Image taken by the artist shortly after a darkness retreat
Launched 6 April 2021
In spite of my counting I found the room so different in the dark. I tried to reorientate myself, feeling around. I ran my hand over an old empty wall plug and imagined a universe of stars opening up on the other side. Spaces felt stretched in the dark, there was a slight incline where there was none in the light. The sink felt huge and round, cold inside and smooth, I tried to wash my face but the soapy water felt deep and thick. Everything seemed amplified in the dark. When the lights came back on again I was certain the patterns on the sheets had been bolder, the curtains longer, more dramatic. It seemed so completely ordinary in the light.
Legion Projects presents Darkness Retreat, an online project by Flora Parrott, made in response to a retreat the artist attended where she spent 60 hours alone in complete darkness.
The retreat took place in a nondescript hostel room in a German ashram found on the internet. Inside the otherwise ordinary room every crevice and opening was gaffer-taped and the only door led to a blackened hallway, all of this to keep out the light.
Darkness Retreat is a response to the physical and tactile nature of the room the retreat took place in; where surfaces and shapes extruded and morphed once the lights were out. It is also a response to the interior space of the mind, which - when somewhere between sleep and wakefulness - spilled into the exterior during this period of self-imposed sensory deprivation.
Darkness Retreat presents itself as a series of spoken letters to Aoife, a close friend of the artist who she met at art school twenty years ago. Aoife was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of cancer during the development of the project. She died in a room at St. Joseph’s Hospice in 2019. Aoife worked with film sets and props, and as the pieces for Darkness Retreat developed it became clear that her aesthetic had made its way into the work. How much space does grief occupy? Does it have a lumen? And where does the memory of someone go when they are gone?
The end result was always intended to be a digital experience, although the making of the individual works has been firmly rooted in the physical realm. Pieces of cut vellum and carefully threaded flowers, shed snakeskin and egg shells hang suspended in black virtual space. A hand embroidered curtain that took the artist a year to make, stitching around Google searched images of snakes on a road; a prophetic visual registered in the darkness that has stuck with the artist. Once made, these works were hung in a physical gallery space as an exhibition to no one but the photographer and 3D model maker, artist George Eksts who has carefully mapped and translated the textures into digital space.
Around the snakes on the curtain, the stitches are in blue. These marks were inspired by ‘blue flashes’, a phenomenon that can occur in profound darkness. A memory of light, a relaxing of the muscles in the eye. The same colour as the blue emitted by the screen on which the work will be viewed.
As part of an ancient Buddhist meditation practice, an extensive period in the dark is only to be attempted after years, perhaps decades, of practice. The work is intended to ask questions about the ‘shortcuts’ to such experiences offered by the wellness industries for paying (and mostly Western) customers. As such, the project is perhaps a questioning of authenticity. If you have paid to experience mind-altering visions, does that detract from their significance when they appear? When in profound darkness, does it matter whether you are in a bedroom or a cave? Should the comforting warm glow of a Himalayan salt lamp, thoughtfully placed on the bedside table of a hospice room, feel any less comforting because it was bought on Amazon? In an ordinary setting, where extraordinary events are unfolding, the eye sometimes seems to settle on the mundane detail.
The exhibition is the room as Parrott remembers it in the dark, the shapes and patterns distorted. The work explores an encounter with the space between dream and waking vision, the lines between hallucination and prophecy and a feeling of deep connection with someone that is no longer here.
The exhibition takes the form of a navigable online space. Best viewed on desktop, compatible with most browsers. Headphones recommended for sound, VR available on mobile devices. Duration is 10.30 min.
Panel discussion - online
10 May 2021
6:30 - 7:30pm BST
A discussion between Flora Parrott, writer and artist Tim O'Riley and lecturer and author William Rowlandson around darkness and confinement. Thinking collectively through the experiences that underpin the installation, the panel will consider both the restrictions and imaginative potential that such an immersion in darkness can open up, examining the imaginary landscapes that can be explored from the confines of a small and familiar room.
The artist will also be working with Open School East in Margate to lead a series of workshops for their Young Associates Programme.
Materials used in physical works
Soap, dried honesty, eggshells, medical polymer tubing, copper, dyed blanket, printed fabric (image design is masking tape, honesty flowers and chalk drawing), buckwheat husks, dyed blankets, printed fabric (images of snakes on a road) hand embroidered with chain stitch, aluminium rings, ropes and blue painted wooden pole wrapped in string, photographs on cardboard (images of a salt lamp and cable, rose quartz crystal in a plant pot, a hospital jug, power points, arms, mugs) copper foil, hand cut vellum, coralina (seaweed), snake skin, dried tulip petals, dried nasturtium petals, thread, wooden frame and ropes.
3D models by George Eksts
Web design by Matt Woodham
Score and sound design by Mark Dicker
Produced by Una Hamilton Helle, Legion Projects
Thanks to Gillian McKim, Limbo Margate, Harriet Hawkins, Guy Oliver, Amy Lay Pettifer, Samuel Vilanova, Admire Ncube, Ruth Claxton
Aoife was cared for by St. Joseph's Hospice in London. If you would like to make a donation you can do so here.
Made possible by funding from Arts Council England, Henry Moore Foundation and the TECHNE PhD Doctoral Training Partnership.