Grace Denton: BALTIC RESIDENCY at Sweeney’s Bothy

In early September I spent a week in Sweeney’s Bothy, on the Isle of Eigg. It had long been my dream to spend some solitary time in this part of the world, but as the week approached I became a little anxious. The proximity to nature and the lack of distraction were alluring, but what if I suddenly realised my power lay in connection? Travelling north over two days to get to the island, I felt a slow-growing sense of peace and homecoming. The gobsmacking beauty of the west highlands passing the train made my heart swell – the swollen rivers and the pouring rain didn’t even dampen my awe. I had very little real idea of what awaited, but I knew it would envelop me, and for a short time it would be mine alone.

There’s a fetishisation of going ‘off-grid’ that I wanted to avoid. I took my laptop, my phone, my camera, and charged them from the solar panels in the bracken outside. I still used my daily crutches like films, audiobooks and podcasts so I wouldn’t be left completely alone with my thoughts, and panic. But being disconnected from the immediacy of phone signal and wi-fi made a huge difference to my mindframe. It might seem absurd to think we need to completely remove ourselves from ordinary life to see our work clearly, but for me, this was the case. The cloud-like distraction of the internet, of daily demands, of conflicting things we feel we ‘should’ be doing as artists, can make it impossible to focus on the art itself.

In the evenings as I sat by the fire I began working oilcloth shapes into a patchwork, partly to make something physical, and partly to have something to do with my hands as I thought through the work. I made a harlequin pattern of the fabrics, hand-sewing them into a stiff flag-like object. I’ve often played with these kinds of heraldic patterns from British iconography, and this harlequin formation has become a through-line in a lot of my work. I often craft the forms with inappropriate, plasticated materials to add to the absurdity of the forms I make.

Solitude is something I crave but handle badly. I worry that I’m too green for this trip, that the islanders will laugh at my puny waterproof. I worry that I will go into myself, miss the opportunities to connect. Alternatively I worry I will make too many connections, and feel swayed by others’ ideas of what I should be doing. My two pendulum states, the reticence, the pliability – extract diary, day 1

In fact I managed to find a satisfying balance. My plan had always been to explore the external landscape alongside the internal conflicts I encounter through my AD/HD, and my days became full with excursions into nature, ad-hoc film shoots, conversations with interested locals, and enquiries into the political history of the island. A lot of my work is based on instinct and response to the surroundings themselves – trusting that something will come up, that I will be able to grab it and make use of it. I look for potent spots within landscapes, in which to perform some action. It’s hard but satisfying improvising in this way, with the rhythm and capacity of nature.

Today I am walking from Laig Bay to the Singing Sands. Some guides say this is possible at a low, ebbing tide, but even then it can be slippery. It’s 11:46am and although I don’t know the times of the tide it appears to be retreating and revealing the sand of the beach. I’m sitting at the top end of Laig Bay for now (pronounced to an English ear like Lag or Laeg) to wait for it to recede further. The beach is clear if a little drizzly now, and thick fog covers the tops of the mountains and makes the neighbouring island of Rum invisible. I’m making my way steadily northwards, picking my way across the rocks and pools and streams. Don’t be ambitious. I notice a lot of the rocks that look slipperiest actually aren’t at all, and vice versa. It’s hard to tell the progress of the tide, as I move closer to the point between two bays, and lose my markers. Walking over rocks as meditation. You must stay completely present. I keep trying to find the meaning in everything. I’m not just being, or enjoying the moment. I’m constantly thinking what art might become of it.  – extract diary, day 3

I was drawn to the spherical rock formations, to the springs and waterfalls bubbling up from the hillsides, to the peat bogs and hillocks, to lochs of varied sizes, to the abundance of the plant life, like the huge self-seeded bushes of pink fuchsias. I tried to overcome the embarrassment of being seen performing alone outdoors, whilst also being mindful of this space as the inhabitants’ home. It may feel magical and singular to me, but it’s theirs, so I tread lightly, and avoid being a yummy performance artist, throwing off her clothes.

In a lot of my current work I’m thinking about sovereignty, and the many ways the word is applied in political movements – Brexit being the obvious clanging example. The word’s original meaning of self-governance has been applied to many social and political movements, from feminism, to the campaign for the rights of indigenous Australian people, to disaster capitalism, and a movement in America for individual sovereignty that exempts one from the power of the state. Thinking about this word whilst on Eigg feels particularly relevant, an island that gained its own independence in 1997 when a community trust was formed to buy the island from its then-owner. Since then the population have cooperated to make every decision that will affect the land and its people.

This was my one of my original focuses whilst on the island, I had planned to meet and interview many of the islanders, but it became quickly apparent that they are asked about this on a more-than-weekly basis! Since I had no desire to make a straight-documentary, or to bother people who were busy beginning the new season, I drew my focus inwards and explored solo. Honorary mention should however be given to Gavin and Annabel who welcomed me in and spoke openly and insightfully on sovereignty, Scottish Independence (or lack thereof), the island’s Historical Society, and their individual journeys to Eigg.

“Conservation is a contrary motion – backwards and forwards and pushing and pulling – forever the desire to keep going, yet looking forever behind to ensure it is going the right way, doing the right thing.”                Maria Fusco – Legend of the Necessary Dreamer

The whole island feels like an irresistible call to action, everywhere I went there were initiatives to reduce plastic use and carbon emissions, often led by the children who are clearly blossoming in this unique environment. I wonder how, as they grow, they will reconcile this (damn near) utopia with the reality of the world outside.

My response to these zipping thoughts was a final, absurd performance. As I sat by the fire on Wednesday night looking at my mud-strewn clothes hanging around the room, I thought wistfully of a washing machine and how nice it would be to rid myself of the peat and sheep smell. The idea then arrived to wash my clothes in the sea, in the rock pools of Laig Bay as the tide moved out. The next morning I struck while the iron was hot and borrowed a washing basket from my hosts Lucy and Eddie.