Dubbed ‘the island with no memory’, food, fuel and building materials were extremely difficult to come by, and citizens started to leave in the mid 1850s. St. Kilda’s was finally depopulated in 1930, after years of hardship and very poor living conditions.
It is this sense of isolation and alienation that artist Shona Illingworth seeks to link with the experiences of Claire, an ordinary woman who is experiencing amnesia.
It is St.Kilda’s imposing barren landscape that we are confronted with when we enter the exhibition, as three screens almost swallow the viewer whole. Gulls screech and swoop overhead as we are offered images of the coast of St.Kilda. That is exactly what the newcomer would be met with on the boat to the island, and quite the welcome it would be (should you want to call it that).
It may also be useful to draw the first parallel here – that the early stages of amnesia are likely to be a foreboding, all-consuming experience. The film loop also highlighted that art can just as successfully be generated in austere, confined spaces as it can in throbbing, vibrant capital cities. If you look hard enough, interesting artistic perspectives can be found everywhere. The sense of time on the archipelago was fractured – perhaps an island that has its own sense of time amidst its restricted space. There is a brutality in the slowness on the island, as if the spectator is wishing for something, anything to happen.
I particularly liked the night-time segment, when visitors to the island can be seen making their way across different parts of the land, each with a torch in hand. It lit up the island in a warm glow, and happened to be the only point in the exhibition where I found myself thinking “I could live there’. It also made me think of how the damaged brain might be mapped out via an MRI scan, finding new or alternate pathways for someone to function.
Following Gallery 1, I then visited the Amnesia Museum upstairs in Gallery 2 and came across an Iron Age fingerprint preserved in clay. This clearly is an environment man has been trying to make habitable for a long period of time. Who’s to say that the living conditions were more harmonious and hospitable 500 years ago than now? There were also no men photographed in the exhibition – was St.Kilda’s a matriarchal society?
I finished my time at the exhibition looking at a piece involving one of Illingworth’s collaborators in the project, Prof. Martin A. Conway. The Sensecam is a wearable digital camera that aims to help people with memory loss by capturing footage to help with memory recall. It was fascinating to see the positive results and the power of memory and how it can wane when lost or interrupted.
The exhibition doesn’t just reflect what it was to be isolated geographically but emotionally too and the wild environment proves a worthy backdrop to show the effects amnesia can have on someone’s life. As the remotest part of the British Isles, it still attracts visitors due to its UNESCO World Heritage site status. A place of great beauty, almost intimidatingly so. As for amnesia, it is these very memories that fade to dust. Here’s hoping new technology can emerge to help us all preserve some of our fondest memories.
Lesions in the Landscape is open at FACT until 22 November. Read more of Dominic's blogs, music and poetry at thedingledodie.com