Posted on: October 30th, 2014

Memory and Place in the Work of Kate McMillan


No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less….: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

John Donne from Meditation XVII in Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (1623)

Islands are represented as marked spaces, as illustrated scenes of heightened significance; they often act as surrogates that make larger cultural concerns visible and give shape to political fictions, historical processes and personal fantasies. The bounded-ness of the island, the possibility of taking them in at a glance, as well as their emptiness, makes them spaces that can easily be filled with ideological content.

Kate McMillan from An Empire of Islands, unpublished ms. (2012)


The Moment of Disappearance, a five-channel film and sound installation premiered at Sydney’s Carriageworks in November 2014, gathers together elements from McMillan’s works to date but on an unexpectedly operatic, even epic, scale. Fully aware of the absurdity of this idea, the artist has co-opted the mythologies she has already created in a bitter-sweet reprise of pointless heroism and fickle fate. As in the early cinema, a live orchestra performs the score (also composed by Cat Hope and performed by the London Improvisers’ Orchestra) that intensifies the surreal feeling of tension and dread. Here the Greek island of Pontikinisi, allegedly the model for Böcklin’s painting, ‘plays’ the main role towards which an ageing man laboriously swims. In other smaller projections the Aboriginal prison island of Wadjemup/Rottnest and The Isle of the Dead at Port Arthur in Tasmania where British convicts were buried, feature in lesser roles. They too are invaded by nameless younger males as, like feral animals, bodied and disembodied, they crash through their island’s lush undergrowth, fading in and out of view.

As the ageing man reaches the shore, the film begins to unravel as ‘layers of history, time and memory collapse’ to haunt him as distinctions between what is real, imagined and remembered begin to melt away. At this point, with its multiple viewpoints and emotive, sonic chorus the work suggests the grandeur of Greek Tragedy, its different images ‘freezing’ ‘the sublime moment between terror and beauty’.[1]


[1] Kate McMillan, The Moment of Disappearance. Summary, typewritten ms. 2014.

[Excerpt from] Elliot, David. “Enduring Truth: Memory and Place in the Work of Kate McMillan”, 2014.




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