the damage caused by the lesion in the brain, memories are still safely stored, as if within a ‘locked vault’ that has the potential to be opened.
Drawing upon Claire’s experiences of a phenomenon almost impossible for others to truly imagine, Illingworth worked with her on the project, making numerous trips to the island, which Claire described herself as actively identifying with.
Interestingly, this agency and underlying investigation into sensorial memory is only loosely referenced in the film through short passages in which, for example, we watch Claire’s hand linger over certain, especially tactile edges of her furniture, or as she carefully treads the well worn floorboards of her home.
By contrast however, in a second, accompanying part to the exhibition, entitled The Amnesia Museum (a related, growing body of works and material), we see Illingworth adopt an approach that echoes Conway’s in an attempt to recover access to some of St Kilda’s own vault of place memory. I was struck by a series of ceramic casts she made of the space in between the stonewalls in which the islanders’ eyes would have fallen as they built them; or likewise, by the inclusion of a shard of pottery bearing two Iron Age fingerprints, discovered on the nearby Outer Hebrides. Through such instances of physicality and embodiment of the relationship between landscape and place, Illingworth seems to find similar alternative points of access to an otherwise forgotten past.