Susan MacWilliam has a long standing interest in the paranormal and extrasensory perception, with a focus on overlooked histories and personal anecdotal accounts. Her work sometimes takes the form of atmospheric, character-rich portraits of lesser known esoteric figures, which avoid straight historicism through a focus on the medium of video (e.g. Kuda Bux , The Only Way to Travel , Kathleen , 13 Roland Gardens ). Other times the artist employs herself as the subject of experimentation, attempting such feats as ‘eyeless sight’ and ‘ fingertip vision’, often with promising results (Dermo Optics , Headbox ). Modern Experiments was a comprehensive mid-career survey, and the ‘experiments’ concerned often featured this encounter between perception, video, and the world of psychic phenomena. Featuring 28 works over two floors the show focused on MacWilliams’ work since 1998, when she first began to work in video, having begun her career as a painter.
On entering the gallery I was greeted by a large number of CRT monitors of varying sizes, placed together at alternating angles on the floor. An image of a woman in period costume by a tree, falling to the ground in a moment of lost consciousness, was shown from a number of camera angles and repeats across all the screens simultaneously. As I looked across the screens I became aware of a flashing in the corner of my eyes. Wherever my focus rested the displays in my peripheral vision began to flicker and blur. A property distinct to cathode ray tube displays and plasma screens, this flicker was a result of the physiological effect of frame-rate on human vision. In the context of MacWilliams’ research into anomalies of perception it was an astute revisiting of this work, Faint, from 1999, previously displayed as projected film or single channel display. The scene was dreamy and romantic, the image fading to bare perceptibility at the farther corners of my gaze.
Also on display in the ground floor gallery is a video installation, Explaining Magic to Mercer (2005). Continuing the ground-level perspective a video sat at no more than hip height, flanked by three low plywood boxes, which functioned as seats. The audio played through a pair of headphones. Something about the low angle of vision put me in mind of a child’s eye view (I later noted that the same low perspective was employed at a number of other points in the exhibition). In the video the artist discusses a number of historical figures from the history of the occult with her five-year-old nephew, Mercer. The artist’s voice is represented by on-screen subtitles, the only audible speech is Mercer’s series of responses. At the same time we observe Mercer ‘listening’ to an implied voice, his brow furrowing with curiosity and frustration as he attends to the task of drawing a picture. Interestingly, Mercer rarely looks direct to camera. Throughout the video he focuses on the task at hand, the drawing on the table, however frequently the conversation breaks his concentration, and he gazes off to the left of the screen as if searching for answers on the distant horizon. This strange visuospatial correspondence with the act of thinking is mirrored in the boy’s tactile relation to his drawing, which he scans absentmindedly with his finger tips as he draws. The conversation settles on Rosa Kuleshova who the artist says could ‘read with her hands’. ‘You’re doing it right now,’ she tells Mercer. There is a visible suggestion that such mystical phenomena might share traits with the physical world of human gesture. One wonders if Mercer finds the notion credible, from the reaction on his face we can almost see his imagination visibly expand.
As I moved to the upstairs gallery I noticed the sonic bleed from other video works which seemed to increase in ambient drama the further one traveled into the show, lending an atmosphere of circus and spectacle which is accented by a number of neon text pieces. Upstairs in a darkened projection space I encountered F-L-A-M-M-A-R-I-O-N (2009), a work originally shown at The Venice Biennale, with MacWilliam representing Northern Ireland. Much like the dangerous powers of incantation believed to be possessed by the medieval Irish bards, the poetic aspects of the voice in F-L-A-M-M-A-R-I-O-N generates much anticipation and suspense. The title refers to an event in Winnipeg in 1931 involving the sudden appearance of the word ‘Flammarion’ on the wall of a séance cabinet. Camille Flammarion (1842-1925) was a French astronomer and psychical researcher who had died six years previously, in 1925. The event is reconstructed on screen and discussed by a number of individuals, including a poet, a poltergeist investigator and the granddaughter of a famous medium.
F-L-A-M-M-A-R-I-O-N is an extension of MacWilliam’s research into the spirit photography archive of T. G. Hamilton. The work is as much an investigation into the power of lens-based media, capturing a transient moment, as it is a marking of the historic beginning of the art object’s consciousness of itself as ‘the departed’, an abstraction from the realm of the living. At one point some younger voices become audible in the background and we hear them deliberating over the sudden appearance of the word, optimistic in their belief that what they have glimpsed is a communication from beyond. This is oddly apposite to Roland Barthes’ idea in Camera Lucida, that the stillness of snapshots marks a cessation of movement and hence an instance of death. Described as ‘teleplasmic text’, the repeated questioning regarding a visible paper-like string that the word F-L-A-M-M-A-R-I-O-N appears to hang from gives poetic form to a shared hope of connection by way of psychic translation. Written language is a cultural tool which has enabled communication at a distance, and carries an implicit expectation that it refer to things actual or anticipated. The power of the mind to transform a barely perceptible abstract form, a crumpled piece of fabric, a barely audible sound into ‘anything you want really’ reminds us of the ever tenuous division between narrative faith and wishful thinking.
Susan MacWilliam: Modern Experiments was on view 9 September – 18 October 2017. The exhibition, which had previously been shown in Banbridge and Drogheda, moved on to The Butler Gallery, Kilkenny, where it ran until 17 December 2017.