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The Unfamiliar Familiar opens at Nazareth House, Derry, as part of Culture Night

Wednesday 13th September 2017 at 3pm 0 Comments Visual Arts

The Unfamiliar Familiar, a site-responsive installation at Nazareth House, Bishop Street, Derry. Image: The Unfamiliar Familiar, a site-responsive installation at Nazareth House, Bishop Street, Derry.

Visual artist, Sue Morris, presents The Unfamiliar Familiar, a site-responsive installation at Nazareth House, Bishop Street, Derry as part of this year’s Culture Night programme in the city, Friday, 22 September 2017, 6pm-9.30pm.

The Unfamiliar Familiar explores the nature and experience of dementia, one of today’s biggest public health challenges. The work is funded by the National Lottery through the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, which has helped Morris further develop her experimentations in mixed- and multi-media construction.

The key driver behind this ambitious project was the artist’s participation in a weekend residential at Void, Derry in 2016, organised by the Dementia Services Development Trust, (DSDT), Stirling, Scotland. Led by Professor June Andrews, an internationally recognized expert, author and broadcaster on Dementia and Mark Butler, Director of the Dementia Festival of Ideas, the event brought together arts practitioners across disciplines including a photographer, filmmaker, poet, theatre practitioner, composer as well as visual artists.

According to the Alzheimer’s Society, 850,000 people in the UK (nearly 16,000 in Northern Ireland) suffer from dementia, a disease with far reaching social and economic impacts yet one that is little understood or widely discussed in public. With that in mind, the participants at the residential explored ways in which the arts could raise public awareness and understanding around issues surrounding dementia. 

For her own part, Sue Morris was keen to produce work that would explore broader experiences and impacts of mental distress, both on individuals and wider society. The artist’s previous work has dealt with alternatives, “alternative histories - or in this case alternative realities - that you can slip into when you are having problems with your mental health”.  Sue Morris has had personal experience of mental illness with friends and family members with Dementia and other mental health problems. In that context, therefore, her work in, The Unfamiliar Familiar, explores how “the perception of domestic activities and spaces can become skewed” in ways that make them difficult to navigate and negotiate. “Everyday spaces, even very normal activities like eating, can become alien or frightening because your brain is reading things in a different way.”

Suzanne Lyle, Head of Visual Arts, Arts Council of Northern Ireland, said,

“This installation is both innovative and experimental and really demonstrates the power of the arts in raising awareness of and exploring difficult issues.  This is a must-see for Culture Night in Derry-Londonderry and the Arts Council is delighted to support this important project.”

The site for the work, Nazareth House, Derry, has proven crucial to the ongoing development of the project. As Morris explains, “Initially, I was working from home but as the work started to increase in scale I realised I needed an alternative, much larger space. It was important that it wasn't a warehouse or an artist studio. It needed to have a domestic aspect. I walk past the Nazareth House building several times a week and I started to become intrigued with it.” A former orphanage and elderly care home, it closed its doors in 2013 and is now earmarked for future redevelopment by Choice Housing Association as a residential complex for the ‘active elderly’.”

Morris approached the association in Autumn 2016 and gained temporary access to the site. She spent the first two months drawing floor plans and photographing the site, before moving on to more sculptural works, often incorporating objects and materials found on site. The building has had a significant affect on the work. As she spends more time there, she has become increasingly aware of its history and the thousands of lives it affected over its 120 years as a care home.  “I want to be mindful of the people who stayed or visited family here. I want the work to be challenging but I also don't want to upset people. It’s clear that this was somewhere that people lived and worked.”

Another of Morris’s concerns was to allow people access to the artwork in this site-specific context. While the event on Culture night in Derry on 22 September will be the only opportunity for the public to see the work in situ for themselves, she has plans to archive the work in the form of a four-channel video installation and to exhibit it in other spaces at home and abroad, including the Digital Media Gallery at Lawrence University’s School of Architecture and Design, Michigan, USA in Summer 2018.


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