image of the place where the project took place

In 2017 Delpha took 30 days to sit in a quiet Cornish meadow to read her diaries. The meadow has a shed with this engraved stone: please interpret as Now-Here

Performance score

30 diaries (1977-2007)

30 days (not consecutive)

Each day read a diary, save something, burn the rest

Documented on instagram with three photos; one photo of diary, one photo reading the diary, one photo of burning diary. 

Construction – not destruction

In 2017 I ritually re-read 30 diaries (1977-2010) as an art project. I kept some and burned the rest. The Theatre of the self (2017) is many things; a research project about women, autobiography and telling stories; a practical project that made me read and get rid of over 30 years of diaries; a personal and cathartic project that enabled me to deal with past trauma.

For over 30 years I had used my diary as a confidante with whom I could converse for mental health. It was not the kind of diary that one leaves behind. The process of reading, keeping and burning was not about destruction – it is a reflective and dramatic creative act. Over the next few years I continued to research project themes with writing on the Women In Art website. I continued to explore how the project might be was useful for good mental health and how the project could be shared with wider audiences.

Original project writing from 2017

We tell ourselves stories about ourselves, flexibly and fluidly telling our own truths. Would confronting ‘truth’ in diaries, change who I am or who I think I am? The process of the performance threw up other fictions in re-performing identity, and its constant re-creation. And destruction. Of course burning books is a seemingly political and perhaps overly dramatic act. It made the project an emotive and provocative way of thinking about truth, writing and objects, and ‘what to retain, what to dump, how to hold onto what memory insists on relinquishing, how to deal with change.’ (John Berger)

The project is about creation of self not destruction. It explores the ways in which women have infinite potential to fluidly re-edit and re-write the narrative structures that contain and restrict them. Editing the self in this way, selecting material and memories, also has the potential to heal and deal with past trauma and mental illness.

Diaries are defined as writing that is in the first person, written at that moment, sequential, with no prescience as to the future. It is ‘a social practice which actively constitutes reality’, [1] yet the diary can never be a completely ‘immediated transcription of reality since it is constructed…and is a highly coded form of signification’. .[2]. In de-constructing and de-coding my own seemingly truthful, un-expurgated versions of myself, I am choosing to construct new realities, which are no less real, nor less ‘my self’.

The process of reading the diaries and destroying them became not just a way of dealing with stuff (what to keep, what to destroy) and my relationship with past traumas (yes it was a cathartic process) but of intentionally revealing cultural structures that confine and delimit women’s visibility and experience.

Drawing our attention to both mourning and melancholia as generative opportunities for remembrance and new departures, it was truly sad  watching the diaries slowly turning to ash (after I had kept bits I wanted) yet also something strangely triumphant. The destruction of my diaries un-tethered me, from a need to see my history in sequential order, and gave me the potential to liberate myself from old ties of guilt, and as they say “move on”.

It was a cathartic process and a performance of ‘unmaking,’ that held  possibilities for ‘making’ -and multiplying possibilities for the self and complex female identities. It is part of an artistic endeavour to find visual and conceptual means to represent the ‘unfinalizable process by which a person becomes for the first time that which [s]he is’ [3] that has the potential to change and transform our lives, our sense of self and potentially deal with trauma and mental illness.

[1] Hassan, J., 1993, p.34

[2] Hassan, J., 1993, p.34

[3] Della Pollock 1999, quoted in Battersby’s article ‘Women a cultural review’

More writing and research from 2017

See the bibliography from the project

Take a look inside the Theatre of the Self Documentation book or have a look at the 4 colour coded mental health diaries.