Ember Glance: The Permanence of Memory

A virtual viewing – from Rick Poynor’s essay on the installation

Mills and Sylvian decided to use the idea of ‘layers’ and gradual disclosure to organise the spatial framework of Ember Glance.

Visitors were led through the darkened room of the Tokyo warehouse in which the installation was constructed by a series of diaphanous gauze veils. They did not know where they were heading, but they were drawn on by the blurred outline visible through the veils ahead.

Behind the first veil, suspended from a golden entrance arc, hung a mirror.

Behind the second were five lightboxes, spectral televisions constructed from old photographic plates, carrying images of landscapes and places; above each lightbox a speaker relayed a different sound.

Behind the third veil hung twenty-four wooden boxes filled by Mills with feathers, crosses, fragments of bone, honeycomb, the neck of a broken violin.

Behind the fourth floated a golden cloud woven from Russian vine.

At this point, looming in front of them, its top concealed in darkness, visitors encountered the curved wall of the enclosure, covered by a canvas thickly textured with paint by the British artist Ian Walton. At its base, a semicircle of earth was plated with burning candles. Rectangles of brilliant light – red, blue, yellow, green – emerged from narrow openings like the slits of a fortified tower…

…through which it was possible to see the pool itself, a mysterious sunken vessel fringed with tendrils of vine and lined with shards of glinting mirror.

As the visitor peeled back the layers of Ember Glance, the environment underwent a continual process of change. Computer-controlled lighting filters gave colour an almost liquid fluidity. Sometimes the veils were transparent, at other times opaque. Lightboxes faded in, dissolved from colour to colour and faded to black according to their cycles. Sylvian and Frank Perry’s gongs, bells and ambient drones emanating from hidden speakers made time appear to slow, encouraging people to linger. Church bells, a keening woman, the clatter of a passing train and the distant sound of a barking dog mingled with the voices of Krishnamurti, Anselm Kiefer and Seamus Heaney.

In Ember Glance, Mills and Sylvian addressed the central importance of memory in our lives, using different kinds of recollection to structure the viewer’s experience of the event. Seen in this way, the mirror established the confrontation with the self that will be one theme of the installation.

The lightbox images that follow suggest conscious memories of the past, our sense of historical distance and the specificities of place…

…while the smaller boxes and their contents represent fragments of individual memories (in this case, Mills’ own), keys to trains of association and remembrance as charged and personal as Proust’s famous madeleine.

At the heart of the installation, largely concealed by the wall, is the ‘pool of memory’, the source, Mills suggests in one of his working notes, of unconscious collective memory and the buried ancestral origins of who we are. Zone by zone, the viewer has progressed from the domain of officially sanctioned public memory, through an exploration of his own private inner world, into a confrontation with a realm of memory that can be sensed, but which remains ultimately inaccessible and unknowable.


Ember Glance: The Permanence of Memory
an installation of sculpture, sound and light by David Sylvian and Russell Mills

Staged at the Temporary Museum (F-GO SOKO: T33 Warehouse) on Tokyo Bay, Shinagawa, as part of a series of experimental exhibitions, installations and performances conceived and produced by national and international artists at the invitation of Tokyo Creative ’90

29 September to 12 October 1990


Words by Rick Poynor, excerpts from ‘Veils of Memory’, Ember Glance: The Permanence of Memory box set, David Sylvian & Russell Mills, Venture, 1991

Pictures courtesy of Russell Mills. More can be seen at russellmills.com here.


This page is a supplement to two forthcoming articles on Ember Glance: The Permanence of Memory with exclusive contributions from Russell Mills.


Read our previous interview with Russell Mills:

How Safe is Deep?