Re-collections, curated by Site Gallery’s curator Angelica Sule, includes three moving image artworks by Susan Hiller, Georgina Starr and Elizabeth Price; ranging from eighteen to thirty minutes in length. Before viewing I asked Sule: ‘What ought I watch first?’ ‘Would a particular viewing order make most sense?’ Her answer – that ‘any order works just as well’ – got me thinking about alternative routes through the same exhibition; a speculation that befits the exhibition’s focus on how narratives are told and re-told. So rather than writing a single review, I decided to write three. Each departs from a different point. Let us find out where they end up…
In 1994, bored and lonely during a residency in Den Haag, artist Georgina Starr constructed a miniature alter-ego. Part soft toy, part ventriloquist’s dummy, ‘Junior’ provided a stooge to voice and embody Starr’s negative feelings. Fast forward eighteen years and Junior (or so the story continues) ‘re-emerged unexpectedly from the small green suitcase in which she had been kept.’ The reunion between Starr and Junior provides the crux of ‘The Joyful Mysteries of Junior’ (1994-2012); one of the three moving image works in this group exhibition. First we see Junior’s construction – as Starr stuffs wadding into proto-limbs – and hear their early conversations, before transitioning to the nearer-present-day wherein Junior teaches Starr to tap dance and prompts reflection on time and change.
Using an object from the past as means to reflect upon the present provides an apt metaphor Re-collections as a whole. To inaugurate Site’s fortieth year the gallery team looked back at its archive, selecting three artists – Starr, plus Susan Hiller and Elizabeth Price – whom they had previously supported at pivotal career points. The works are distinct from each other, exhibited in separate screening rooms, yet each in its way explores how histories are recorded, remembered and retold.
Where Starr’s focus is autobiographical, Hiller considers broader cultural memory, built cumulatively through the articulation of many individuals. ‘Lost and Found’ (2016) is a composition of twenty-three archive audio recordings of extinct, threatened and revived languages. Spanning America, Africa, Asia-Pacific and Europe, the reasons for linguistic decline include colonial imposition and more gradual cultural change. A speaker of Sauk/Fox (indigenous to North America) describes punishments for speaking his native language at government boarding schools. In Blackfoot (another vulnerable Native American language), a woman intones: ‘telephone, computer, television, radio;’ hinting at the impact of technology on linguistic change.
‘Lost and Found’ propounds language as a bearer of tradition – a carrier of customs and a link to one’s ancestors. It commemorates and preserves even as the recorded voices index the brevity of human life. Hiller (who died in 2019) said in a 2012 interview with Ina Cole: ‘Our society is obsessed with conserving histories because we can’t conserve ourselves.’ Her work and Starr’s are haunted by mortality. Though Starr rebuts the resurrected Junior’s words (‘you’ve aged […] you’re nearly past it’) with a confident on screen delivery that contrasts with her more self-conscious younger self, I can’t help interpreting the works as being about the limited time we all have on this earth.
Price’s ‘A RESTORATION’ (2016) is superficially more up-beat. A characteristically throbbing soundtrack and fast-paced edits propel a fictional narrative about a group of ‘self-proclaimed museum administrators,’ constructing a virtual chamber based upon material from the archives of Oxford’s Ashmolean and Pitt Rivers Museums. Their vision is utopian – restoring fragments and gestures from past objects to create a new architecture with space and provisions: ‘enough for everyone.’ But narration is provided by a synthetic computer voice. And, though they wax more poetic than the bureaucratic and taxonomic languages upon which they draw, I ultimately conclude that the administrators are post-human, probably existing in a time when all humans are dead.
Still, for now, let’s be positive. As we wait for extinction we might as well enjoy ourselves. All three of these pieces are deeply compelling works; communicating complex ideas in an engaging way. Perhaps what they suggest is that we ought to shift our perspective from the individual to collective or from the human to whatever comes next. Forty years is a long time and it’s not very long at all. It all depends upon your points of reference.
The entrance to Elizabeth Price’s ‘A RESTORATION’ is labyrinthine. It winds back on itself once more than necessary, unnerving my expectations of usual gallery architecture. But the reason for the extra turn becomes clear: Price’s dual channel projection was inspired by the excavation of Knossos – an ancient Cretan city and fabled site of the minotaur’s labyrinth. Photographs and architectural plans produced during the excavation unfurl in a composite of fast-shifting text, image and sound. We hear of a team of museum administrators, rebuilding this architecture in a digital realm. A spiral motif links disparate visuals: the fronds of a plant, the base of a pot, the shape of an ear canal. The syncopation of the video’s six-four soundtrack shifts from looping, waltz-like sections to more regular passages – mimicking the regularity of architectural plans on screen.
Re-collections is Site Gallery’s second exhibition following recent redevelopment, and the architectural reconfiguration described in ‘A RESTORATION’ chimes with the reconfiguration of the gallery as a whole. In contrast to the open-plan arrangement of the relaunch exhibition Liquid Crystal Display, the space has been divided into three purpose-built screening rooms, entered from a central antechamber. It showcases the flexibility of the new gallery and enables individual attention to be given to the staging of Re-collections’ three moving-image works.
Georgina Starr’s ‘The Joyful Mysteries of Junior’ includes a video on a cube monitor, diagonally mirrored by a small, spotlit green suitcase in front of a gold lamé curtain. The suitcase may or may not contain Junior – a soft-toy likeness that the artist constructed in 1994. The props echo scenes in the video where Starr rediscovers Junior in said suitcase after eighteen years. They sing and dance together but also talk about disillusionment and melancholy. Showbiz, glamour and public performance cohabit with loneliness and self-doubt, highlighting conflicting emotions doubled within us all.
Hiller’s ‘Lost and Found’ is comparatively sparse: a projection and two rows of cinema seats. White subtitles on a black background transcribe short audio recordings of endangered languages; a green, undulating horizon line-line tracks the vibrations of each voice. From this paired down format hints of unique, geographically situated cultures emerge. A weather report in Navajo (a vulnerable language) includes evocative place names; a speaker of Bo (recently extinct) describes an earthquake and resulting floods; in N/u (now dormant) a voice laments how speakers would once gather to talk and laugh, but now he only hears N/u in his dreams.
Hiller finds a careful balance between generality (all these languages are at risk) and particularity (each has its own story to tell). Akin to the interconnections that I make as a gallery visitor between the three distinct but co-exhibited artworks, common themes emerge. One is community and communion (and language’s role in enabling this). It is a concern replicated too in the exhibition layout and the possibility for gathering integral to this. The central area between the three screening rooms is large enough to host events. A call out on the gallery website explains ‘it is designed to be used by everyone […] so please get in touch if you would like to occupy the space.’
Looking through the gallery’s upcoming programme I am struck, in particular, by the ‘Patricide Reading Group’ – study sessions on legacy and ‘how histories can be productive in our present and future,’ aiming to question ‘what and who the gallery is for.’ Though Re-collections mines Site Gallery’s past, showing work by three artists whom they have supported before, it isn’t nostalgic. The attitude of each exhibiting artist to commemoration is somewhat ambivalent. As the narrators of ‘A RESTORATION’ assert – whilst some objects were made for commemoration, others were made to be broken. Riffing on the monarchical meaning of ‘restoration’ Price’s video ends with a ‘delicate goblet’ depicting a king. It spins and falls as the soundtrack crescendos into cacophony; like masonry crashing down. Site gallery has a new building but its aim is not to be an edifice but rather a space that can be configured and reconfigured to the needs of its users.
The hyphen in the Re-collections exhibition title is a clever device. To ‘recall’ means to remember and suggests an imperative to bring something back. Here it’s the artists – Susan Hiller, Georgina Starr and Elizabeth Price – who return to mark Site Gallery’s fortieth year (they exhibited with the gallery previously in 1999, 2003 and 2007 respectively). The hyphen furthermore stresses ‘collection,’ raising a question that threads through each artists’ work. How do objects and collections (physical or virtual) embody and re-tell stories of the past?
In Hiller’s ‘Lost and Found’ a horizontal green line (a visual echo of the dash) bisects a single projection; screened in a dark room, with two rows of seats – cinema-style. Where in cinema visuals usually take priority, here the oscilloscope line tracks (and compels us to attend to) sound. The work compiles twenty-three archive recordings of endangered languages and whilst on screen subtitles offer translation, I found myself first fixated on the acoustic undulations. Some slow and low amplitude, others rapid and clamorous. Smooth or jagged, pure or complex; the heart-monitor-like line, pulsated to the sounds of speech.
The content of each recording is evocative but brief. In Palawakani (from Tasmania) an orator declaims sadness at his ancestors’ suffering on ‘invasion day.’ A Hawaiian speaker describes traditional methods for growing crops. The voices have a physicality and individuality that exceeds the systematic way that Hiller categorises – as indicated by the intertitles, which state whether the languages are ‘vulnerable’, ‘critically endangered’, or ‘revived’.
Price’s two-screen HD video projection ‘A RESTORATION’ is similarly concerned with classification, playfully exploring the stories told by museum collections. At a mid-point the video’s propulsive soundtrack quiets and a series of digital-folders appear on screen. The folder names reveal groupings of objects that Price selected from the vast archives of Oxford’s Ashmolean and Pitt Rivers museums. Several specify elements of the Sir Arthur Evans Collection (an archaeologist famed for unearthing Knossos) others are organised by type or function (e.g. ‘Antique Vessels’), adopting the typological method used by the Pitt Rivers Museum. Rather than organising collections by region or time, here objects are grouped with comparable items – combs with combs and pots with pots. In foregrounding divergent classificatory methods, Price evidences the restless potential for configuration and reconfiguration of the same material, supplementing standard methods with more associative links. Spirals, sound, gesture and gathering provide themes or motifs to facilitate transition from one section of the video to the next.
Associative links important to Starr’s practice too. The character Junior, who forms the crux of her video installation ‘The Joyful Mysteries of Junior,’ first appeared in a more expansive work: ‘The Nine Collections of the Seventh Museum’ (1994). Involving idiosyncratic sub-collections including ‘The Junior Collection’ plus ‘The Costume Collection’ and ‘The Recollection Collection;’ each grouped objects and experiences encountered by Starr whilst on a residency in Den Haag. ‘The Nine Collections’ is not in Re-collections but traces of it appear in Starr’s video work which chronicles her relationship with a self-made doppelganger. As we watch old footage of Starr creating Junior, subtitles appear on screen: ‘57 scissors’, ’55 sliced finger’ and ‘175 bandage for sliced finger.’ These texts describe items included in ‘The Seven Sorrows Collection,’ submitting corporeal experience to the rigors of a museum.
Memory is mutable. History is not simply a collection of facts. The sense we make of each depends on the modes and categories we use to frame our encounters with the world. System or instance, materiality or meaning, sound or image, body or mind. Which do we prioritise? The artists exhibiting here seem to answer ‘both!’ Like a hyphen that can bring unrelated meanings of a word into a new relation, they specialise in multiplicity. Personal experiences abide with historical narratives; artefacts are organised by likeness and by causal connection. They tell us that objects and stories provide important links to the past but won’t be pinned down on definitive meaning. Joyful, mysterious, lost and found – each time you look you’ll see something slightly different.
Re-collections: Susan Hiller, Elizabeth Price, Georgina Starr, Site Gallery, Sheffield. 16 February – 19 May 2019
Amelia Crouch is an artist and writer based in Yorkshire.