In the final year of my BA I took a module on domestic space and atmosphere. It centred around the idea of how the lives of those who dwell in a space affected its ‘atmosphere’. In The Poetics of Space (1958), the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard says that, “the house is one of the greatest powers of integration for the thoughts, memories and dreams of mankind…Past, present and future give the house different dynamisms.” Bachelard is offering that the atmosphere of a domestic space is moulded by the experiences, memories and imagination of its inhabitants.
The ‘past, present and future’ form an intangible ‘atmosphere’, rather than the inanimate space possessing this ability. So, what happens when these memories fade, or are erased entirely? Does the house cease to be a home? Does the past still matter or even exist? When I visited Lesions in the Landscape I couldn’t get this thought out of my head.
This week I visited my favourite local art gallery of sorts, FACT Liverpool (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology) for a blogger preview of their new exhibition Lesions in the Landscape by fine artist Shona Illingworth. Lesions examines the complex individual and social impact of amnesia, a condition in which the capacity to retrieve and form memory is lost. The past, present and future becomes unsteady. Time, unstable.
The exhibit uses various mediums to reflect on the experiences
of Claire, a woman living with amnesia, placing her psychological experiences alongside that of
the depopulated island of St Kilda, a remote island 40 miles west of the Outer Hebrides, Scotland. The overwhelming feeling of the exhibition is that of isolation. When Claire’s memories were lost and the people of St Kilda deserted their homes, what was left? What was real?
‘The past existing as a space you can’t enter or feel – the future a space you can’t imagine.’ – Claire
A thirteen minute film plays across three large screens in FACT’s darkened exhibit space. With speakers mounted around and above you, the experience is captivating as stunningly eerie moving images of rocks falling and crashing silen tly, irrevocably, immersing the viewer in the moment. On St Kilda we see the remnants of buildings, dwellings, homes-become-ruins where children once played and families once lived and loved, as Claire discusses her amnesia and her disconnection from the world. What stuck out to me most was how difficult the film is to understand; Claire’s vocal is difficult to make out at times, choral singing and loud music are discordant which also distorts the narrative. It struck me, as Claire describes herself as living in, “a world I’ve lost all the information about”, that perhaps this distortion is intentional. The exhibition pushes you away, making you want to understand more, to better show the viewer how difficult it feels to lose your memories, your past and your connection to the world.
‘I came home to a house that I was told was home, but that I didn’t know anything about.’ – Claire
According to FACT’s literature on Lesions Claire was 44 years old when a severe case of viral encephalitis left her with a large lesion on the right side of her brain. She woke from a coma to find that she could no longer remember much of her past, including her children. Claire could no longer distinguish or recognise faces, a condition called prosopagnosia and, in addition to losing her memories, she also had anterograde amnesia which is the inability to form new long-term memories. Most of what happens to her on a given day is likely to be forgotten.
What does this feel like? Alienating? Scary? Or perfectly normal to the amnesiac?
Along with the film, the exhibition also hosts an Amnesia Museum which comprises; film, photographs, drawings, objects,
artefacts and documents maps the landscape of amnesia. These
include super 8 images of St Kilda, 3D casts of St Kilda and of brain lesions that cause amnesia (pictured above and inset).
A powerful analogy for the isolating neurological experience of amnesia, Lesions in the Landscape draws together the amnesiac and the ‘island with inaccessible cultural memory’, which embodies this phenomenon of lost connection. Lesions in the Landscape is another in a long line of installations at FACT which discusses mental health and wellbeing in an open and educational way.
It’s an incredibly interesting experience, if a little disconcerting, and the Amnesia Museum will continue to expand as the exhibition tours. Lesions in the Landscape is a project supported by a Large Arts Award from the Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation dedicated to improving health by supporting bright minds in science, the humanities and social sciences, and public engagement. The Wellcome Trust has enabled new scientific study taking forward research into memory retrieval.
You can see Lesions in the Landscape for FREE at FACT from 18 September 2015 – 22 November 2015.
For more information on FACT’s own site click here.
 Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space (1958). Trans. Maria Jolas. (Boston: Boston UP, 1994) p.6.