‘Traces of a Future Portland’

Rosie Dahlstrom: ‘Belleisle’, Still from ‘Traces of a Future Portland’ by Portland Collective, 2020. Image credit: Belleisle Conservatory, Ayr

The isle has been the site of quarries for centuries, but the growth of cities like London, with the capital status as the world’s most important urban centre, built on the wealth gained plundering people and resources of the world, meant that Portland operated as a mine for the necessary raw material of growth. It was the white limestone’s characteristics that provided the required aesthetic status and grandeur which made its stone so highly valued.

Martin Newth, ‘Constructing Landscapes/Building Worlds’, film, 2020

‘Traces of a Future Portland’ is a collaborative film and text that Portland Collective has created for inclusion in Late at Tate’s online event on 15th December 2020. The theme of this event is ‘Constructing Landscapes/Building Worlds’. The theme is inspired by a drawing of the coast of Portland by J.M.W. Turner, now in the Tate collection; the Portland stone that Tate Britain is built from; and a densely interesting film made by our head of Fine Art at Chelsea College of Arts, Martin Newth, which explores the history of the Isle of Portland from deep geological time to recent political events.

The process for making this film (which will double-up as a video zine issue which we’ll release ourselves in December) has been more intense than usual as we have been fairly short on time, and the 7 of us all now live very far away from each other. We’ve been having a lot of very enjoyable Zoom conversations, and setting ourselves mini-deadlines and tasks; probably having an external deadline rather than internal ones we can shift whenever we like has helped us. Our starting point was choosing a location and its story that had personal resonance with each of us; then writing a few hundred words on this location that would be compiled into a consistent narrative, that would be read aloud over the top of the disparate imagery.

The voice and its tales of a wild gang of Portlanders scavenging wastelands and remembering better days links together scenes of a kitsch model railway in Leicester; a beached whale on the shore of Karachi, Pakistan; a country house estate in Ayrshire, Scotland destroyed by fire; a hunter’s camouflaged shelter in woods around Athens; and a vast concrete relic of Nazi architecture in Berlin. Oddly, all of our works involve reference to or images of gardens. Survival and gardens seem to be the underlying unconscious themes.

Portland is a place that can host all these unlikely memories and dreams. Our film tells stories of nostalgia and imagined futures, our identities merged into one, as we build a new island out of parts we bring with us.

‘Traces of a Future Portland’

I.

It began way back, with Portland.

Portland is an impediment to the reality of the 21st century and we find arbitrary closure in that. The collaborative existence of the Portlanders occurs within fictitious sites where we can cohabit, communicate and create far away from the daily challenges that we face. As human beings we are warm blooded, but as Portlanders our blood has no temperature, no colour and no molecular cells. While we walk together, we are not only looking at the cracks of the surfaces beneath our feet, but we are deliberating stumbling into them. While we eat together, we are not only consuming but we are refuelling for the trudges that are yet to come. Our origins have been put to one side and we are in unison about the disparate qualities of Portland. 

II.

 We have erected our structures in the forest and on the beach, and although we come in peace our sense of security as a family is latent. We have placed collars on our hound dogs and whales so that when we take them for walks around the gardens, they are identifiable. 

Our childhood rooms are forever inverted, flattened and spread across the horizon. A gossamer thin filter runs, through which reality bleeds in cracks and creases. The view from the window hurls itself inward, vacuum pressure clawing at it to fill the void left behind. It grows endlessly, unfolding into infinity within its strict confines, absorbing anything left behind for too long into a stone with no dimensions; an undulating immobile incorporeal solid.

You’re now coming towards us and looking at something with frayed edges. Visiting us, but only through the back of your eyes, in the small shed inside your mind, in the corner of the well-kept garden where all things neither great, nor terrible go to rest. A mundane corner of shaded sun and tired rain. This is a place of absolute comfort where the hills and valleys of intervening years fade into photogenic haze at the crest of the siding – to the sharp fence where reality ends.

In a frame set in the sky a sun-bleached version of the thing stares at us – it regards its birth and remembers being born beneath its own gaze in prior years. The endless cycle repeats anew as the thing forms soft hills and calm streets and lonely trees to hide the scars of being brought into being.

III.

It began way back, with Portland. When we were little, we used to play outside, in the garden of our grandparents’ house. One might think those were lonely days, but they weren’t. Every night at 8 o’clock sharp, we had dinner with grandma and grandpa. Afterwards, grandma did the dishes, cleaned the table. She even took care of the crumbs that had fallen onto the carpet underneath the kitchen table. Yes, grandma was very tidy. Portlanders used to call her Purity. At night, we sometimes felt that the tiny play dolls in the bedroom were slowly moving about. They seemed to have become alive. 

When Grandma died, all life seemed to have left the dolls as well. She was buried at the graveyard not far from our house. After a few weeks, grandpa decided to place an angel made from Carrara marble that he had discovered at the local stonemason’s studio next to grandma’s gravestone. The angel would take her by the hand and bring her to heaven. 

IV.

Even these days, in the dark and warm night, we can’t resist sharing stories of our sweet summer hours. As children, we walked every day in the winter gardens of the old house. We chased the red deer, climbed the monkey puzzle trees, fed the guinea pigs and tortoises by the glasshouse. The lord of Belleisle looked down at us from the lofty balconies of his palace. Now we pass through the ruined gardens on our way to hunt the herd of small red deer, or to salvage wrecks on the shore. Fragments of glass that were once greenhouse panes crack and shatter beneath our boots. All that remains of the walled gardens now are the stout brick walls and the bare-breasted statue of the Negress, the lord of Belleisle’s favourite tropical flower; she who used to watch over the orchids and cacti. Safe in her glass palace she escaped the fire that destroyed Belleisle, and the many fires thereafter. Every time we pick our way past the black ruins of the old house, we think of how she survives, but is alone. 

After we finish whispering and reminiscing, we fall asleep picturing her cool, dark eyes.

V.

Today we are at the borders of Portland, and this large concrete object is slumped before us in silence. No-one knows anything factual about this large concrete object or if it has any sort of significance in history … nature overgrows and overruns it. Passers-by don’t turn their heads. The first time we saw it was when we were cycling past the adjoining road, it was poking out of the ground, just above the treetops. The cracks were so visible and resembled thick roots of a tree, searching for a drop of moisture to get cosy with. These dusty light grey cracks seem as though a very large person had once tried to hammer the thing into the ground, revealing its fragility. Funny enough, since it was built in 1941, it had sunk around 4 metres deep.

Portlanders cannot freely access this area. A large gate covers this bit of unknown territory and many oak trees and rosehips whisper to us beyond the metal bars. Ursula came to us and spoke of the need to use this as a garden, as she had heard the birds sing in their own voices. ‘This ugly thing is dead and should remain that way,’ she said. She sang to us with words in another language. She spoke of her age and how much she had lost, and she lived just over there, she pointed.

VI.

Once upon a time, it had seemed that a person from Portland had told her to observe more carefully, before she would try to open up to someone new.  After that, she rearranged her surroundings, taking good care of all the small details which made her look casual. She attempted to shake her camouflage off from the very top to the very bottom. She even weeded her garden thoroughly, and finally, when she was ready, she set up a polyester-durable confidence. She had lost track of time, indeed. But hadn’t we all? Why should we crave the small sounds that come from the phrase ‘I love you’? 

Our self-sustenance is tested routinely. When drought arrived, we used stored rainwater from the monsoon months to splash onto the arid ground and we sat aside with our buckets while we watched the palm trees grow. When the earthquakes threatened to demolish all that we built, we tied everything down with ropes and hid in the basement until the shaking stopped. When we were given eviction notices we unleashed the hounds into Portland and made scarecrows to divert the attention. 

VII.

As soon as we wake up, we wash our faces one by one in the sink, hoping the ice-cold water would slap the past behind and prepare us for the journey ahead. Dressing in rags and anoraks, hiking boots and bathroom slippers, we then drink our breakfast soup and with warm bellies head out the door. With the wind beating on our faces, we trudge upwards. The heat of the sun burns the back of our necks and the frostbite from fresh hail sets deep into our fingers. This is a meta-reality, this land where sand, mud and concrete gravel converge with each other. This is no man’s land; not anymore. As we get to the top of the monument, tethering on to the edge, we stare down at the pink waters. Bubbling with tepid anticipation, it is not innocuous looking, so we decide to free-fall and jump.

Credits: Portland Collective (Georg Dahled, Rosie Dahlstrom, Nic Evans, Peter Ibberson, Georgina Kapralou, Alice Morey, Veera Rustomji), collaborative text and film, 2020

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