Whitney McVeigh: Language of Memory

Summerhall: Until March 9th

Whitney McVeigh’s exhibition is centred on her short film Birth: the Origins at the End of Life’ and explores ideas of childhood memories and the continual passing of time. Aside from the film and one sound installation, the gallery space consists of drawings and symbolic items that the artist has collected over the years.

In the short film that provides the initial basis for Language of Memory, six women near the end of their lives discuss their experiences of childbirth and motherhood, often in very heartfelt and moving terms. It is an uplifting and calming piece, at times tinged with sadness, leading the viewer to expect a similar tone and further exploration of these themes from the rest of the exhibition.

Strongly relating to these ideas, McVeigh presents a darkened room in which you are surrounded by the artist’s voice whispering numbers up to 6857: every number is used to represent each day between her daughter’s birth, and the day she left school at the age of 18. The viewer is immersed by the seemingly slow passing of time in this piece, while the whispering voice of a mother adds an element of comfort. This successfully corresponds and expands on the ideas of motherhood through the inevitable passage of time explored in the film.

Alongside these first two pieces, the rest of the exhibition seems to jar with the initial focus, branching out into new ideas such as childhood becoming a memory with nothing but objects left to remember it. Considering that the exhibition is viewed in a specific order this could be seen as a narrative, moving from the comfort and immersion that childhood and a mother provides, to the distant and fragmented memories left behind when it’s all over. However McVeigh doesn’t give enough scope to explicitly explore the latter topics thoroughly, making the exhibition seem disjointed and incomplete.  

Despite the fact that the items in this latter section have been collected by the artist over her childhood, the museum-like way in which they are presented in stark barren rooms, adds an eerie atmosphere of abandonment: the opposite of the tone presented in the film. For example, a Victorian style pram filled with old fashioned breast pumps sits almost alone in a desolate room. Although the symbolic connotations of a mother feeding and protecting her child are implied, the antique nature of the artefacts make it hard to believe that they belonged to the artist, therefore making this installation appear cold and impersonal. It leaves the viewer confused as to what statement McVeigh is trying to make about a topic as tender and emotional as childhood memories.

Overall, Language of Memory is an evocative and, in parts, appealing exhibition. For those who enjoy strong emotional elements in modern art, the film and sound installation are the standout pieces. Despite some sections of the exhibition feeling incomplete, the element of motherhood in particular is explored well; perhaps McVeigh has taken on too many wide topics for one exhibition.

Image: Peter Dibdin

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