The Isle of Portland in South Dorset is an uncanny place. Part of the Jurassic coast, the Isle’s rich and famously white stone has been quarried extensively over the years to construct many of London’s landmarks, progressively hollowing out its physicality. Its isolation also made it the ideal site for penitentiary detention, with two prisons (one now closed) on its modest 11.5 square kilometres surface area, which used to provide the main workforce for the quarries. The effect when visiting the island, as I did earlier in the year, is a disquieting feeling of desertion, uprooting and displacement, which seems to haunt the island and in turn, Katrina Palmer’s new project commissioned by Artangel and BBC Radio 4, which unfolds as an audio walk titled The Loss Adjusters, a book, End Matter and a radio broadcast The Quarrymen’s Daughters.
The book, as a metaphor of Portland it would seem, is missing its main body. Comprised only of end matters such as acknowledgements, appendices, an epilogue and postscripts, it weaves together various narratives based on the island’s history and legends, blurring the line between reality and fiction. Some of these narratives are brought to life in the three-part audio walk, including that of the titular loss adjusters, a group of intriguing investigators here to quantify and assess the physical and metaphysical losses of Portland, and whose office — an actual rundown insurance broker’s office — marks the beginning of the visitor’s journey. Following a map and arrows on the pathway, we follow these unusual detectives through the quarries and the town’s cemetery as they investigate a missing writer-in-residence researching Portland, an ex-convict become gravedigger, and the deviant daughters of a quarryman.
The gradual absence of the island’s physicality needs to be compensated for by the addition of something, the adjusters suggest, be it through physical experiences — the quite graphic sex scene with one of the Quarryman’s daughters, which evokes a licentious bas-relief engraved in Portland stone, is one example — or the creation of fiction. As the island’s physicality is being carved out from the inside like an inverted sculpture defined by absence, the excess room remaining invites for imaginative conceptualisation, an idea that resonates with Palmer’s conceptual approach to sculpture. Using words and narration, Palmer succeeds in capturing and inhabiting this unsettling place, or rather its absence, and leaves in turn the most compelling compensatory experience for the loss adjusters (and ourselves) to explore.
The Loss Adjusters, audio walk can be undertaken on Portland, through 30 August 2015, or listened to here.
A clip from The Quarryman’s Daughters, initially broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 5 May can be listened to here.
End Matter, co-published by Artangel and Bookworks can be purchased here.
Online exclusive published 9 July 2015.