Lesions in the landscape

Ella Rhodes on a new art / science collaboration.

A collaboration between artist, neuropsychologists and patient which explores the devastating impacts of amnesia, drawing parallels between the sudden evacuation of St Kilda, comes to Liverpool this autumn. Lesions in the Landscape, by Danish-born artist Shona Illingworth, is a new multi-screen installation that explores amnesia as well as the erasing of individual and cultural memory.

Illingworth has looked at the all-encompassing effects of amnesia on one woman, Claire, with help from neuropsychologists Martin A. Conway (City University) and Catherine Loveday (University of Westminster). Illingworth has worked with and filmed Claire, who, following a trauma to her brain can no longer remember most of her past, create new memories or recognise anyone – not even herself. However a new sensory-operated camera worn around her neck can help her access some memories from recent events in bursts of intense recollection.

Dr Loveday, who had been working clinically for eight years with Claire (see ‘Big Picture’, February 2011), said she had learned more about amnesia during her involvement with Illingworth’s work than she had in 20 years of clinical and scientific work. She said: ‘Shona is known for producing artwork that presents people’s experience in a sensitive but raw and very evocative way, and in this work she wanted to find ways people could connect like this with the experience of amnesia. Being involved with this project has made me a really big fan of multidisciplinary collaborations – it has changed the way I work with Claire clinically. Shona asks Claire really interesting, searching questions and encourages her to use alternative artistic means to express her memories in a different way.’

Illingworth saw a parallel between the sudden end to Claire’s access to her memories and the evacuation of the inhabitants of the remote Scottish archipelago of St Kilda on 29 August 1930, ending over 2000 years of continuous habitation. She saw that both marked an abrupt and irreversible lesion in a cultural landscape.

For her project, Illingworth took Claire to St Kilda, where she filmed her, and the installation presents three video projections along with an array of 20 loud speakers, which aims to create a fully immersive sound environment of voice, engineered and ambient sounds. Illingworth has aimed to create a layered composition where the sounds of thousands of calling gannets is underscored by intermittent sounds of EEG signals that capture the landscape of Claire’s amnesia.

Loveday said: ‘In this work we all very much see Claire as a vital part of the team, she was there sharing her knowledge with us about the experience of living with amnesia. We all have some expertise, but only Claire really knows what having amnesia feels like. I really hope Shona’s work will help people to connect with the experience of amnesia in a completely different way.’

Alongside the installation an ongoing series of Amnesia Forums will examine the politics of memory, amnesia and cultural erasure through discussion between artists, scientists, writers and researchers. This feeds directly into the Amnesia Museum, a growing body of work that maps out the landscape of amnesia. It draws together film, photography, drawings and documents, as well as a 32-speaker sonification of Claire’s EEG and neuropsychological diagrams describing the impact of the lesion on her memory.  

After premiering at FACT in Liverpool from September 17 until November 22, Lesions in the Landscape will tour to the UNSW Galleries in Sydney, Australia, the Taigh Chearsabhagh Museum and Art Gallery in the Outer Hebrides and finally to Dilston Grove & CGP Gallery in London. An accompanying book will be published in the autumn of 2016. 

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