Katrina Palmer: End Matter

Katrina Palmer, End Matter, 2015. An Artangel and BBC Radio 4 commission. Photograph: Brendan Buesnel

‘End Matter’ is a project by artist Katrina Palmer, commissioned by Artangel and BBC Radio 4. Palmer is an artist, and more specifically a sculptor, whose works take the form of words, both spoken and written. Her new work ‘End Matter’ is comprised of three parts: a publication of the same name, published by Book Works; a site-specific audio walk, itself divided into three sections, all under the title ‘The Loss Adjusters’; and a radio play broadcast by BBC Radio 4, ‘The Quarryman’s Daughters’. In these multiple formats the artist has explored the Isle of Portland. And explored is, perhaps more than many other projects it is applied to, apt to describe Palmer’s engagement with the small island, a mere 6 miles across and 1.5 miles wide, located just off the coast of Dorset.

‘End Matter’ is a fiction hewn from fact. Portland is an island, whose history stretches back to the Jurassic, when approximately 150 million years ago the white limestone of which it is made began to form. Its more recent history consists of the quarrying of this stone, most famously for the purpose of rebuilding the City of London after the Great Fire in 1666. It also includes the siting of the Portland Young Offenders Institution on the island, which was originally built in 1848 to hold convict prisoners, and was reconstituted in 1989. Palmer draws these and other events into her story, written as a temporary inhabitant of the island at the fairly central location of 52 Easton Street, which is a point of departure from the real and into the fictional within the project.

Palmer’s fiction is at its most fleshed out in the form of its handsome and slim publication. Despite this, the book is still an exercise in tracing the edges of absence, in that its chapter headings are taken from traditional end matter — epilogue, postscript, appendices. In her own words it is ‘a momento to the missing body of the book’ and yet it is filled with bodies, in the form of a cast of characters who animate the surface of the island, from the two sisters who occupy make-shift homes at the opposite and furthest ends of Portland, to the enigmatic and melancholy Loss Adjusters who document and attempt to counterbalance its great magnitude of absence, and to the young ex-con who takes up work as a grave digger at the island’s municipal cemetery. And while the audio walk and radio play are enriched by the field recordings, which transport the listener either to or back to the island, and enacted by the voices of actors embodying these roles, it is within the pages of the book that Palmer is most able to conjure the central nothingness of her enquiry.

However, it seems entirely wrong to assert that there would be a best way to experience the work. The three points of entry, although potentially discrete, simultaneously condense and expand the material in relation to each other. In the move between formats, from say the most extensive, the publication, to the most contained, the 20 minute melodrama ‘The Quarryman’s Daughters’, significant figures and actions may seem to disappear, but in fact only move from the centre to the periphery of the island,haunting the edges of the audio. This seems to resonate with the processes of the island itself, the compression that formed it and the excavation that has hollowed it. And this is key, for every loss an adjustment must be made: the material is not so much lost as it is displaced, absent but still extant.

By being on the island, through proximity, you are most keenly encouraged to contemplate the depth of the Earth below you both physically and temporally, encapsulated in that yawning absence beneath the surface of Portland. This is a specific experience, although could be argued to be generally true — if not necessarily so poetically realised — when occupying any aspect of the Earth. But maybe what is most important is what continues to ring in your ears, or hover in your mind’s eye, once you have literally or metaphorically stepped off the island. In this sense, the act of walking past a white stone building in London (or Liverpool or Manchester or even New York) and pausing, where you would usually rush by, to inspect its surface and perhaps linger over a ridge in its surface, which could bear the impression of a creature that lived more than 150 million years ago, is as much a part of the work as the echoes of sounds or words.

Review published by this is tomorrow, June 2015

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