File Note #6: Jennie Pedley - Camden Art Centre

Essay by Edwina Ashton

Jennie Pedley Quote Biography References Credit

Jennie Pedley

Jennie Pedley’s virtual environment Memory Island has the hypnotic colour schemes and distorted scale of someone’s sick-bed imaginings. Disparate drawing styles; soft landscapes, computer graphics, and naive broken illustrations lurch between flatness and illusion. This mish mash of drawing is meshed together by direct and implicit stories. Their scope is giddyingly layered: pulling the autobiographies of those people she worked with into a history of science. This island, part medieval, part children’s book, has the sweetly sinister atmosphere of Portmeirion in the 1960’s TV programme The Prisoner. 

Pedley’s is a group project; a curious social, semi-scientific experiment. She is a trained physiotherapist and worked on Memory Island with virtual environment specialists, an anthropologist, a psychologist and a group of people with neurological disabilities. The island reflects a constant negotiation of expertise and human frailty. Figures inhabiting it are made of back-crawling substances; flocking and flour. These silhouettes and incomplete half-coloured outlines, sit against austere digital architecture. In a computerised environment they become uneasily homogeneous, as if reflecting the body: a sack of diverse tissues, jellyish fluids, slack and constricted muscles and joints. 

Physiotherapy is one way of making this seem normal. It has bizarre physical practices. For example, rolling a child in a rubber mat so it can recognise its body’s limits. These cast an extraordinary light both on science and the assumptions we make every day. Pedley’s island reflects disparate roles, crossed disciplines and lives. It integrates many positions; fantastical travel restriction, and the tensions and contradictions of such different parts. Ultimately it is an optimistic exercise in humanism. Pedley is explicitly concerned with this. Her island is shaped like Thomas More’s fictional island society Utopia. It looks like an anaemic, cross-sectioned stomach, or cauliflower, or brain. She is drawn to spaces where the body becomes fantastical, where the relation between the physical and freedom is made ideal. Giotto’s structures (where palaces are akin to four poster beds) and scale-less mountains are frequent motifs in her work. These immense and human sized objects present the viewer with imaginatively charged space. In his paintings events are visually compressed, taking place, side by side and objects are as big as their importance. 

Memory Island is arched by a holiday-brochure sky and bounded by a cyan sea. The smooth land is shell pink and cream. However it is haunted by grey and acid yellows, the dulled greens and air force blues of English painting: the sterile, psychically- charged colours, emptied landscapes and awkward set-ups of Graham Sutherland, Paul Nash and Victor Willing. In earlier paintings she pictured estranged figures (often herself), engaging uneasily with some common-or-garden object; a chair, a table, a knife or some unpleasantly dead vegetable. They have the sexual discomfort and surreally clotted time of Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon. This unnatural and faltering timelessness seeps into her virtual environment. 

 Here, Pedley has collaged together man-made objects from disparate periods: buildings from frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel, the Royal Albert Hall, an ambulance, a bicycle. The natural world; cypress trees, filigreed twigs and Leander bushes, is modified and almost unrecognisable in its virtual palette. As you move around, objects are reoriented but always turn to face you in the same way. A rippling sea and blurred olive-streaked shoreline give an illusion of movement. Time is the viewer’s, and when each player stops, time stops until the next. 

'The interactive image (...) demands some form of action, (...) the awed silence of pure looking makes way for the joyful exploration of an interactive world. The viewer becomes a player, enjoying the freedom of intellectual and sensual games.’ — Video Art by Heinrich Klotz

One of the psychologists involved in the early stages of the project researched how physical immobility alters an understanding of time. The way you can or cannot move informs how you experience your own and wider history. If you can’t sequence things, how do you approach actions? To explore these ideas, individuals in the group compiled ‘life histories’. They included traumatic operations or accidents, but also peculiar and ordinary moments; having a makeover, visiting the Blue Peter garden, ‘poking my brother in the eye with knitting needle’. They have immense pathos set into a grand overview. These visual conversations order Memory Island. Like an eerie remodelled panopticon, six boulevards radiate from the island’s centre. They end at the shore, with hopes for the future. Along each, their visual time-lines are re-enactable, again and again. 

As a child Pedley particularly loved Marianne Dreams. In this book, a small girl makes drawings, which become real in her dreams. She draws grass and it grows in thick lines; scribbles on windows become crisscrossed batons. When she gives rocks eyes, they develop sinister animated personalities. Her drawing transforms, then imprisons, but ultimately allows escape. A drawn helicopter lets her leave the desolate landscape she has imagined. Pedley too, might be the heroine of a children’s book. In 1995 after a back injury, she spent three months lying on her stomach, moving from night bed to day bed, playing Myst. In this computer game you move about an unpopulated world; through forests and past cliffs, surrounded by bird song. It is slow. There is nothing to chase, except the move onto a new conundrum. 

For the viewer perhaps, moving through Memory Island is like the fly-through described in Tarkovsky’s Solaris. An astronaut gets lost over Solaris’ animate seas. He passes over glue-like gardens, sand-trees and plants which form and dissolve in front of his eyes: an amalgam of phantasms or memories and fears. All we see as he talks are swirling grey clouds. Pedley visualises her imaginary island as a place of personal memories. Language is absent and the imagery is constantly unsettled, haunted like Solaris by uncertainty, contradictions and hopefulness, Memory Island gathers together sweeping expanse and vertiginous space. It goes beyond a view of the world to an immersive space. In charge of the joystick, you might be smoothly expert or halting and jerking, forging through the earth in disorientating loops. 

‘Standing in a room when his three dimensional body is thousands of miles away… on the edge of sleep… falling back to child size. Her hands could not grasp the midget bars of soap… This did not seem unreasonable. She was only seeing what was really there. The slinking shape of eternity beneath the paint layers and glutamates of physical earth.’ Don Delillo, At Yankee Stadium, published in Granta 34: Death of a Harvard Man, 1990


Jennie Pedley (formerly known as Jennie Boulter) was born in Norfolk in 1966. She trained as a painter and printmaker at Bristol Polytechnic and Camberwell College of Arts. She combines her art practice with working part-time as Senior Paediatric Physiotherapist in London. In 1995 after a period of immobility caused by back injury, she became interested in movement within 3-dimensional digital environments. In 1998 Pedley began working with Professor Roy Kalawsky, University of Loughborough to experiment with virtual technologies. This experience teamed with Pedley’s clinical interest in the experience and perception of people with neurological disabilities, led to the creation of a virtual environment with young people with physical disabilities from Vale Resource Base. This project was awarded a National Children’s Art Award in 2001. Jennie Pedley has exhibited since 1992 in group and solo exhibitions in the UK, Italy, Russia and Germany. In 2003 she received an award from the Juliet Gomperts Memorial Trust for a residency in Italy, and the Janet Konstam Travel Award which provided invaluable research for Memory Island. During 2003—2004 she has been working as a consultant designing creativity workshops for Ignite! NESTA’s Fellowship project for young people.


— Marianne Dreams Catherine Storr, Faber and Faber (1958) Puffin (1968) ISBN 0140302093

  Giotto: The Complete Works Luciano Bellosi, Scala (1981) ISBN 0500217152

  The Poetics of Space Gaston Bachelard, Beacon (1994) ISBN 0807064734 

  The Animation Book Kit Laybourne, Crown Publications (1998) ISBN 0517886022 

  Venus on Wheels: Two Decades of Dialogue on Disability, Biography and Being Female in America Gelya Frank, University of California Press (2000) ISBN 0520217160

  Ideal Cities: Utopianism and the (Un)Built Environment Ruth Eaton, Thames and Hudson (2002) ISBN 0500341869

  Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth Chris Ware, Cape (2003) ISBN 0224063979

  Experiment: Conversations in Art and Science Bergit Arrends and Davina Thackera (eds.), Wellcome Trust (2003) ISBN 1841290432

  The Collected Shorts of Jan Švankmajer Connoisseur Video Volume 1 (1992) ASIN B00004CLZF and Volume 2 (1992) ASIN B00004CLZG


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Edwina Ashton is an artist and writes about art.