The Language of Memory at Summerhall explores the relationships we have with objects and the shared language between possessions and the human experience. The exhibit centres on Whitney McVeigh‘s short film Birth: Origins at the End of Life, documenting six womens’ experiences of birth and death. It also showcases a series of found objects and drawings by McVeigh which evoke memories of childhood and family. McVeigh is an American artist who studied at Edinburgh College of Art; her work explores what defines us as humans and preserving moments in time by creating a connection with her audience.
Birth: Origins at the End of Life is a documentary style short film interviewing six women about their experiences of birth, motherhood and the idea that, now in their twilight years, they are coming to the end of their lives. The film cuts between the women being interviewed and the gardens of St Christopher’s Hospice in London, showing the wind blowing through the green leaves or the gnarled bark of an old tree trunk. It might be a cliché to say that the film was touching, but I certainly found it uplifting. As someone who doesn’t have children, I still felt I could connect when the women spoke about coming to a point where they had to let their children live their own lives, they had done all they could do. The women were also positive and accepting of the fact of their mortality, something I found reassuring as I was watched and I thought about for a while afterwards.
The rest of the exhibition centred on a series of objects the artist has collected over a period of about twenty years, from books and photographs, to children’s shoes, the sort of thing any family might have a collection of, handed down the generations. In my opinion, the purpose of found object art is to create a connection between an object taken out of its original context and an absent owner or place it evokes. McVeigh has created a face-to-face connection with the women of her film and now wants to connect us to her curated objects. There were vintage photographs, signs of their handling made visible with carbon powder, showing fingerprints from what could have been a family member, a lover, or the artist herself, it’s up to the viewer to imagine. Signs of being used and well-loved were more apparent in the old children’s books, the kind you’ve probably seen in your own house piled up and titled The Children’s Treasure House. There was one object that puzzled me at first, a small baby carriage, possibly a child’s toy, full of strange glass objects; I later found out these were old breast pumps, something that would have been a part of many women’s lives and something that I, a woman in 2016, couldn’t recognise.
The third part of the exhibit was a sound installation called 6857 days; the title refers to the number of days from McVeigh’s daughter’s birth to the day she left school at 18. I stepped into a small darkened room where a woman’s voice whispered numbers counting at a steady pace, she was just coming to the end of the 1000s at this point. I was fully expecting to feel unnerved, I don’t do well in dark spaces and I was left on my own because it was ‘too creepy’ for the person I was with at the time, but I actually found the experience quite soothing. I was reminded of being ‘it’ in the hide and seek games of my childhood. Being alone in the room I felt alone but not lonely; this was the moment I made a connection with the artist herself. After being so separate from the objects she has collected, its her voice you hear counting.
I found Language of Memory a worthwhile experience and something that has stayed with me since I first saw it. Found objects can sometimes seem empty and out of place in a gallery setting, feeling like they have no connection with the artist or you as the audience. These objects, along with the film and sound installation, however, seemed alive and made me want to know where they came from and who used to own them. In a world where things are becoming increasingly digital, how important a photograph or postcard would have been as a memory of a loved one is in danger of being forgotten.