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Confusing Shadow with Substance is a film and sound installation made collaboratively by film & sound artist Jo Millett and visual artist Janette Kerr. Shown in summer 2017 in Da Gadderie, Shetland Museum & Archives, Lerwick, it was funded by Creative Scotland with support of Shetland Museum & Archives, and Shetland Arts.

The focus of the installation is Shetland’s former fishing stations; used by haaf fishermen in 18th and 19th centuries they are a unique yet elusive part of our heritage. There are over 100 fishing station sites around the coast of Shetland and its islands. Once hives of activity, of the makeshift booths and böds where communities of fishermen and traders made temporary homes over summer months there is now little left for the eye to make out. These are littoral landscapes that conceal a great deal more than they reveal.

In the tension between historical empiricism and the creative act, artists Janette Kerr and Jo Millett set out to make something that speaks of both. The once thriving fishing station at Stenness in Northmavine became their focus. Unlike the better-known and better preserved Fethaland station at the far northern tip of the mainland, material remains at Stenness are less discernible, yet for those who care to look there is much there to see, and to image. Working collaboratively they became fascinated by the idea of interplay and association – history, memory and modernity; the physicality of land, sea and human activity. Using Go Pro, 16mm, video film, with sounds recorded on site they have tried to evoke the feel of land and seascape.

Poised between land and far haaf, the shoreline draws us to the sea, a constant presence in a world of embedded memory. Weaving together contemporary and historical images, shore and ruins set against Shetland voices, drawing breath with the tide. The names of fishermen who once worked on the beach are cast into the air. A bell sounds and a chorus sounding almost as if it is a prayer, reads from a 19th century Fishermen's Agreements Book to ‘prosecute the fishing’, for the Laird:  ‘…In short, you have full power over all my share of the fishing…’.

A 21st century beach with sea lapping shore, birds wheeling and sheep calling, transforms to become a beach littered with boats, boxes and weighing scales, fishing line lying on hills behind the lodges, sails spread to dry. 19th century men stare out at us; faces of men who lived a hard life on that beach, some who may have been taken by the sea. Figures walk the shore, sit on the beach splicing lines and attaching hooks, washing nets in the sea. On screen a knife cuts through the skin of a ling, snapping spine, innards spilling out. We imagine the smells - fish lying across stones, oil from livers boiling, cutch heating to preserve sail and line, unwashed men who have been living, working and sleeping on the beach all summer, the sounds of boats dragged across shingle, the slap of sail in wind, oars hitting water, a distant ludder horn sounding, the crunch of boots, voices calling, and maybe at times music in the air.

A sense of its historical condition as a place of trade emerges; the business and noise far from the contemporary beach described in tourist brochures as ‘beautiful, deserted and tranquil’. Now the only signs that remain at Stenness are ruins of lodges and the Böd, sitting centre stage.

The resulting three-screen video and sound installation ‘Confusing Shadow with Substance’ loops continuously, navigating between distance and nearness, permanence and transience. Any artwork may be open to a range of interpretations depending on cultural background and experience of the observer. What we have made is not a documentary, nor a work of fiction, but something that might be described as a poetic response. The work is concerned with the interplay between that which is gone, that which remains and that which drifts between the two.

There are currently plans to bring the installation back to Shetland during 2020 to areas outside of Lerwick, and also to mainland Scotland. We are currently applying for funds to enable this to happen. If successful it will be shown in Shetland at The Boat Haven on Unst, on Whalsay at the Heritage Centre, in Easterhouss on Burra, and The Hanseatic Lodge at Hillswick; in Scotland at the Maritime Museum in Irvine, and The Fisheries Museum at Anstruther.  Watch this space!


Dr Janette Kerr (October 2019).




Janette Kerr is a painter of Shetland seas, and Jo Millett is a moving image and sound artist. Both artists have coinciding interests in the sea and a mutual interest in location, memory and materiality, but from different approaches through the media used. ‘Confusing Shadow with Substance’ was shown at Da Gadderie, Shetland Museum & Archives in Lerwick during summer 2017.

(A fuller essay about the project was published in New Shetlander no. 281, Autumn 2017. Reproduced here in part with kind permission of Brian Smith, New Shetlander editor).