The Obsidian Isle
Gayle Chong Kwan

Gayle Chong Kwan

'The Obsidian Isle' is a fictional island, on which exist the lost and destroyed buildings and places of one country. 'The Obsidian Isle' plays with wider ideas of collective history, national identity, landscape, tourism, and the distortion of memories, through the prism of the particularities of Scotland. From structures that fell into dereliction after the Highland Clearances, buildings destroyed during the Second World War, places torn down to make way for new developments, or structures that collapsed due to poor construction, the island is a place where visitors are invited to remember or possibly to collectively 'forget'. 'The Obsidian Isle' questions what is kept, what remains, what falls into ruin or is destroyed, what persists and how these can be altered by memories, myth or competing histories.

'The Obsidian Isle' is an installation of photographs and sculptural works consisting of: ten large-format photographic c-type prints of views which connect up to form a panoramic vista of the island; a series of small photographic prints which play with ideas of sensory abstraction and altered memories, developed by the artist through a series of workshops and events in which people were invited to create blind drawings, tactile printing, memory maps and upside down mirror drawings; and sensory aids, which reference Claude glasses and framing devices, for use by visitors on the island.

Supposedly located off the west coast of Scotland in the Inner Hebrides, Chong Kwan's 'The Obsidian Isle' refers to a controversial literary work. Ossian, the blind 3rd century poet who was 'discovered' by James Macpherson in the 18th Century, was presented to the public as the narrator and supposed author, of a cycle of epic poems, translated from fragments of ancient sources in Scots Gaelic. A controversy raged at the time around its publication, Samuel Johnson called Macpherson "a mountebank, a liar, and a fraud, and that the poems were forgeries", Hugh Blair upheld its authenticity, and a Committee for the Highlands was set up to investigate its sources and the veracity of Macpherson's claims.

Macpherson's 'Ossian' was influential in the development of changing ideas of the Highland and Scottish landscape and notions of 'Scottish identity' at home and abroad: it went on to be translated into several languages; Napoleon was said to carry a copy with him; Ingres painted the 'Dream of Ossian' and places inspired by and named after Ossian, such as Fingal's Cave in Staffa, and Ossian's Cave in Drumkeld, became tourist attractions.

The ten large-format photographs are constructed from found images, three-dimensional elements and medium-format photographs taken by the artist, which are re-made as mise-en-scenes of the island which are then photographed in the studio.

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