Susan MacWilliam

Northern Ireland's Venice Biennale representative on why the paranormal is endlessly interesting. Click Play Audio for a podcast interview

Susan MacWilliam is a little woman with a big voice. I meet her in the Golden Thread Gallery in Belfast as she’s setting up the screen for her video piece, 13 Roland Gardens, manoeuvring two burly men this way and that. When everything is in place, she turns and shakes my hand. ‘Make sure you spell my name right,’ she says, her deep laugh echoing off the empty walls. If she wasn’t so likeable, I might be a little frightened.

Which could also be said of her art. 13 Roland Gardens continues MacWilliams’ preoccupation with the paranormal, telling the story of Irish medium Eileen Garrett and the infamous R101 séance of 1930. 

The work deals with a spooky subject, yet it’s surprisingly (for a sceptic like me) gripping and informative. I didn’t think I liked video art. I thought I didn’t believe in ghosts – 13 Roland Gardens challenged my preconceptions of both.

In the work MacWilliam interviews Garrett's daughter, 92-year old Eileen Coly about her mother picking up the spirit of Flight Lieutenant Irwin during the séance; about Garrett recounting facts concerning Irwin’s death that she could not possibly have known; and about living above the laboratory of renowned psychical researcher, Harry Price, at the aforementioned address. 

'Harry Price held sittings with Eileen Garrett in the 1930s, and there was once particular séance which became famous,' explains MacWilliam. 'Garrett was actually trying to get in touch with the deceased Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but in fact who came through was Flight Lieutenant Irwin, who was the captain of the R101 airship which had gone down and burnt in flames in France two days prior. 

'Garrett would never have known any of the technical details which came through in this séance. So its become a famous case and also a case which a lot of people would see as being some kind of proof of Eileen Garrett's psychical powers.'

In the past MacWilliam has made video work on everything from table tilting to eyeless sight. She does not commit to a belief in the paranormal herself, but admits to being drawn to the historical nature of the stories that she explores in her art.  

'I find that there are beautiful images [connected with] these cases. Originally I started looking at the séance photographs where you see ectoplasm emerging from the mediums, and I find them very strange and intriguing images. 

'I've made work about materialisation mediums who would conjure up ghosts within a séance room. I've made work about table tilters and mediums who levitate objects. I've started working very much within the field [...] with parapsychologists and I now am introducing those people directly into the work. 

'A lot of the people that I've worked with are themselves incredibly charismatic, they're very good at telling stories. So essentially I see my work also as a storytelling - as a viewer you get transported into another place, another past.'

Made for the Seeing Is Believing exhibition at the Photographer's Gallery, London in 2007, 13 Roland Gardens is perhaps MacWilliam's best-known work. Those interested in video art, and with time and money enough to visit Venice will be able to view more of her work, however, as MacWilliam's puts on her biggest exhibition to date at the 2009 Venice Biennale in June.

Curated by Karen Downey, MacWilliam's Venice exhibition is to be produced alongside a glossy retrospective book on her 15-year career thus far. 

'In the summer I was in Winnipeg working with an archive at the University of Manitoba archives - the spirit photograph collection of Thomas Glendenning Hamilton,' continues MacWilliam, 'who was a medical doctor who held séances at his house in Winnipeg between 1919 and 1935. I'm developing a work based on that for the Venice Biennale.

'It's such a brilliant opportunity for me. I'm going to be showing three major pieces of work. We're also producing a book, which is quite a significant project with contributions from a number of writers. Essentially it's going to put my work onto this world stage of other artists, which is incredible for myself, for my career. It's hard and intense work, but it's very enjoyable.' 

MacWilliam's solo exhibition at the Venice Biennale will show from June to November 2009. 13 Roland Gardens runs in the Golden Thread Gallery until March 14. 

Lee Henry