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At its simplest, ‘What is Left?’ is an exhibition which explores mortality and memory through sentimental objects bequeathed to loved ones. Yet at its most complex, its interpretation and appreciation is rooted within the mind of the viewer, for though it is a work that is outwardly about other people, its power lies in how you respond to it.
The work is installed in an empty house near the infirmary, which anyone would easily walk by were it not for a temporary sign outside. It invites you into a narrow courtyard through an otherwise impassable gate and directs you to the right: to house number 1. To describe the exhibition as a photographic one would be too simple, yet photographs are its focal point. Around the walls are large printed images, nicely framed, each one depicting a person holding an object which was left to them by a loved one. Some of the objects are held stoically and some with joy – some with dry eyes and some less dry, but all equally expressive. It is this variety of attitudes toward the objects that make the work so compelling, illustrating the great multitude of perspectives on mortality and memory that permeate us humans. Though we are all alike in some ways, we are so different in others that it would be uncanny if it weren’t so delicate and fragile.
In front of each photograph is a chair, put there just for you, to sit in as you look – and not just look, but listen too. Each image is accompanied by a monologue delivered by the photographed individual, explaining the object and its significance to them. The sound is provided through an MP3 player which the show’s attendants give to you on the way in, providing each image with a deeply personal and often profound context. In some ways it feels voyeuristic to listen to such heartfelt monologues while focusing on a photograph of the speaker who isn’t there with you, but upon getting past this initial surreal discomfort, one realises that the work isn’t about merely staring into someone else’s life, but allowing their experiences to communicate with your own. It’s about connection, not observation.
As such, the work gives as much (if not more than) it takes, for one can’t help but reflect on something so personal when externalised out of boldness or for closure, or for one of any other myriad reasons which could be whole monologues in themselves. Accompanying the audio, paper booklets containing transcriptions are also available if the viewer wishes to read rather then listen, granting the choice between experiencing the words internally or externally. This in itself is interesting as it supposes that the value of the monologue via its mode of delivery might vary from person to person.
While the house itself is quite small and sparsely furnished, the physical emptiness allows for greater subjective fullness by providing a vacuum for experience and reflection. Upon initially hearing the building described as abandoned I expected a completely different aesthetic context than what is present. It is clean and well-kept, with none of the decay that I had expected to really inform the theme of mortality. However, upon engaging with the show it became apparent that as much as it is rooted in death it is more poignantly a celebration of life, and as the title implies, of what is left behind rather than what is gone.
The show can be found at 1 Thurnham Mews until the June 16th, before it takes off and continues its tour around other empty houses throughout the country.