A single-channel video and three-dimensional sound installation, accompanied by drawings and photographs, Balnakiel is a complex investigation of memory, history and spirit-of-place set in the village (and former Cold War radar base) of Balnakiel in the far North West of Scotland, where the artist grew up.
The film work at the centre of the exhibition offers a vivid portrait of this remarkable location, at the furthermost edge of Britain and continually exposed to, even under siege from, a hostile and threatening environment, in which the extremes and vicissitudes of weather are echoed by the intermittent thunder of RAF and Royal Navy manoeuvres around this still-active bombing range. As well as a study of this brooding, melancholy landscape, the work focuses on the lives and recollections of contemporary residents of Balnakiel and the nearby, older village of Durness (which has its own similarly troubled legacy dating from the time of the Highland clearances), highlighting a split between the original inhabitants of several generations standing and a newer influx of arrivals (who came to the area in search of an alternative lifestyle four decades ago).
Within this socially charged context, Balnakiel considers underlying complexities in the interaction between individual and collective memory. Partly shaped out of a series of exchanges with cognitive neuro-psychologist Martin Conway (whose ideas about memory formation are also manifested through a series of drawings that accompany the installation), the work draws attention to the strategies memory employs to attempt to either articulate or suppress strong undercurrents of experience when a sense of self and community identity is under threat. Celebrating the resilience of those isolated communities (while noting successive histories of displacement, cultural oppression and depopulation that haunt this landscape), Balnakiel gives voice to these contrasting perceptions and constructions of the past, and the way in which they continue to resonate in a place whose geographical remoteness belies its position at the forefront of considerable social and cultural change.
Read Steven Bode's essay Clearing the Air, which revisits Shona Illingworth’s Balnakiel in the light of her recent major work, Topologies of Air.