Absence is a weightless thing, but it can make for a weighty subject. In End Matter – Katrina Palmer’s multi-platform Artangel project comprising The Loss Adjusters, a site-specific installation and audio tour; The Quarryman’s Daughters, a broadcast on BBC Radio 4; and End Matter, a book published by Book Works – the artist attempted to account for the systematic removal of huge quantities of stone from Portland, an island off the Dorset coast. This extraordinarily pure limestone has been extracted from the island for centuries in order to build such imposing structures as the Tower of London, the Cenotaph and St Paul’s Cathedral. Palmer’s project amounted to a sequence of compensatory fictions: stories, anecdotes and narrative fragments through which the artist explored how Portland’s substantial physical losses produce its atmospheric affects.
End Matter was the product of a self-initiated residency, funded by Artangel and BBC Radio 4, as part of Open – an open-call commissioning programme whose previous recipients include Clio Barnard, Jeremy Deller and Michael Landy. Palmer occupied a flat above an abandoned insurance brokers in the village of Easton and, for several months, researched the island’s history. Portland is connected to the Dorset coast by Chesil Beach, a shingle isthmus portentously described by Palmer, in the End Matter book, as a ‘highway to oblivion’. Its disused quarries memorialize, in negative form, an industry that continues to physically diminish the island (Portland stone is now mined underground, rather than openly quarried), while a young offenders’ institution and an immigration removal centre mean the island is also a place of incarceration. These contradictory elements of displacement and entrapment are manifest in the stone itself, which Palmer describes as having ‘absorbed an enormous quantity of death’.
On the day I visited, the island was bathed in sunshine, which intensified this purgatorial atmosphere. The Loss Adjusters began in the derelict shop above which Palmer lived. The props were minimal. A green, sun-bleached pinboard was patterned with dark rectangles of lost memos and absent postcards, photocopying machines hummed redundantly in a windowless room and the grubby drawers of a wood-veneer desk contained the odd black and white photograph. If the effect was underwhelming, it was intentionally so. Palmer’s concern was not physical texture itself, but the ways in which fictional narratives alter our experience of space.
Enter the titular loss adjusters. This spectral group of bureaucrats, played by voice actors, narrated the audio guide element of End Matter (which is also available online). Their self-described role was to ‘counterbalance loss with presence’, though it was unclear whether these otherworldly characters were real or imagined, alive or dead. The voices led me out of the shop and into the sun, along dusty paths shaded by abundant weeds, past decommissioned quarries whose hewn limestone resembled oversized sugar cubes, through a church graveyard, down a dusty main road and back onto Easton High Street. At a couple of points along the way, I was instructed to play a new track. The audio guide evoked a whispering gallery, Palmer’s voice mingling with those of professional actors to tell the stories of a young-offender-turned gravedigger, a botched burial, a wild horse that triggers an avalanche, and a writer-in-residence who goes missing. These attempts to defamiliarize an already strange and unsettling landscape at times left me longing for more reality: fewer gothic flourishes and more of Palmer’s diaristic observations.
Both the audio guide and The Quarryman’s Daughters indulged in whispery reverb, skittering echoes and overtly performed dialogue that recalled the middlebrow production values of Radio 4’s afternoon dramas: contrivances that drew attention to their staginess, rather than enhancing the elusive nature of the texts. On the page, Palmer’s stories function like the literary equivalent of puzzle boxes: cryptic mechanisms whose hidden meanings can be hard to discern. Their somewhat gnomic nature dissipates when they are used as the basis for radio plays.
Perhaps the wider issue here is the ambiguous status of literature in the context of (or presented as) visual art: the need for writing to rebrand itself beyond the confines of the catalogue. Palmer presents her writings, readings and installed audio recordings as a kind of dematerialized sculpture, yet her fictions often assume traditional, physical forms. The book element of Palmer’s project, also called End Matter, resembled her previous published works, such as The Dark Object (Book Works, 2010), in its fragmented yet conceptually coherent structure. With chapters titled Appendix, Epilogue, Postscript, and so on, End Matter presented a collection of marginalia – parts of which were used as script for the audio guide and radio play – held together by the loosest of narrative threads. The observational fragments contained in this book, perhaps paradoxically, came closest to conveying the magnitude of loss that Portland has endured.