The neolithic settlement of Skara Brae was discovered in 1850, when a storm dislodged sand dunes along the Orkney coastline. In 1927 Professor Gordon Childe excavated well-preserved stone furniture and artefacts there dating back to 3200 BC, and expounded the theory that Skara Brae could be considered a 'Pompeii of the North', abandoned in a hurry by the people who had lived there for seven generations. Childe believed that a violent storm, much like the one of 1850, had raised clouds of sand that had hidden Skara Brae from sight. This romantic theory was later undermined by modern archaeologists who proposed that younger inhabitants of the settlement had gradually moved away in search of new opportunities, leaving behind them the old and the sick. But many holes still remain in the story of Skara Brae, and it is this quality that made it the perfect focus for the scattershot dialectic of Henry VIII's Wives.
Henry VIII's Wives are a collective of artists founded in 1997, and include Rachel Dagnall, Bob Grieve, Sirko Knupfer, Simon Polli, Per Sander and Lucy Skaer. They are based variously in Scotland, Norway and Germany, and are all graduates of the Environmental Art Department at Glasgow School of Art. Previous projects have included an unsuccessful attempt to make fire by rubbing twigs and striking stones, and a portrait of Che Guevara rendered in coffee beans. For their most ambitious exhibition to date the group built a 1:1 scale model of Skara Brae entitled Light Without Shadow (2002), explaining that a map of the settlement 'happened' to fit the floor plan of the gallery and that this seemed too much of a coincidence to ignore.
The exhibition revolved around building ideas out of pieces of the past, in both a practical and a thematic sense. The model was built from MDF used for previous Tramway installations, and was still marked with pencilled measurements relating to earlier works. Sounds could be heard coming from somewhere in the settlement, but the exact source - and how to reach it - was not clear. There were two video works: one featuring three blind people, exchanging dialogue sourced from a tomato-growing farmer and an acting class, and three young actors, who were provided with a script drawn from the criminal law courts and residents of an old people's home.
Under a low lintel and along a narrow corridor you reached three digital monitors, each one framing a middle-aged blind person in a room that kept subtly changing colour. There were two men and a woman. Her face was the one you kept returning to and remembering. 'Good, good, good', she said. Her slow pronouncements seemed a little like excerpts from The Waste Land (1922) except she was clutching strange objects instead of wet blue hyacinths. In her hands she turned a dried sea anemone or an ornamental jet brooch, gazing calmly with opaque eyes into the stare of the viewer. The scene somehow recalled Hamm's question in Samuel Beckett's Endgame (1957), 'did you never have the curiosity, while I was sleeping, to take off my glasses and look at my eyes?'
Through a linking passage the set-up was replicated, this time with two men and a girl in a dilapidated flat. Evening sunlight made patches on the wall as they went through their paces. This second performance represented a collision of the ideas of Konstantin Stanislavsky and Bertolt Brecht - the young actors kept attempting to construct a meaningful dialogue from the fragmented characters they had been assigned. A distinctly Lynchian atmosphere pervaded. The brunette asked, 'So, you were working out what must have happened rather than knowing what actually happened?' The allusion to Twin Peaks (1990) was made more explicit when a hooting owl appeared in the room, recalling the message Cooper received from a deep space monitoring system, 'The owls are not what they seem'.
The desire to seek coherence resurfaced continually both in the mind of the viewer and in the speech of the young actors, one of whom said, 'Nowadays I have to close my eyes - I can go back to those days - I can see everything'. Between the pauses in their speech we peered closer into the legend of Skara Brae. This is by no means the whole story. There will never be a whole story.
First published in Issue 69