Sam Risley

11th March - 25th March 2020

The Shadow of Your Unimaginable Lands, 2019. Video, 24:58

The Shadow of Your Unimaginable Lands starts with a journey of memories of a life, recalled through places lived in during adolescence, and a song that tells of a fading history creates the lens through which to view this ghost story. A story of renewal in which mythic and historical characters contemplate on movement, memory, music and the hauntings of personal and public histories.


Georgie Brinkman (Curator, The New Flesh): To begin, please could you introduce your work and give us an overview of some of the ideas or research areas that are driving the piece?

Sam Risley: The Shadow of Your Unimaginable Lands has its origin in a conversation with my grandmother, Yvette. We discussed her past and her ancestral past mainly through the course of their migration. I see the film as a ghost story. A story of renewal in which mythic and historical characters contemplate on movement, memory, music and the hauntings of personal and public histories. The whole project was research, an experiment and a task of working through something that was partly successful and partly a failure.

GB: Could you talk a little bit about the use of costume in this piece? For example, were they made by you or did you collaborate with a designer? And how much did the costume help to form the content of the work?

SR: The use of costume was ultimately practical. There are two costumed characters in the film; one is a pirate and the other a pan-like goat character. Both characters came out of my research and became stand-ins for an idea. I started by making two silicone masks, which became a major part of each characters physical development. The pirate character came to represent freedom of movement through the lens of my grandmother’s personal history, her ancestral migration being through Tunisia, Malta, Greece, Egypt, France and now England. However, this character now finds himself confined to a far more limited scope. His clothing was about locating him in a time and space, his costume ultimately being the cliché shipwrecked pirate outfit. The Pan character came to represent renewal through music. I designed the costume to suggest him as the builder or the character that makes the cogs of the film turn; after all he is the agent of renewal at the end of the film.

GB: I notice in your text about the work that you describe the piece as a kind of 'ghost story'. The costumed chararcters in The Shadow of your Unimaginable Lands seem to literally occupy the shadows, especially in contrast to the wilder landscape scenes of the beach, or the domestic scenes where other bodies are seen. To me they appear to be reminiscent of some kind of underworld. Was your intention for them to be ominous in this way, and are they meant to be depictions of any specific beings?

SR: I believe in a way a lot of our stories are ghost stories. Ghosts in that everything we do in our personal lives, in our politics, in our practices or work is influenced by history, be it personal or public history. And our natural inclination as human beings to build narratives around these histories is our insistent struggle to understand our ghosts.

I see the space the characters occupy as less of an underworld more of a dream space or the space of memory. So yes they are specific characters but in an ambiguous environment; they are specific but broad at the same time, taken from my family’s history but not about it. Of course place was very much part of my thinking, but it was about my grandmothers lack of place due to such a wide ranging migration that was interesting to me. The void they exist in therefore encompasses any space or time.

GB: The characters also seem to be caught in a kind of repetitive cycle, dancing or spinning in circles. And as a viewer I feel as though they are holding on to me, spinning me around to show me different, intangible memories. How personal to you is the theme of memory in this work?

SR: Yes, the spinning represents the cyclical nature of memory and history, as though the repetition of their spinning is the characters trying to re-configure these snapshots into something whole. Of course cinema is a great way of addressing this, as the way it feeds us images, in small snapshots often from an outsiders perspective, is similar to the way we dream or recollect.

Initially I was thinking a lot about the transcendent places we can go to through dance and how regularly dance is thought of ritualistically as part of birth or death ceremonies. Then through the lens of personal history I tried to link these ideas to memory. I also wanted a positive end to the film, so ideas of renewal, inherent in fading histories, come to a head with the burning of a coffin-like vessel. The ash from this ritual becomes the material with which to mark the dance floor. The film then culminates in a dance and the creation of something new.

So the theme of memory is at times personal, but again I really felt more like an outsider, considering my ancestral memories rather than my own and hopefully in this way there is more room for an audience to place themselves within the film. For example a section in the film is a lingering portrait of the famous party cruise ship The Royal Iris stuck to the bottom of the Thames, slowly rusting and falling apart. It is a relic of British pride, from a different time and a vessel haunted with memories of people, parties and voyages but none of my own.

GB: And could you speak about the relationship between sound design and memory? It is very evocative, and quite jarring sometimes.

SR: The film opens with a series of landscapes cropped from Yvette’s old family photographs, this memorial of places is orchestrated by her singing Ne Me Quitte Pas by Jacques Brel. For her this piece of music recalls a past love, Greek and Maltese parents and French schooling beside the Suez Canal. It conjures a sense of loss and an encroaching anxiety. The dance at the end of the film is sound-tracked by a translation of the same song this time sung in English by Shirley Bassey, bringing us full circle, back to a destination recognisable but transformed.

By the second time we hear it the film has descended into the void of history or memory, where the translation suggests the songs own migration and history. It seems to haunt the imagery rather than complement it as it does at the start. There are also moments of discord between the sound and imagery within the middle section of the film. It’s like the film is trying to make sense of itself, fighting to recall something lost and therefore sometimes what we see and what we hear do not complement each other.

GB: Lastly, for you, what is the difference between costume and clothing - when is someone "in costume" as opposed to simply wearing an outfit?

SR: I believe costume is about pretending. You can disappear into a costume and become someone else. Sometimes this is hiding or sometimes it is closer to your reality, even if it’s for a short time. Perhaps there is no difference between costume and clothing.