Travelling the imaginary landscape
Sometimes it’s better to wonder. In a world of certainty and scientific fact, where information is readily accessible and where a question can be dispelled with a quick search of the internet, the prospect of not knowing, of allowing yourself to drift on a current of curiosity can be an indulgence, a reprieve.
Alexe Dilworth’s work opens a doorway to a land and a mythology that is unfamiliar and strange, invoking wonder and challenging the imagination. When you experience her work you are stepping into another place, another time.
The work being shown in this exhibition is itself a journey, a mapping of practice which has evolved over a period of years in which travel from one location to the next, one island to another, is evoked in the work as it navigates between and within each place. The work dwells on stories: their telling, re-telling and invention. These stories may be new to us but they are as old as time, myths and sayings that have their roots far below the surface of our logical world view, stories we live by or cleave to, stories from childhood that resonate in the places of our growing up – the place itself and the place that resides in our mind. Ritual plays its part in the creation and production of the work as the history of practices and places is made manifest. In Dilworth’s work we are presented with the magical qualities of the world unseen but also the spectacle of invention, and the uncertainty of objects and images.
Here we find relics from a museum that never was, beautiful objects which seem to circumvent the principles of interpretation. What were these things for, what did they do? Our minds circle anxiously around the forms and textures; dubious, unsettled. The safe axis between object and interpretation is disrupted here, the territory of meaning becomes unnavigable as we are cut loose from our reliance on the title or the text and forced to rely on our imagination.
Sometimes even our wildest fantasies are no match for reality: a tiny creature can destroy a cathedral. Death-Watch Beetle speaks of the power of a simple, repetitive task. The beetle only chews, it taps its watch in the dead of night, it chews and chews until the wood becomes a membrane, a honeycomb, collapses into dust. The power of that tiny insect is brought to light, literally, magnified and exposed, the artist emulating the repetitive incision into the wood to reveal the tiniest of anarchists to the light.
Transience and permanence collide in the images from Ireland and the Isle of Harris. The angels have fallen from the sky: defeated or shedding their skins? The performance of the work in the place – casting, flying, crash landing - evolves through the lengthy process of photo-etching, itself a form of obeisance to the ritual of image making. Like all rituals it is both unnecessary and vital at the same time, a form of action which is purposeful in the act and the outcome, despite the possibility of other, simpler ways of doing things. The ritual of making distances the work from the factual landscape, and permits the discovery of the enigmatic heart of that place: its magic, its essence. This is the ‘place-in-mind’, that substance of a landscape which is irretrievable unless we concentrate not on what we see, but how we see it (Russell 2012). Dilworth is engaged in the imaginative rediscovery of the place-in-mind of her childhood, the enigmatic images evoking the mystery of the island and the stories and sayings which are inextricably bound up within it.
This imaginative connection to the land and exploration of memory is the hallmark of many of the works in this exhibition. Dilworth’s island is as much a psychical place as a physical one; a place separated from the here and now, a site of the past which is still urgently felt in the present.
“...no hard-and-fast line can be drawn between folk-lore and religion, where religion is handed on as living word and ritual almost without the aid of writing.”(Geddes 1955 p.199)
The blurring of the lines between folklore and religion is found in works such as Catching the Curran and Thief in the Night. Here Dilworth explores the myths of home and growing up, the curiosity of rituals and sayings whose purpose was oblique and bewildering (three times round the mountain, seventh daughter of the seventh daughter) but which despite the mystery had meaning, and power. These were not words to be taken lightly – if you were that seventh daughter then God help you. Religion becomes just one of all the other stories that overlap and interweave this place, faeries and the bible revealed to be equally dark, to provoke equal fears.
These works probe our certainties and find them wanting. The human capacity to meld two, or more parts of ourselves in a set of beliefs both rational and irrational; this is the true locus of mythology in the twenty first century. For while we stand back and objectively define the allure of these stories as colourful custom or charming heritage, at the same time that we laugh at the absurdity of it all we are stricken by a small dread that it could be true, that, in this instance, there could really be something here that is beyond our understanding. So we cling to these ideas, they resonate with us, but not for the logical reasons that we put forth. Our adult self-assurance collapses under the weight of the child’s imagination; wide-eyed and wondering. The pillow is dented, the body has just left. What does the tooth fairy do with the teeth?
The works in this exhibition do not treat storytelling or belief as flat, explicable constructs of the human mind, used to entertain or convey messages. In Dilworth’s work stories are wild and unruly, dangerous and seductive, reaching out beyond the tangibility of the world and luring us onto the rocks of our imagination. Spend a while with these works, and you will notice there are no people here. You are alone within this environment with just your curiosity to guide you. Prepare to wonder.
Dr Tracy Piper-Wright
Geddes, A (1955) The Isle of Lewis and Harris, a Study in British Community, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh
Russell, L (2012) ‘Remembering Places Never Visited: Connections and Context in Imagined and Imaginary Landscapes’, International Journal of Historical Archaeology 16: pp.401–417