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Fascination with Stroma at the heart of Lyth exhibition


By Alan Hendry


Some of the crumbling houses on the east side of Stroma, May 2019. Picture: Alan Hendry
Some of the crumbling houses on the east side of Stroma, May 2019. Picture: Alan Hendry

AN enduring fascination with Stroma lies at the heart of this year’s summer exhibition at Lyth Arts Centre – and the venue’s co-director Charlotte Mountford hopes it will encourage discussion on themes ranging from climate change to depopulation.

“There is a Zeitgeisty thing for abandoned places at the moment,” she said. “There is something very human about it that people respond really well to.”

Charlotte was speaking on Saturday during a launch event for Mountains Underwater, by collaborative artists Mara Marxt Lewis and Tyler Lewis. Their immersive installations each focus on a different abandoned island, and at Lyth their Stroma work sits alongside another which has Eilean nan Ròn off the north coast of Sutherland as its inspiration.

At the same time, the centre’s foyer space has been devoted to local contributors to showcase what Stroma means to them through a series of photos, artworks and films.

There is a Zeitgeisty thing for abandoned places at the moment

Explaining how the exhibition came about, Charlotte said: “It all started when there was an announcement that 2020 is going to be Scotland’s Year of Coasts and Waters. We instantly began thinking about our coasts and waters here in Caithness.

“We’ve always been interested in Stroma, and we’re interested in how our visual arts programme can have professional artists alongside the local community.

“Just by chance we happened to meet Mara and Tyler, the artists, and they were doing a mini-exhibition of Mountains Underwater in Inverness. So we approached them and said, ‘We really love this idea, do you think you can expand on it, maybe grow it, make it fill our whole theatre?’

“They were really up for it. They love the area, they’ve been to Stroma lots and they have connections here. It really grew from there.

“I think for us the idea of Stroma crystallises something that is very of the moment – thinking about climate change, thinking about depopulation in the Highlands, thinking about what we can learn from Stroma and how that affects our Caithness community now.

“There is something really important there and hopefully the exhibition will stimulate those questions.”

Collaborative artists Tyler Lewis and Mara Marxt Lewis at Lyth Arts Centre on Saturday. Picture: Alan Hendry
Collaborative artists Tyler Lewis and Mara Marxt Lewis at Lyth Arts Centre on Saturday. Picture: Alan Hendry

Tyler, from Seattle, Washington, and Mara, from Austria, are intrigued by uninhabited islands. Others they have studied in Scotland include Scarp and Mingulay in the Outer Hebrides.

“We really like Caithness,” Tyler said. “We’re doing this series of works that takes us to different uninhabited islands, two of which are here today.

“It’s interesting to think that we as people can set up a community in many different places but sometimes it’s simply not sustainable because of the most basic and raw things on the earth, like the weather and the location and the remoteness of an island, and being cut off economically.”

Although aware of Stroma’s history, and the fact that the last of the families left for the mainland as long ago as the early 1960s, the artists do not dwell on the past. Among other issues they are interested in the potential impact on marine life of the nearby MeyGen tidal energy project.

“We wanted to think of it in terms of the present day,” Max said. “Of course the historical aspect of these places is really fascinating, and somehow it does maybe come into our work.

“It’s not really a conscious thing – we’re more interested in how we can relate to them in our own way, in our own lives. So in one way these are just very personal representations of how we interacted with these places.”

A long-discarded seaboot can be seen in this Stroma photograph taken by Fergus Mather in the late 1970s.
A long-discarded seaboot can be seen in this Stroma photograph taken by Fergus Mather in the late 1970s.

Mara said: “We will continue with Mountains Underwater to other Scottish islands that we will show in the future, and we will also expand on other islands in Norway or Sweden. There are some really interesting stories also in the States.

“The topic of islands is also relevant for our environment, our political situation. It’s possible to see a lot of different interpretations.

“With Stroma especially, it sits right in the Pentland Firth and it is basically a quiet spectator. It sees what is coming and going through the Pentland Firth and also the underwater turbines, with new ways of finding a new identity but still looking out there.”

Tyler said: “It’s not just a place that’s sitting there and people used to live there – now it’s a location where the country is coming to find new ways to make energy.”

Stroma sits right in the Pentland Firth and it is basically a quiet spectator.

Mara added: “It’s rethinking and looking for possibilities, but also accepting that maybe some places are not made for humans to be there. As humans we are definitely the intruders.”

Tyler has a musical background in electro-acoustic composition, and during the launch event he performed a piece which was prefaced by an atmospheric soundscape of wind and sea. To the invited guests, it may have seemed strangely incongruous to be hearing the sound of crashing waves in a venue that sits in the middle of the Caithness countryside, as if for one brief interlude Lyth too had been cast adrift as an island.

The exhibition will run until September 1, between 10am and 4pm. The centre is closed on Mondays (open late on Thursdays).

A Stroma box-bed, May 2019. Picture: Alan Hendry
A Stroma box-bed, May 2019. Picture: Alan Hendry


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