Stef Will

Stef Will

• 23 February 2022

Vanishing Traces

Together with my MA Fine Art course are preparing an exhibition in the Jane Austen House in Chawton at the moment. This is the Hampshire cottage where Jane lived, together with her mother and sister and where she wrote most of her novels. In preparation for the show, we visited the house and had an in-depth guided tour.

I must admit that I dreaded having to create site-specific work relating to Jane Austen, because I never had a meaningful connection to her or indeed her writing. In any case, after spending time in the house, I was surprised to find myself developing a connection not only to Jane, but also the other two women who lived and worked in the house. Their energy was still palpable in the house – as if they left energetic traces behind. This made me think about the invisible energies that surround the physical body and that linger even after the body left. I started experimenting with my thermal camera, which picks up infrared energy normally invisible to the human eye.

In the Chawton house, there is a room called ‘Treasures room’, where original artefacts of the Austen family are kept and displayed. What caught my eye in particular was a white shawl that Jane had carefully embroidered and that she really loved. It was a cold winter’s day when we visited, so I was wearing a scarf myself. At some point I had removed my scarf and had placed it on the windowsill next to the display containing Jane’s shawl. When I started filming with my thermal camera, I was struck by how my scarf appeared to be glowing behind the lens, still carrying my body’s heat energy. I kept filming and even 20 minutes later, the scarf still held some of my body’s energy, very slowly dissipating into its surroundings, and gently being reflected by the protective glass behind which Austen’s scarf is placed.

I like to carry my thermal camera with me, as it enables me to see reality through a different lens should I wish to do so – quite literally. I can re-examine a situation via the algorithmic or quasi-clinical gaze of the infrared camera. This re-seeing of the world opens up my view of what is considered as the absolute truth of reality, “… allowing the medical gaze to penetrate the surface and in doing so to extend Foucault’s subtle form of perception”, as Henrietta Simpson writes writes in ‘Every body is an archive’.

This thermal recording in the ‘Treasures Room’ in Jane Austen house formed the basis of my work for the upcoming show, the first contemporary art exhibition they have ever done there. I called it ‘Vanishing Traces’. By visualising infrared energy left behind and slowly dissolving from my scarf on the windowsill next to Jane’s shawl, the work alludes to an energetic entanglement of women, past and present. On closer inspection of Jane’s scarf, the muslin shawl is embroidered with delicate satin stitch crosses or stars, which are at the neckline connected to each other via a fine net-like needlework, once more reflecting on the theme that everything is connected.