Publication: The Times
Whitney McVeigh: Language of Memory
12 Dec, 2015 to 9 March 2016
STAR RATING: **** (FOUR)
In 1928 the Surrealist poet and artist, André Breton, published a short novel, Nadja. The narrative mentions the Saint-Ouen flea market and Breton’s fascination with “…. searching for objects that can be found nowhere else: old-fashioned, broken, useless, almost incomprehensible, even perverse…. yellowed nineteenth century photographs, worthless books and iron spoons.” The use of such ‘found’ objects as artworks became a central part of the Surrealists’ method. A few years before, in New York, in 1917, Marcel Duchamp exhibited an artwork he titled ‘Fountain’, which consisted of a signed, upturned ceramic urinal. The use of objets trouvés has been a popular artistic strategy in the intervening century.
Here, Whitney McVeigh, who was born in 1968 in New York and trained at Edinburgh College of Art, makes extensive use of objects such as old records, books, photographs as well as masonry, a typewriter and an antique toy pram. McVeigh has spent the last 20 years collecting such objects and keeping them in her small London studio. They may, in her terminology, be described as a ‘memory bank’, a ‘repository’. Photography, audio recording and written texts are all, in a sense, methods of storing and passing on memories and information.
But these are the memories of others, now long gone. McVeigh seeks to reconnect these found objects to their lost memories, in a series of sparse, poetic interventions. ‘Solitude a breath away’ (a tiny pram full of glass objects with white residue) suggests some of McVeigh’s main themes – motherhood, loss, the passage of time and the fragility of personal histories.
Other works underline the idea of past childhoods. ‘Lock’ is a pair of child’s shoes, perhaps Edwardian, placed silently and neatly on the floor. Inside are two small rusted padlocks. These objects connect us to a past, but one which is unknown, whose narrative we must assemble individually.
‘The Children’s Treasure House’ is simply a collection of books placed on a plinth, the title taken from a series that includes “The Great Poetry Book, Vol. II”. McVeigh therefore takes not only objects but phrases as a form of ‘found’ text and, which, when placed in a new context, accumulate new meaning.
A short film, ‘Birth: Origins at the end of life’ made in St Christopher’s Hospice, London, records fragments of the lives of six women. There is a delicacy of touch here and a poignancy which avoids prurience or flashy production. Each woman, at the end of her life, talks movingly about motherhood and loss. A sound installation, where McVeigh enumerates, in a delicate whisper, each of the 6857 days between the birth of her daughter and her 18th birthday, complements some of the main strands of this poetic, fragile exploration of some of life’s most profound experience.
As with the best art, McVeigh expands personal experience to connect with the universal.