The project stems from a poem written by the 19th century poet John Clare, entitled First Love. The poem tells a tale of unrequited love between Clare and a woman named Mary Joyce, whom he pined for his entire life. Confined to a mental institution at the age of forty-two, Clare escaped, walking for three days to the nearby Northamptonshire village, convinced he would meet his beloved there. When he finally arrived at his destination, he was told Mary Joyce had died three years ago in a fire. Nevertheless he never lost faith, and remained convinced she would return to him one day. Clare’s story and his poetry are emblematic of the illusory narratives that consume us, and of our need to represent them, whichever they happen to be. His story exemplifies the timeless struggle to find meaning, and to make experience meaningful: a struggle not about achieving, but about having something to achieve: to have an illusion that pulls us through life, and to find a sense of purpose. I therefore decided to retrace Clare’s steps, to celebrate those illusions that keep us alive.
My journey though started in Helpston (Claire’s destination) and ended at Epping Forest’s High Beech Asylum from where Claire escaped. The act of walking backwards does not stand as a negation, but as a small and absurd act of repair and hope, where a woman (embodied by me) many years later, walks towards Clare. As if maybe, things could (can…?) have been different.Maybe Clare did in the end, somehow, meet Mary Joyce. Or maybe Mary Joyce was looking for him as well.
Maybe the illogical and subversive acts we perform throughout our lives are what save us in the end.