A visitor listens to Katrina Palmer’s The Loss Adjusters, 2015, Easton, Isle of Portland, April 24, 2015. Photo: Brendan Buesnal.

A visitor listens to Katrina Palmer’s The Loss Adjusters, 2015, Easton, Isle of Portland, April 24, 2015. Photo: Brendan Buesnal.

Katrina Palmer

A visitor listens to Katrina Palmer’s The Loss Adjusters, 2015, Easton, Isle of Portland, April 24, 2015. Photo: Brendan Buesnal.

The stories told in Katrina Palmer’s audio walk The Loss Adjusters, 2015, are complicated narratives, 150 million years in the making. Sculptor/writer Palmer scripted three eerie ten-minute fictions, which visitors could hear narrated through headphones as they were guided on a walk across this four-mile formation of solid rock off England’s south coast. Basically a giant beached boulder, the Isle of Portland was created in the Jurassic period when trillions of tons’ worth of organic matter compacted here over countless millennia, gradually solidifying into vast deposits of luminous Portland stone. Mined since Roman times, this high-quality rock provided the cladding for Britain’s most iconic monuments, from St. Paul’s Cathedral to the Tower of London. Portland has been excavated for centuries; the place stands today as a windswept outpost, still pockmarked by fourteen open-pit mines. Other island landmarks include the Young Offenders Institution—a disused nineteenth-century prison whose convicts supplied endless fresh quarry labor—and the eighteenth-century Church of St. George, with its tidy surrounding graveyard. The white-steepled house of prayer and its tombstones were all made from the same stone upon which they stand; it looks as if tall Mother Church is surrounded by her flock of standing gravestone miniatures. In a similar spirit of mimicry, each grave recalls in small scale the giant gaping hole of the nearby, still-functioning Bowers Quarry.

Such echoes and equivalences—joining language, landscape, sculpture, and history—abound in Palmer’s three audio stories, each located at a special island site. The first tale, set in an abandoned insurance office, introduces the local writer-in-residence, who works above the Loss Adjusters, a ghostly trio of bureaucrats employed in some form of metaphysical accounting. The Loss Adjusters settle existential debts, compensating unquantifiable losses and gains. In her narration, the writer upstairs frets over her unfinished book, impossibly composed solely of end matter—a woefully imbalanced proposition—but mostly she is rattled by the now-vanished corpse she once saw downstairs. Is her mind as shaky as the hollowed-out ground beneath our feet?

An unexplained corpse returns in story two, this time flopped in a wheelbarrow pushed by a lonely gravedigger/quarryman, anxious to hide the body. But the hole he digs in the churchyard to bury the corpse displaces a volume of gravel that is precisely the telltale equivalent of a human form, and the gravedigger is eternally condemned to keep moving a body-size mound of detritus. Every solid produces an equivalent void, and every weight demands a counterweight, as Palmer matches sculptural concerns with their existential equivalents. Story three tells of two sisters living on opposite sides of the island—another improbable balancing act, spread over the land.

For a sculptor like Palmer, who uses words to explore sculptural concerns (materials, equilibrium, monumentality), Portland’s extraordinary geocultural history seems too good to be true: a vast ready-made social sculpture. And Palmer, having found this miraculous site, does not squander her discovery. In her spoken tales, unstable minds perch precariously on edge, like the loose stones bordering the mines. People, like stones, can be fragile and fall apart. Whereas Janet Cardiff’s walks can feel like a private theater-for-one, Palmer’s audio works are akin to literary experiences: less focused on the “now” of the event than on the multiple stories that have overlapped over time on the very spot where we are standing, listening, watching, waiting. One thinks of an American sculptor who similarly soliloquized while walking an overexploited landscape, and who was able to turn an emarginated tract of land—the banks of the Passaic River—into an immense and resplendent sculpture. In Palmer’s artwork, lumpen Portland Isle too is transformed, miraculously, into what Robert Smithson once termed “a heap of language.”

Gilda Williams