Absence - Reflections: Sandra

Gabriel’s has lost its way.

I re-visited the site yesterday with Andrew and my brother and sister-in-law, visiting us from the States. My visit was tinged with sadness, nostalgia perhaps. Andrew asked me how it felt to be back.

It was a lovely day, with a light breeze and glimpses of sunlight through the clouds. I noticed that the performance had already become what I would call a memory. As I looked around me, I was trying to recall the actual moments of performance, the characters and movements, the sensations and feelings that had accompanied my performance there. As I tried to describe ‘Absence’ to my family, I felt it slipping away further; my description felt inadequate and slightly boring. How does one describe a transitory mosaic of moving impressions without sounding fragmented? Even the memory began to lose its texture and its volume. I fell silent and with moved on, walking up Golden Cap to be greeted by spectacular views across Dorset.

When I had returned to the site a few days after the performances, it was as if my body and imagination were still fully alert to the environment of the chapel: I remembered bumps in the ground, particular thistles, the colour of the stones, the creak of the gate and the dimensions of the water trough. The site seemed sharply defined and glowing at the same time. It seemed to command my presence. I knew the site very well from days of devising and rehearsing in different weathers and at different times of day. My dog and I had stayed quietly at the site as the world went by: walkers, runners, children, dogs, National Trust staff, holiday let visitors, BBC film crews.

All the comings and goings influenced the creation of various characters in the piece, as did the historical details that Andrew unearthed from various archives, and by talking to those who still remembered the old stories about St Gabriel’s. For example, uncovering the old road, which I walked along from home to rehearsals each day. Or discovering that the fields around Stanton were blue at one time as they used to grow flax there, as well as hemp. We looked for hemp clothes for our costumes and made elderflower cordial for our guests from the trees around the chapel. I had grown to love the particular quietness of that place, and to love the aliveness of all that had gone before.

Working on a site so close to home meant that I now see the landscape around me in a totally different way. I can feel and see traces of the historical ‘taskscape’ (Ingold, 2000: 199) underlying the present day activities. The taskscape is is the visible sign of relational activities in the environment, through time. The landscape is the taskscape in its embodied form, just like the body is the lifecycle in its embodied form. (Reeve, 2009: 172) My performance has created new invisible traces around the chapel and my intention is to perform it seasonally over a number of years, so that for the performers it becomes a regular event of remembrance and renewal within an annual cycle and for potential audiences it becomes part of the local calendar of events.

I had stayed at the chapel for a while, devising, rehearsing and discovering my autobiographical associations with the place through moving there. El created the soundtrack from violin pieces inspired by the site, from local voices and texts, from natural sounds recorded on site, including singing in the chapel on Ascension Day. She also created two pieces that she would play live on site to open and to close the performance. Audience members then walked down on a Sunday afternoon in July, following two different possible routes, to witness one of the three performances that El and I performed that day and listen to the soundtrack on an MP3 player.

The MP3 players meant that people could choose to move around during the performance and look at whatever was going on from motion rather than from stasis, as well as from many different angles. My experience was that the proximity of the sound enabled me to enter the imaginative world of the performance without losing the actuality of the site. It also meant that if a walker came by during the performance to visit the chapel, they were not disturbed by imposed sound but could be included in the ‘array of related activities’. (Ingold, 2000: 199) When the soundtrack finished and I heard the live viola music from the chapel, I found that I was acutely present both to my own feelings and physical sensations and to my surroundings and the other people.

Audiences, each with their own particular character, had arrived, stayed for a while, and then had left again, in three waves throughout the day. Most of the children came for the 3 o'clock performance. It was tea-time when they left. I stayed there for the whole day, feeling the surges of presence and absence, in myself and in my surroundings, the cycle of the day marked by the three performances.

Then it was time for me to go, too. We took down Greta’s sculpture, ManChild, which had stood firmly in position on the ridge above the chapel. We removed the bench we had brought onto the site, the sack, the rope, the walking stick and the guidebook. Everything else stayed. We left the chapel and went to take down all the laminated arrows that had marked the possible walking routes to the chapel. Dusk was falling as we finished the task.

The last person we met, as we took down the signs in the woods, was the one person who had got lost in the afternoon – she never made it to the chapel or the performance, despite all our attempts at providing maps online and real life signposts .

She lost her way – but returned home safely to London, with the help of the Coastguard.

We made our way home by car.


Sandra Reeve, 14th September 2010

See Andrew's Reflections here

Ingold, T. (2000) The Perception of the Environment, London: Routledge.
Reeve, S. (2009) The Ecological Body, PhD thesis, University of Exeter.