It took nearly 12 hours to drive to the western isle of North Uist to visit an installation on a hillside. And as the boat pulled out of the harbour the next day, after a swift viewing and a dram, it felt like time had expanded, that the art was somehow built into the fabric of the journey itself. Full speed away from the windswept settlement, a skyscape of thoughts churn in the black waves – diaspora, loss, loneliness, beginnings and ends: along with contrasts in scale; of the artwork, a whole house worth of it standing alone; of the island itself—a bleak place populated by vast numbers of tiny lochs; and, rather grandly, of the planet’s land mass—still big enough to contain remote spaces like this, but shrinking in the news, psychologically and physically, every day.
North Uist still feels like the ends of the earth, but erosion of its uniqueness is ongoing and unsettled. Cultural battles over terrain continue—the scattered inhabitants now have a split new two lane road which, at massive cost, has not only failed to cut down driving time significantly, but has also killed the ‘chats while passing’ culture a single track road promotes.
Ettie Spencer has connected to this Highland landscape and its changing ways of life with remarkable vigour. Based near Edinburgh, she graduated from Edinburgh College of Art only last year, but, as a mature artist, launched her work, most of it environmentally-based, on very firm and fertile ground from the start.
Her commission for the far-flung art centre Taigh Chearsabhagh, in the North Uist ferry town of Lochmaddy, creates a mirror for the sky from the skeleton of a stone cottage, Wrapped in riveted aluminium sheeting, the ‘Metal House’ is a shiny, alien presence, which like Christo’s interventions, alters an environment for fresh
contemplation. The new surface catches all the winter light there is. The roofless carcass is identified as the quintessential child’s interpretation of a house—two gables with matching chimneys and two windows flanking the central door—investing it psychological security. A home. But as well as being a strong physical presence, the house becomes a powerful reflection of the wider landscape that exists, not only in the present, but also in the past and future. All three time zones are stretched across those walls, invoked onto the single silver screen, setting up a lyrical aesthetic of the kind expressed in the songs and words of the Highlands. At Ettie’s house you can contemplate climate change in the clouds or commune with the late 18th century, when the Highland Clearances began a rampant decimation of communities such as these.
You could also reflect on the contrast in culture across the country at that time. During the Clearances period, down south in Edinburgh, an ‘Enlightenment’ was underway and economic architect Adam Smith was advocating entrepreneurial spirit, something that the Highlanders took away with them to countries new. For those left behind, here represented perhaps by the ‘found’ composition of tangled roof timbers at the heart of this ruin, spirit of any kind was in short supply. Sir Walter Scott, a key Enlightenment figure, commented, ‘…the Highlands have been drained, not of their superfluity of population, but of the whole mass of inhabitants dispossessed by an unrelenting avarice which will be one ay found to be short-sighted as it is unjust and selfish’.
Just along the winding road, Spencer brings another circle of time, space and movement together in a very different setting. In a gallery within the art centre, she has set up another house, the same utopian shape, but this time made of blow-away material, in other words, a tent. The house is lent the sounds of a far-away place, a place where those people dispossessed from the Highlands would have gone to find a new life. And a place which today reflects not a loss of people, but, as more and more rainforest is hoovered up by human consumption, a loss of nature itself. Green and whispering leaves of New Zealand rainforest float over the gossamer material in film, creating, like the sky on the metal house, a powerful lever to the imagination.
Continuing her ongoing investigations into displacement of both people and nature, often through domestic channels, Spencer’s work in the Highlands ends on a tiny island neighbouring the art centre. A concrete Hoover, visible only through a telescope, is a hazy, almost indiscernible image, but its form suggests the ghost of our efforts to both clean and cleanse our only planet for better and worse.
Alice Bain is editor of MAP