Whitney McVeigh in Conversation
Whitney McVeigh joined us at Mount Stuart to talk about her exhibition What is Worthwhile Doing in this World with Sophie Crichton Stuart, creative director of the Visual Arts Programme, Charlotte Rostek, Head of Collections for Mount Stuart Trust and Susanne Calice, member of the British Psychoanalytical Society. You can read an edited version of the conversation here.
Sophie Crichton Stuart: Good afternoon and welcome on behalf of Mount Stuart Trust’s Contemporary Visual Arts Programme. I’m Sophie Crichton Stuart, creative director of the programme, and I’d like to introduce our panel for this afternoons talk: Whitney McVeigh whose exhibition What is Worthwhile Doing in this World forms the subject for today, Charlotte Rostek, Head of Collections for Mount Stuart Trust and Susanne Calice who’s a member of the British Psychoanalytical Society and practices privately and for the Brent Centre for Young People. The exhibition consists of a group of new works conceived in response to the Bute archive at Mount Stuart. Whitney’s practice is concerned with identity, memory and the collective unconscious. She refers to the archaeology of memory as a central concept in her work and the belief that energy, in accordance with particle physics, never dies. During her research within the traditionally patriarchal archive Whitney focused on traces of two women Gwendolen, the 3rd Marchioness of Bute, and Augusta, the 4th Marchioness of Bute.
We’re going to start with a question from Charlotte Rostek
Charlotte Rostek: Linking right into that last mention of the 3rd and 4th Marchionesses I’m interested in hearing from you, Whitney – when you were thinking about this project, what drew you to those two female characters in particular and what was your first encounter with them?
Whitney McVeigh: Initially, when I came to research, I had the opportunity to work in the archive for three weeks. I started by looking at a catalogue of contents and considering the areas I’d like to focus on. I began reading the correspondence of Gwendolen and Augusta Crichton Stuart as well as the 3rd Marquesses correspondence to Gwendolen. I was interested in his idea of a 'communion with the invisible' and the unknown. I was particularly drawn to Augusta Crichton Stuart. One of the second objects I was shown by Alice Martin, previous Head of Collections, was a book on Mount Stuart that illustrated the house as a naval hospital in the war (1914-1918). Augusta led this project, she was head matron. I read hundreds of her letters and came across her travel speech to the North Bute Literary Society, and also a lecture she wrote in 1930 to the Conservative Association in Cardiff. In this document she asks ‘What is worthwhile doing in this world’ and says how gaining in life can be negative without the spirit of giving something back. I was taken by many of her speeches which she almost always began saying she wasn’t a politician or a natural speaker. She would then go on to say everything she wanted to. Clearly she cared about making a difference and sharing her experiences of the world. She had seven children and on her travels, she sent letters home about her anxieties, writing about her concerns for her children – I related to a great deal of her correspondence.
CR: The mother/children relationship is obviously very central to much of the work that’s on display and I wonder today in an era where real letters have become a rarity, what qualities do you think the physical act of writing and folding up, licking the envelope, sending it away, walking across the street, stuffing it in to the post box and receiving it at the other end, opening, reading, re-reading, tucking it away, keeping it…what do you think that physical dimension, that act, an almost ritualistic act, adds to a relationship?
WM: In many ways, I think it is a ritualistic act and that ritual is something we’re losing in contemporary culture. Particularly in a technologically evolving world, where increasingly things happen extremely fast. In the process of connecting to the material; there’s a much greater stretch of time if you’re hand writing, sealing, posting, the process takes time rather than the immediacy of what we’re dealing with today. In my research at University of the Arts London, (I’m a fellow there), part of the research is in haptic memory. Haptic memory is to do with contact with tangible, real material and memory that comes through that context – so craft, creating, making, all these acts, writing, drawing, are ways of furthering our connection to life – I was moved to read the letters, I think there’ll be a question later about the children’s letters – the handwriting in the bathroom upstairs is very evocative of the children as individuals.
Susanne Calice: I think that was a very good introduction to the question I would like to ask you. There are two pieces in particular I wanted to mention, one of them are the letters by little Colum to his mother in Lady Bute’s bathroom, Dear Mother, and your own text Wait For Me because you are portraying something of the essence of this life-long process of separating and longing for a return. You mentioned it also with the hospital here in the house, wounded soldiers suffering very long absences. The idea that there is this longing, the absence of the mother and the absence of the child. Would you like to say something of this ubiquity of the voices of our children in our memory?
WM: We talked about this together earlier. I think inevitably our children’s voices are imprinted on our memories. As a mother, they are something we carry with us always. One of the reasons for placing the four letters in the bathroom is because the room is a place of solace, of escape and quiet. I was looking up the symbolism of the bathroom, and the entries are references to personal freedom and spiritual cleansing. I thought this was interesting, by putting the letters in the bathroom, it makes a statement about how we never really lose the voices of our children. Mothers and children are dealing with a sense of separation, how to separate ourselves, all the time. The imprint of memory and the voices of our history are always in our memories and in the unconscious. We talked a bit about the unconscious earlier – the unconscious archive – the archive that’s built up of thousands of memories. We inevitably project ourselves into the material that’s in front of us and fill the spaces in between with whatever is in our imaginations.
CR: I was really moved when we were in the archive the other day. You had all the letters on the table and there were the boxes they had come out of and you commented on the idea of a whole life in one single box. It is in a way and it isn’t in many other ways. You obviously really connected with Augusta in particular and I just wondered about the shifting ground which exists, I suspect, between when you read something, when you’re thinking about another person, that this connects with certain things inside yourself and the commonality that you established as your way of getting to know the other person. I wondered to what extent there is Augusta and there is you, or has this project somehow enmeshed you?
WM: As I was installing and uncovering the final works, I realised they came together by working intuitively. It’s true, there are traces of Augusta through all of these pieces but there are also traces of myself. Going back to this life-in-a-box concept, I found it quite hard work reading the letters, both physically and emotionally. I had 11 boxes belonging to Augusta that have all been hidden in the archive and reading these letters, taking them out of the box, putting them back as if they only exist tucked away – I have a sense of an entire life recorded. She kept everything, she cared about documenting her life and it was all placed in this box and the box was her life. The 3rd Marquess did important work and respected women but Gwendolen is not really referenced in Mount Stuart's history. Even Augusta, when you look up the records of the house during WWI, it’s the 4th Marquess credited for the hospital, although she was later recognised as a Dame for her work. In history, though, it’s documented as his proposition. Gwendolen, in terms of this house being built – from the letters, I gather that the 3rd Marquess was away frequently, travelling, she was continually asking when he’d be home.
CR: …she was the Clerk of Works.
WM: Yes, she was really looking after the entire workings, the finishing of the building of the house. There is something quite strange about this idea of a life in a box, particularly when we all give so much to life.
SC: Here though, you bring the work out into the public space. We had a tour earlier and we went into Lady Bute’s study to listen to the sound installation She was Known to You. I was wondering if you could expand a little about your idea of bringing female voices into the archival space which is historically and by definition often conceived as a male space and why the difference between the feminine, female, and male space is important to you as an artist?
WM: It’s difficult sometimes when I think about that. As you know, my studio is filled with hundreds of objects that belonged to ordinary people, both men and women, and yet I’ve been doing quite a lot of work about women’s lives. I think here, inevitably what happened, is I found the voice of one woman and connected to it, she related to a lot in my own life. There are so many intimate statements to be found here. For instance, in the piece Way of Life, there’s the back of a family tree that Augusta was writing and the page that’s displayed in the case is a small text that says ‘I’m losing my eyesight and I’m getting older’. There’s something fragile about it, she says she doesn’t think she can finish this now. And I’m trying to think what your question was…
SC: I just thought it was a very interesting conception of the archival space…
WM: …the men and women…
SC: …you were discussing this with Charlotte…
WM: For me, this is definitely a statement. Rosemary Goring, in her new book Scotland: Her Story, talks about raising children, giving birth, keeping a home, keeping accounts, having miscarriages, all these experiences that belong to women, she says are as important as international events – and though controversial, it’s true. She argues that without the birth of children there is no history. This exhibition is saying these are the intimate parts of domestic life and of a women’s life that are as important. Also, she states it’s only for the aristocracy that these events are recorded, that ordinary women didn’t have their lives recorded or kept in archives. So I’m making a universal statement about women by drawing attention to the more intimate parts of the archive related to women and children. This inevitably became a project about women. My work is also autobiographical; my own children are growing up and leaving home and I’m very aware of the stretch of time and of the sense of separation that happens.
SC: …that could lead us to another facet of this exhibition which is linked also to my own interest from my work as a psychoanalyst. I’m interested in the concept of the archive which one could see as a metaphor for the unconscious. The unconscious is a place where new meaning is created in an interplay between traces of memory and absence and that is something that resonated with me when I looked at this exhibition. I was wondering, for example, in relation to the first piece we see, Way of Life, when we look at all these keepsakes and when we hear peoples comments, how the public bring their own memories and go back in time and associations are triggered, feelings, it’s a whole in a way. I wondered if you could expand a little bit on your own position about whether it is possible to create new meaning nowadays because we know in postmodern continental philosophy there is a doubt as to our limited capacity to do that.
WM: I believe it’s possible to create new meaning. It takes risking one’s self but surely as artists that is the true quest – to try and access unknown spaces, to reinvent and to create new meaning. Plato says “languages are not made but grow”. He believed that in our lifetimes, we connect to physical material in order to trigger the sensory imagination. I’m interested in this idea of the projected space in between, that objects collect layers of history through their existence, whether it’s any ordinary object, in each position its occupied, there is a sense that it has collected something of the other. As humans, we’re meeting the actual invisible space, it’s described in your guide book at Mount Stuart – the communion with the invisible. With this belief, we can reach higher depths of any kind of meaning. The title circular line around the radial poem written for the conservatory piece is from the 1930s speech that Augusta wrote, and the second line is her second question in the speech. I intuitively created a space in between; but it was also transforming an existing document from the archive into something that belonged to me, yet carried traces of Augusta’s history. In other words, it took on its own meaning because I let it, I followed and trusted the unknown space in order to form something. I think that’s when the best work happens. When you’re too considered, the work becomes too fixed in its outcome.
SCS: I notice that your work has a strong sense of narrative, often a narrative that specifically records the passing of time. I’m thinking of your previous work 6671 days, a landscape project for Nirox Sculpture Foundation, South Africa, 2016, in which you arranged 6671 stones marking the time between your son’s birth to the day he left school aged 18. I wonder if you could speak to this question of narrative and also why in this exhibition you decided to take the step of using actual text as a form of narrative?
WM: I see it more as process rather than narrative. The work in South Africa was made at the Nirox Foundation in the Cradle of Humankind, formerly an inland sea and thousands of years old, where supposedly 30% of human evolution came from. I was in the landscape and made the installation which took me three weeks of collecting 6671 stones. They were laid out in rows of 50, symbolic of regeneration and our connection to the sky. It was an autobiographical piece and a place of contemplation, as well as a way to process the separation that happened during the raising of my children. I did the same for my daughter; I whispered from 1 to 6857 in a sound work which was played in St Barnabas Chapel in London, (with curator Holly Knox Yeoman), another way of marking time and my own experience. This idea of the experience of time is something that interests me, but I’d say in terms of narrative, and in terms of using text, I see my work as more of a way of processing my own experience. With regards to the use of text, I’d been thinking about writing an open letter to the public for many years – I had these ideas to write something about my views of the world but in the end it turned out to be an almost poetic exploration of the archive. It evolved into something unexpected which happens with my work. I’ve been writing poetry for years, I’ve never done anything with it and felt a need to write and because the archive is to do with documentation, it felt relevant.
SCS: I’m glad that you found your voice with the poetry and included it in this exhibition.
The Family Bedroom where you’ve placed two Mother and Child drawings was conceived by the 3rd Marquess and his architect as a dedication to marriage and family – the marital bed is ornate besides which a cradle sits poignantly with an icon of a mother and child hanging above. A mural of St. Margaret, the epitome of piety, runs around the room. The carved ceiling is decorated with the inter-marital crests of each family and a rope representing the longevity of love and marriage curls between them. In comparison to this idealisation I’m interested in the reality that you present of motherhood, the sweat and pain and sometimes solitude.
WM: One of the drawings is brutal in a way, motherhood is multi-layered and the drawings, even though they represent the carrying of a child, at the same time represent the complexities that come with raising a child, whether it’s the millions of thoughts around us or the doubts and uncertainties. The right hand drawing is fragmented; the left one, which is more solid and sculptural, suggests a sense of protection and yet at the same time it appears vulnerable – so there’s a juxtaposition that’s happening in these works.
SCS: in connection with this I’d like to refer back to your previous work solitude a breath away which was shown at Glasstress at the 55th Venice Biennale, 2013, and subsequently at Summerhall in 2015 as part of your solo exhibition Language of Memory. The work, a baby carriage carrying a full load of glass breast pumps based on a 19th century pump cast in Murano, addressed the themes of giving and containing around motherhood. Personally I found it to be very moving. Could you say something in connection with this work and the works at Mount Stuart?
WM: I’d say that I was working with my own notion of the archive.The work is made up of 50 breast pumps based on a pump made in the 1890s that was in my studio. The piece is about the carrying of the mother, from the child’s point of view. The carriage is very old leather, it’s almost miniature, and it was full of these pumps and so it’s also about the giving of the body. You’re vulnerable when you first have a child and everything’s changing. This is about the giving of the body, abjection and it’s also about this idea that we carry our mothers in our lifetimes which can be complex. So it’s its own assemblage, a filling of the space and its own archive.
Going back to Susanne’s question about meaning, I was thinking about what Jung says. In his book Four Archetypes, he states “What is your myth” and suggests the loss of meaning in contemporary culture is part of our neurosis. I think this is interesting because of a need to find new meaning, through stories as a metaphor and to extend and expand our knowledge through all these means. In other words there needs to be true meaning in the world, it's why theatre, opera, music and classical themes, that relate to storytelling in our history, stand the test of time because they’re human stories.
SCS: Thank you Whitney, Susanne, Charlotte.
The text of this conversation has been edited for clarity.