Shona Illingworth

May 2003

Publication: The Sunday Herald

Shona Illingworth - Memory and Forgetting


Her luminous, grey-blue eyes light up even more during occasional moments of laughter and animation.  Her hands tell a story too: fine and long-fingered, they articulate the air in front of her – constructing, moving and shaping space.  Her voice is sonorous and clear, accented with a tang of Scots.


Shona Illingworth was brought up on the north coast of Sutherland by a Yorkshire father and a Danish mother, both ceramists – idealists, and individualists fleeing the rat-race.  Illingworth’s hands and her mind – with which she constructs language carefully but not ponderously – underline this genealogy of shaping and making.



Still a teenager, she left the north.  “In a sense the place was too open, too big and too empty for me.  I often felt that I didn’t belong.  But in another sense, the place was too full.  The weight of history was oppressive, melancholic.  It has a tangible quality in the absence of things – the places where there used to be trees or where there used to be houses and people.”


Now based in London and Hastings, Illingworth prefers the anonymity of the cosmopolitan city.  “There are so many accents and no-one really belongs and occupies space like in the north.  It’s a totally different, abstracted sense of belonging”, she explains.  I ponder this, pressing her for at least a hint of longing for the wide, open spaces, but she doesn’t budge.  “I love the city, the buzz and the edginess of it.  The city has a filmic quality, full of fragmented narratives,”  she says.  We’re sitting in the back of a Newcastle taxi.  I catch the driver’s eye in the mirror.  Cynical or quizzical? It’s difficult to tell.


But following her description of city life it is at least easier to see why Illingworth works with her chosen  media of film, sound and photography, rather than the primeval clay beloved of her parents.  And  it’s also now more transparent as to why her current exhibition, ‘Memory and Forgetting’ – a partnership involving artists and scientists – is so compelling for this challenging and intellectually alive woman.


Although she is less well known than the ‘Brit Art’ artists or the current crop of Glasgow School of Art alumni (Illingworth trained during the mid ‘80s at Goldsmith’s College, London) she has many credits to her name.   ‘Sounding 2001’  was a short film made for Channel 4, screened in December 2001 and last year, ‘passing’ – a video work – was commissioned for the Hayward Gallery’s ‘Turnaround’ programme.  She supplements her work as an artist by teaching: she helped devise the  new postgraduate MA course, Art and Space, at Kingston University. 


The show is hosted by Newcastle University’s Hatton Gallery and organised by PEALS (the Policy, Ethics and Life Sciences interdisciplinary research programme) and the Northern Print Studio.   It’s the result of a collaboration between four artists, including Illingworth, and four scientists, with each pairing worked independently of the others.  The result, as might be expected, is diverse, challenging and at times, impossible to pin down.


As its name suggests, the project focuses on memory, where current scientific research ranges across a number of disciplines, from neuroscience to psychology. This partly explains the varied nature of the show which extends from bright, abstract paintings to photographic slide projections.  Illingworth worked with Professor Martin Conway, a specialist in autobiographical memory at the Department of Psychology in Durham University.  


“How and why we remember is a highly complex field involving many specialisms,” she explains.  One area which interests Prof. Conway is the affect of trauma on memory and how traumatic events, through counselling and therapy, can be moved from one area of memory to another, allowing a kind of healing process to take place.”  Illingworth shows me a small diagrammatic drawing – a graphical version of the process she has just explained.  “I encouraged Prof. Conway to draw his ideas.  He was reluctant at first but got better,” she laughs.


The product of Illingworth’s and Conway’s alliance is a ‘soundscape’ which unfolds in a dedicated room and deals with the often detailed memories associated with trauma and upheaval.  Three distinct but anonymous voices recount particular autobiographical fragments, each filled with specific meaning.  A man’s voice describes his experiences of war; a woman talks about ethnic strife and conflict – possibly in the Balkans.  Odd details emerge: the vivid blue of a carpet, the experience of walking towards a border.  Then there is another voice – unmistakably that of a native Gaelic speaker with its specific cadences, inflections and phraseology.  The man’s anonymous voice recalls in minute detail his childhood memories of growing up on an island.  The image of a red wooden shed acts as the trigger for his feelings about loss and mortality.  The memory and the voice are both poetic and strange, a fleeting glance, one of those ‘fragmented narratives’ which so amused the taxi driver earlier on.


The voices on her digitally manipulated soundtrack reverberate through the room, the result of groundbreaking technology courtesy of a ‘smart’ material called Terfanol-D which has the ability to turn ordinary surfaces, such as walls and floors, into enormous sound speakers.  The voices and other abstract, bass rumblings assume a physical quality, resounding through the walls and wooden floorboards into my body.  The voices, memories, imagery move from wall to wall in a sonic collage.  Suddenly, its like being inside an amplified version of my own head.


I press Illingworth on the nature and value of her art-and-science teamwork.  The point of it all.  She’s cagey about giving the project an absolute and specific value but insists that it’s been a two-way process.  “Through my work, Prof. Conway was able to consider the value and meaning of sound for his own research,” she explains.  And Conway himself has commented that “sound has many of the qualities of memory: transitory, dynamic and with a temporal dimension”.


From Conway, Illingworth was able to gain more scientifically-based information about the different types of memory and how they function. She explains “One example is the use of the term ‘memory island’ where particular events stand out in a ‘sea of forgetting’.  This obviously resonated with the current work which uses one individual’s memories of an island.


It’s an important point, too, in respect of her own childhood.  I point out to her that it’s no coincidence that this dispossessed Gael is a voice from her past .  At last she concedes: “I’ve got the north coast running through my head all the time, like a film.  It’s there, it’s part of me.” Despite the apparent impersonality of this new technological art, it becomes clear, paradoxically, that Illingworth is an autobiographical artist and that she is also deeply interested in other people.  Through her work she attempts self-understanding and exploration of her own identity. Perhaps that not what she intends but it’s there in the work, which is all the better for this personal, emotive content.


* ‘Memory and Forgetting’ is at The Hatton Gallery, University of Newcastle