Audiences, Participation & Engagement, Museum Curation

The Lost Girl – practice as research

Dr Kate McMillan 

In a recent public lecture, the well-known curator and art critic Nicolas Bourriaud declared that when he has questions, he makes an exhibition, and when he has answers he writes a book. This statement really resonated for me, as both an artist and a writer on art. During the course of my current exhibition, The Lost Girl, at Arcade in Bush House, I have given much thought to the role of arts-based research in the academy. This is my first creative work at King’s. The absence of an art school, or even an art history department has created particular challenges. In CMCI I am the only arts-based researcher. Yet I work amongst people who value and teach on the essential role of cultural production. This tension provides unique challenges to ensure value is attributed to research that arises through artistic practice. I also co-convene the Arts-Based Research route for MA dissertations and each year a dozen or more of our 200 students select to undertake this riskier and more challenging research route.

For twenty-five years I have worked as a research-led artist. In this way I might distinguish myself from an artist who is interested primarily in the material expansion and vocabulary of their practice, an approach often embodied by artists who chose a singular medium, such as painting. Rather, I find myself drawn to concepts and ideas, and work within an expanded practice of making that incorporates a wide variety of materials and approaches. In my PhD I argued that contemporary art enables an un-forgetting of colonial histories in distinct and empathic ways – that it enables the audience to embody what has been forgotten. As such, I often create environments that use film, as well as sound – I want the audience to ‘be in’ the work. I also believe that the freedom of researching through practice brings the advantages of interdisciplinary collaboration – working with other creative practitioners and knowledge makers, as well as drawing from other disciplines such as history, science and literature.

The Lost Girl exhibition epitomizes many of these things. The ideas for the project began eighteen months ago when I was increasingly despondent about producing more ‘stuff’ in the midst of the climate emergency. I had already begun deliberately producing less work in the years previous, as well as carefully selecting less toxic materials and processes. In my recent publication, I talk about the idea of ‘listening with your feet’ – a way to describe a gentle, de-colonial method of engaging with ideas, landscapes and people. Using this approach, I spent a year collecting debris from the Kent coast, as well as the Mediterranean Sea.

Researching through practice often involves allowing for an un-knowing, a vulnerability and a constant questioning and re-questioning of choices and directions. It can often feel like a brutally reflexive process. Sometimes it involves expanding ideas out, and then also a contraction of thoughts. It is a method that often feels deeply uncomfortable, and even after 25 years, and a sense that things ‘will work out eventually’, the journey involves many unknowns. Often it is through making, playing and experimenting that ideas unravel and re-form.

Kate McMillan (detail) The Lost Girl, 2020 HD film projection, sound, beach sand, debris

For some time, I had an old copy of DH Lawrence’s book, The Lost Girl, sitting on my shelf. I had also been accumulating various images of Plato’s Cave which were plastered over my studio wall. I was drawn to both references, probably due to my own experience of growing up next to a caved landscape on the coast of Western Australia. I was also, as most of us were and are, thinking about the climate crisis, refugees crossing over into Europe and the sense of doom that Brexit was generating. It was the compilation of all these things that led to the final research framework for The Lost Girl.

The Lost Girl developed into an immersive film-based installation centred around the fictional character of a cave-dwelling girl on the coast of England. Using DH Lawrence’s book of the same name as a starting point, the film narrates the experiences of a young woman seemingly alone in a dystopian future, with only the debris washed up from the ocean to form meaning and language. It is set within a future-time which suggests the decimation of civilisation as we now know it, bereft of other people. The character is without language and prior knowledge and must make sense of her existence only through detritus.

The work was filmed on Botany Bay along the Kent coast in November 2019. I selected this site as it is the namesake for Botany Bay in Australia where British convicts were first transported to. This colonial practice of banishing citizens from the island of England helped me to develop the character in the film. She too had been abandoned, a victim of the fortunes of failures of men, just like DH Lawrence’s lost girl.

In the months prior to the filming I began to curate the objects I had collected, so they could become props in the film. The plastic bags were sewn together to form the costume and the other items would be arranged in the cave I had selected on a site visit. These objects would also become percussive objects for the score. I commissioned James Green, a King’s 3rd year music student to work with me on the soundscape. For two weeks we ‘sounded’ these objects in my studio with the aim of creating a haunting soundscape that would travel through the viewer and frame the ‘feel’ of the work.

Other elements include a re-fashioned fire-truck horn and a navigational device used to teach sailors the rules of sailing. Both objects had been hand crafted to participate in what might be considered some of the high points in European culture. However, in the presence of the lost girl they are rendered mute – simply toys with no rules. Hanging in the adjacent room is a blanket laced with hagstones, which we also witness in the film. The hagstones, that I have been collecting for many years, are used in pre-Christian mythology to enable wise women to look through the naturally formed holes and into the future. They often feature in my work.

I had originally conceived the film to be projected onto a flat surface. But in the weeks leading up to the exhibition, I decided to apply a technique from a previous work, where I had projected onto a cardboard sculpture. This enabled an additional material and conceptual connection in the work. The screen was transformed into a sculpture.

Finally, the props in the film, which were also percussion objects for the score, were carefully placed as sculptures within the exhibition itself onto beds of beach sand. The objects became repurposed, creating a sense of slipperiness in the reading of the work. I also photographed a number of the objects that became a set of seven prints, which ultimately will be one of the only things that remain of the work when it closes on February 28th.

Kate McMillan (detail) The Lost Girl, 2020 HD film projection, sound, beach sand, debris