Spill Writing

Spill Stains: Recall

by Anna Mortimer


On the surface, Hartley’s Recall explores recollection and the re-writing of memories.  It becomes apparent that something is slightly awry in this performance, for the spotlight is on you. The tables have been turned and the audience is the performer and the artist is not present in the space.


Hartley appears to me on a television screen, an evocation of a classic sculpture, a bust against a dark background; all I see are her head and shoulders. She is a mediated presence through a live video link. She tells me that she cannot see me (it is an odd concept to grasp when the atmosphere feels so intimate). As she poses her questions and slowly asks me to recall a memory, the feeling that she is able to see me intensifies; her gaze seems to be fixed on mine and it is hard to look away.


It is evident that although I am the author of this piece she is the director. Her instructions are quietly emphatic and I know that she knows I will do as she says. She is the one in control and now that she holds my memory in her hands, the sense of exposure and vulnerability is acute. At the end of the session, and indeed a session with a therapist is what it seems to have become, she holds up a token, a gift.


There are many layers to this work, with its weight and gravitas dealing as it does with the minefield of potential trauma and difficult memories in our personal and shared history.  The work asks for dis-ease, to sit with psychic discomfort, to be vulnerable and honest. Hartley asks us to trust her, she shares in this act of endurance, this act of excavation. A palimpsest of uncovering and recovering.


Of writing, re-writing and erasure.

Of undoing and repair.

Of quiet action.


There are also the peculiar echoes of a society under surveillance considered here too suggested by the presence of the video screen. Who is watching who? What is going to happen to the information that Hartley is gathering here? What is my identity if my memories are changed?


One click…is someone watching me?

One click… record…no erasure here.

One click…the brainwashing is complete.


I remember encountering Hartley’s work in Ipswich, and think of its refinement since then. The finer points of the performance have been worked on and the details more carefully thought through. There is evidence that Hartley’s mentor Sarah Jane Norman has lent a hand here. Norman also makes works that are visually stripped back and intricately detailed; both artists explore marginality, memory and trauma and play with the both the real and imagined boundaries between audience and performer.


This finer working of the piece adds to its sophistication and a real sense that I am indeed the performer, which leaves a peculiar, unsettled feeling in the stomach. The visual content of the work is pared back and minimal, leaving more space for thought particularly afterwards. There is nothing extraneous to distract here.


As I place my box with its cats pictured on the lid, my parting gift, I am left with a sense of the uncanny, those cats so similar to my childhood pets and those I have at home…how did she know?