Here is the shell of a single-storey, roofless house with bare stone walls, windowless windows, doorless doorway and gable ends pointing into the sky on the remote Hebridean island of North Uist. And here it is again, clad in entirely reflective aluminium sheeting by the artist Ettie Spencer.
‘It is the beauty of the changing light on these islands which caught my imagination,’ says Spencer. ‘I wanted to find a way to focus on that, while also underlining issues about belonging and displacement.’ All over North Uist these abandoned shells of houses—abandoned as inhabitants move away from island life, or into more comfortable modern dwellings—talk about the changing identity of the island.
How do we know who we are if we don’t get some reflection back of ourselves? This is the question implicit in her installation. The physical, changing reflections of the landscape hint at the way our reflections of ourselves as a species are changing in the fast-moving, cultural and political landscapes we inhabit. And yet, against the backdrop of North Uist, however quickly the light changes, things also stay the same. There is a quietness and timelessness—a different sort of reflectiveness. This is art to meditate on, not to rush past while on a cultural shopping trip.
The second part of this exhibition is inside the Taigh Chearsabhagh Arts Centre. Projected onto screens cut to the same shape as the aluminium-clad house is a film of swaying, lush, subtropical forest—as different from the empty, sky-filled landscapes outside the gallery as can be. This is what is not on the island—but might have been. The word ‘clearance’ is evoked by this film of New Zealand forest. And inhabiting the shape of a derelict North Uist house as it does, we wonder whether this was the place the islanders emigrated to. The year 2009 has been named Scotland’s Year of Homecoming, but these pieces raise the question ‘What is it that constitutes our home?’
The third part of the show—small pieces placed in the landscape (Spencer’s trademark)—are two upright vacuum cleaners. One is a polystyrene foam version floating on the water, the other a stone one recalling the stone cairns scattered throughout the islands. These signifiers of domesticity set loose in the wild landscapes of North Uist are a coda to the ideas of displacement, belonging and not belonging implicit in her work. Again she asks: how will we know what or where our home is, these days?
Johnny Bartlett is an arts writer