Susan MacWilliam Conducts Modern Experiments

The Belfast artist's most comprehensive exhibition to date channels spectral phenomena with beautifully eerie installations, images and sculptures

The first arresting image that greets the visitor to the newly opened Modern Experiments exhibition at the F E McWilliam gallery in Banbridge is a seductive red and white neon wall sign spelling out the name Kuda Bux. In 1930s New York the Pakistani mystic, magician and fire walker whose real name was Khudah Bukhsh performed astonishing feats in variety shows and in the NBC Radio City studio.

Dubbed 'The Man with X Ray Eyes', he would cover his eye sockets with dough balls and his head and face with strips of cloth and then read the fine print of magazines or thread a needle. The installation contains a 1930s armchair, a blackboard similar to the one on which Bux wrote words he had never even known and a 1950s TV set showing film of Bux having his head wrapped in cloth in preparation for a show.

Welcome to the world of mediums, séances, extra sensory perception, table tilting, fingertip vision, ectoplasmic materialisations and the like as evoked by the Belfast-born artist Susan MacWilliam. The award-winning painter, sculptor, photographer, filmmaker and conceptual artist, who lectures in Fine Art at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin, has shown her work at prestigious galleries such as Gimpel Fils in London, has exhibited in Derry~Londonderry during the 2013 City of Culture celebrations and represented Northern Ireland at the Venice Biennale in 2009.

Riann Coulter, curator of the F E McWilliam gallery, remembers being impressed by MacWilliam’s 1999 video 'Faint'. The short three minute sequence filmed in the gardens at Powerscourt, County Wicklow and in the grounds of the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin is compelling and engaging. It depicts a girl in a striking blue dress (the artist) repeatedly fainting. 'Faint' refers to ideas about mesmerism, trance and hysteria as well as bygone perceptions of women who have no control over their bodies.

'I like the idea that women artists put themselves in their work,' confirms Coulter.  'Some 18 years on from that first piece I realised that Susan, a high profile artist, merited a major exhibition. This touring show, which operates on so many levels with beautiful images and appealing objects and explores different ways of spreading information, has been made possible through joint grants from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and the Irish Arts Council.'

Gradually, as MacWilliam pursued her researches into the paranormal she became very interested in psychic mediums, mostly women;and the way they were treated by male observers who applied their science and logic to the strange phenomena.  

Building her own extensive library, consulting microfiche newspaper files and accessing archives such as those at the Rhine Research Center at Duke University in North Carolina, she identified stand out cases not only in Ireland but in Canada and France. Her approach to the phenomena, which she defines as remote viewing, has been both dispassionate and creative. As she gained the trust of her subjects, doors into hidden worlds began to open.

The subject of 'The Only Way to Travel' is Irish trance medium Eileen Garrett (1893-1970) who founded the Parapsychology Foundation in New York and the publishing house Creative Age Press. Through her connections with Garrett’s daughter Eileen Coly and granddaughter Lisette Coly, MacWilliam gained access to precious family albums, vivid black and white photographs of Atlantic crossings on White Star Line ships and life in 1930s and '40s New York  the cocktail hour, newly built skyscrapers, a world of optimism and new horizons. Viewed through a 3D stereoscope, MacWilliam’s luminous colour portrait of Coly in her living room looks so real it seems unreal; for a moment one wonders whether the perfect little lady in the picture is a person or a doll.

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Still from 13 Roland Gardens

One of the five film pieces that MacWilliam has created around the Garrett family is '13 Roland Gardens'. Here Eileen Coly describes how, at the London address of Harry Price’s Laboratory of Psychical Research, during a famous séance held in October 1930, her mother channelled a message from a man who claimed to be the captain of the airship R101 which had crashed into a hillside in France two days before killing dozens of British passengers. In disjointed sentences the man described his horrifying last moments before the airship burst into flames. He also transmitted technical information that was only confirmed six months later by an official inquiry.

In 2005, MacWilliam met Madame Yvonne Duplessis (b.1912) a senior researcher in dermo-optical perception (DOP), otherwise known as Eyeless Sight or fingertip vision, in her cellar laboratory near the Avenue Victor Hugo in Paris. The artist took part, with some success, in experiments to see if she too could identify colours through touch and the video 'Dermo Optics' records aspects of what happened during that visit.

Back home in her studio MacWilliam created 'Headbox', inspired by the work of the Russian medium Rosa Kuleshova, who became famous in the 1960s for her dermo-optical perception. Scientists employed various contraptions and devices such as blacked out goggles, large paper collars and screens to prevent her from using her eyes during her experiments. In 'Headbox', MacWilliam is both behind and in front of the camera. In order to replicate the way Kuleshova worked blindly with her hands thrust through holes in a screen, the artist, with astonishing dexterity and accuracy, films her own hands using glue to paste a poster of the medium or scissors to make paper cut outs.

'I am very solo,' says MacWilliam on her approach to filmmaking. 'I am my whole crew and then I experiment and when I edit the film that is the most creative part. It is a bit like painting; you move things in an edit and everything changes. You can also repeat a sequence to reiterate a point.'

Headbox - Steeoscope

Headbox

Conjuring up the dark spaces of the séance room, 'Pull Down (2016)' – which receives its premiere at this show - draws attention to the role of the camera as observer of the medium.

The work that was shown at the 53rd Venice Biennale in 2009 is entitled 'F-L-A-M-M-A-R-I-O-N'. That word appeared on a wall during a séance held by Thomas Glendenning Hamilton in Winnipeg, Canada on June 10 1931. It referred to Camille Flammarion (1842-1925), a French astronomer and psychical researcher whose family also set up the French publishing house. MacWilliam notes this as the only recorded instance of an ectoplasm forming itself in to a word.

'F-L-A-M-M-A-R-I-O-N' was recorded in three cities and features commentary on the teleplasm by Belfast’s own wordsmith Ciaran Carson, Danish American poltergeist investigator Dr. William G Roll and Arla Marshall – the Canadian granddaughter of Hamilton’s Scottish séance medium, Susan Marshall.

At one time, MacWilliam lived off the Ormeau Road in Belfast near to where controversial séances involving Kathleen Goligher (b. 1898) and her family were held behind closed doors. She was curious to find out more. Between 1914 and 1920 Dr William Jackson Crawford, a lecturer in mechanical engineering at Belfast Municipal Institute and Queen’s University, researched the mediumistic phenomena which occurred at these séances. He would often crawl around on his hands and knees under the table searching for clues as to how the levitation came about. Amongst the often tedious technical details described in his books MacWilliam found some quite suggestive references to the fleshiness of Goligher’s thighs or a rippling effect around her stomach. MacWilliam uses such passages in 'Experiment M'.

In the photograph, a strange substance known as ‘ectoplasm’, emerges from the medium’s mouth; hands appear and spirits are conjured up. 'The Last Person' reflects on the case of Helen Duncan (1898-1956), a medium from Portsmouth who in 1944 was the last person to be tried and prosecuted under the British Witchcraft Act of 1735. MacWilliam herself poses as the medium. 'That is me swallowing muslin in my re-staging of the phenomena,' she explains. 'Swallowing and regurgitating made me retch but it is what you do when you make work. Yes it is difficult but it makes you think about all that bodily stuff.' Viewers will readily empathise with her discomfort.

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Still from The Last Person

MacWilliam read Kathleen Coyle’s autobiography, The Magical Realm (1943) about growing up in Derry then, in a city archive, she came across a note written by the author, who was a friend of Rebecca West and James Joyce, which mentions her desire to go to Duke, the university which specializes in the study of ESP and which MacWilliam herself had visited. 'KATHLEEN' incorporates extracts from Coyle’s books, personal letters, unpublished poems and scribbled notes as well as striking images drawn from book covers. One such depicts flying blue birds that call to mind the work of Matisse in his late period.

'Dancers', a digital collage poster reproduced as a giclée print on cotton rag paper features a New York precision dance troupe similar to the high kicking London Tiller Girls, who were famous in London in the 1950s and there in the foreground is the artist lying prone on the floor as in 'Faint'.

These are just some of the 28 works – projections, single monitors and installations, photographic and sculptural pieces that make up the largest and most comprehensive exhibition of Susan MacWilliam’s work to date. It makes for a wholly original and intriguing show.

Modern Experiments will remain at the F E McWilliam Gallery in Banbridge until November 26 and will be shown in 2017 at the the Highlanes Gallery in Drogheda, at Uillinn: West Cork Arts Centre, Skibereen and The Butler Gallery in Kilkenny. A specialised programme focusing on those living with Alzheimer’s and Dementia will accompany the exhibition at each venue. For more information visit www.femcwilliam.com.