‘Sorry’ has to be one of the most overworked words in the English language. It can be spoken out of a sense of obligation, a confessional impulse, to soften an email or as a catch-all for guilt, planted into our psyche long before we understand the reasons why. It might be used breezily to acknowledge an error, or defensively to ward off blame. Rarely, though, do we say sorry and really mean it. For Annabel McCourt, whose latest exhibition I’m Sorry is now showing at Barnsley Civic, apologising is an opportunity for growth. Using a small neon lamp spelling out those words as a starting point, she invited twenty-six people to have their photograph taken with it as they offered up their own unspoken apologies. It was a way of confronting uncomfortable emotions – and of letting them go.
The exhibition marks a vulnerable moment for McCourt too. She has been taking photographs since the day her dad presented her with her first Olympus camera at fifteen, but exhibiting photography on this scale is a first: ‘Art for me has always been people hanging off a building and playing with chainsaws and fire… It’s never really been about painting or drawing’. Whatever the medium, McCourt tends to work on a vast, almost carnivalesque scale, infusing dystopian concepts with mordant humour. Her 2017 ‘Electric Fence’, for example, is a giant electrified enclosure she assembled in response to an American pastor’s hate-fuelled rant about wanting to imprison and electrocute LGBQTI+ communities. Then there was ‘MAGA Grabber’ (2019), which brought the worst of Donald Trump’s ‘locker room talk’ to life in the form of an interactive arcade grabbing machine. Both explored ideas of complicity by encouraging visitors to participate in the spectacle, to defy their strongest impulses and touch the works.
In an understated way, I’m Sorry is also about touch. When McCourt placed this small, totemic object into the hands of strangers, it created a moment of catharsis. ‘You’ll lose somebody for five minutes while they’re watching that neon gas looping about, as though it’s living’, she says, ‘Just to see that transformation wash over somebody was utterly fascinating’. She first came up with the concept after her dad died, though inspiration arrived slowly. While she knew she wanted to make something that would address the grief and regret she was experiencing, it was important for the work to provide an outlet for others too. The answer finally came in this tiny neon lamp, which people could use to channel the kind of feelings that might otherwise get swept aside in the rush of everyday life. It was a simple ritual she could bring to anyone who needed it.
The artist set up the first meetings unsure of where they would lead, arriving to photograph strangers in the darkness of gardens and outhouses, and leaving the results more or less to chance. The neon sculpture clasped in each person’s hands came to symbolise the fragility of human connection, and the moment of mutual trust in which McCourt handed over this delicate, breakable object in return for their image. She was aware that one clumsy gesture could end the project, had the neon slipped out of their grasp and shattered, but that sense of precariousness only made the moment more precious.
Much of I’m Sorry feels intensely personal – private, even – and you are led to adopt this same reflective spirit when viewing the work. Before reaching the twenty-six portraits in the main room, you catch a mirrored glimpse of your own face at the entrance, a sort of primer for all the introspection ahead. In an adjoining space, the words ‘I’m Sorry’ are broken down into individual neon letters, as if to deconstruct the concept of apologising. She kept this room as minimal as possible: ‘I didn’t want to ram it full of things because it’s so raw, it’s so personal, and it’s me laid bare in a way’.
The portrait room, of course, is anything but bare. With so much to take in, everyone will experience this exhibition differently, but here are a few that stuck with me: the boy with neatly-parted hair and the word ‘DEATH’ on his sleeve; the child with the serious expression in front of bookshelves jammed with art theory texts; the man with tousled sandy hair and a wall of vintage guitars; the woman in frosted pink lipstick staring out with blue eyes that seem to bore into your soul. It is about the power of suggestion rather than filling in the blanks. Who are they, and what do they all wish they could have done differently? The purpose of the exhibition isn’t to re-tell those stories – but curiosity gets the better of me, and I ask. McCourt offers an enthusiastic gardener who dived in front of her camera the minute he finished his shift, still perspiring, and a woman who wanted to be photographed in front of her ex’s fishing nets and ferret traps, documenting all the clutter of their relationship one last time. People confided in her about bereavements, or about self-destructive behaviour that drove them to apologise to themselves as much as others. ‘Some stories are just absolutely heartbreaking: so, so raw’, she reflects. ‘You kind of carry that back with you, and hope you’re able to honour what they’re offering up.’
McCourt wasn’t there as a voyeur, but to share her story too, and invariably the photoshoots led to long heart-to-heart discussions. She is firm about her intentions:
If you’re asking someone to be generous or brave with their time and contribution, it’s only fair to explain where you’re coming from. It could be a really flippant ‘sorry’, it could be, ‘I’m sorry I nicked the last biscuit in the tin’. For me personally, it’s about being sorry that I didn’t get to say goodbye to my dad before he died.
Having gathered her material, the next question was how to display it. Just as she’d once transformed Trump’s sexist outbursts into an arcade game, there was a temptation to gameify this project too. She toyed with adding fairground elements to I’m Sorry, perhaps through augmented reality, or sending visitors through twisting halls of mirrors to represent the intense self-confrontation that goes into an apology. But with every stranger she photographed, it struck her that these moments of connection were the point. Each meeting became a little pilgrimage to look someone in the eye and earn their trust, a feeling that couldn’t be fast-tracked over Zoom. If there is an element of interactivity to this project, then it’s an ‘interactivity for the soul’, she says. The exhibition marks an artistic shift from spectacle to stillness, following a thread that runs all the way from those initial meet-ups right through to the moment the viewer encounters the photographs on the walls of Barnsley Civic. She hopes that viewing the work will bring people to ‘a point of empathy, connection and self-analysis’.
The final stop is a small room where the ‘I’m Sorry’ lamp lies in a vitrine, still plugged into its battery pack. Having seen it in so many images, the vision of it up close feels disorientating, like stumbling onto a holy relic. But this room isn’t a shrine – it’s actually a chance to join in the project by picking up a piece of chalk and scrawling your own ‘I’m Sorry’ onto the walls. Again, McCourt was tempted to add a few bells and whistles – ‘You’d walk towards the light, the sound of the sorry would go up into the ether and all this’ – but it felt more honest just to provide the raw materials and let people take it from there.
It has certainly struck a chord at the preview: thirty minutes in the wall has started to fill up. ‘I’m sorry I didn’t fully appreciate everything you and Mam gave up for us’, someone has written. ‘I’m sorry I couldn’t protect you’, reads another. This is the optimism at the core of McCourt’s work: a reassurance that it isn’t too late to make amends. Many of the people from her photographs are here tonight too, sheepishly snapping selfies beside their own solemn gaze. McCourt apologises to a young girl in a puffer jacket for taking her portrait in sliders rather than her favourite new trainers, and is graciously pardoned.
The project doesn’t end here, though McCourt has learned by now not to steer it too hard. Future chapters might explore what it means to accept blame on an organisational level, she says, a theme foreshadowed by the giant reproduction neon lamp which has been fixed onto the outer wall of the Barnsley Civic. Of all the different kinds of apologies out there, a ‘sorry’ from an institution is the most hard-won, and in our especially litigious, blame-obsessed culture, the burden usually falls to the individual to absolve themselves. For now, though, it’s the individual that matters. I’m Sorry addresses a universal desire to cast off our most painful memories, to revisit scenes we wish had played out differently and to bear witness to our own lives. While forgiveness is never guaranteed, this exhibition is a reminder to stop seeing the act of apologising as some kind of spiralling debt, and instead as a way to finally let some light back in.
Annabel McCourt: I’m Sorry is on at Barnsley Civic, 23 September 2023 – 20 January 2024.
Orla Foster is a writer based in Sheffield.
This review is supported by Barnsley Civic.