Susan MacWilliam | Observations and Communications
Susan MacWilliam’s videos, photographic works, sculptures and installations investigate obscure and overlook histories; and reflect on the research, experimental apparatus, and personalities of those involved in parapsychology and the study of perceptual phenomena. The images and narratives of the esoteric, the historic and the peripheral run through her work. Subjects include psychic mediums, ectoplasm, X-ray vision, telepathy, table tilting, clairvoyance, remote viewing and dermo optical perception.
Observations and Communications forms a retrospective view across MacWilliam’s practice over the last twenty years since 1998 – the point at which she began to use moving image and to work with narratives of the supernormal. The exhibition presents a sequence of films, a collection of psychic journals, a literary book collection, research ephemera, sculptures and props.
In her first film, The Last Person, 1998, MacWilliam assumes the role of materialisation medium Helen Duncan (1898–1956), who in 1944 was the last person to be prosecuted under the British Witchcraft Act of 1735. The artist regurgitates ectoplasm and re-stages the phenomena of the séance room. In 13 Roland Gardens, 2007, Eileen Coly (1916–2013) describes living in London with her mother, the renowned Irish medium Eileen J. Garrett (1893–1970), and Garrett’s R101 Airship séance of 1930. A year later in 1931 a textual teleplasm spelling out the name of the French astronomer and psychical researcher Camille Flammarion (1842–1925) appeared on the wall of a séance cabinet in Winnipeg. This materialisation and the photographs documenting it are the subject of MacWilliam’s 2009 film F-L-A-M-M-A-R-I-O-N. Belfast writer Ciaran Carson, poltergeist investigator William G. Roll (1926–2012) and medium’s granddaughter Arla Marshall speculate on the textual apparition, and wonder whether ‘seeing really is believing’.
Mechanisms of vision and perception are explored in After Image, 2002, Dermo Optics, 2006 and Aldous’s Eyes, 2014. In After Image a series of anecdotes and vignettes relate the myth of the optogram, and the possibility that the last image seen before death might be retained on the retina of the eye. Dermo Optics leads the audience underground to the depths of a Parisian cellar where the artist participates, with surprisingly good results, in the fingertip vision experiments of researcher Yvonne Duplessis (1912–2017). Techniques for improving eyesight described by Aldous Huxley (1894–1963) in his 1942 book The Art of Seeing become prompts for the editing processes used in Aldous’s Eyes. The film features glass eyeballs from the History of Medicine Collections, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.
Using archive film Psychic Edit, 2008, presents a fourteen-second infinitely looped edit of home movie footage of the Irish medium Eileen J. Garrett from the Garrett Coly archives. KATHLEEN, 2014, is a study of Derry born writer Kathleen Coyle (1883/6–1952). Found film footage is edited alongside spoken excerpts from Coyle’s books, personal letters, unpublished poems and scribbled notes. The film is an exploration of the existential and melancholic, an observation of life and death.
Issues of Tomorrow magazine, a journal of psychic materials published by Eileen Garrett through her publishing house Creative Age Press and the Parapsychology Foundation which she founded in 1951, feature articles on and by an eclectic range of writers, psychical researchers and philosophers. The Kathleen Coyle Book Collection is an extensive collection of first edition copies of the Irish writer’s books from the 1920s–40s. Excerpts from Coyle’s biography The Magical Realm, and Major and Others feature in the spoken narrative of the film KATHLEEN. Props and research materials from The Last Person and F-L-A-M-M-A-R-I-O-N demonstrate the connections and working processes employed by MacWilliam. In Book Spheres, the book is imagined as telepathic device ‘transmitting’ information from writer (sender) to reader (receiver). Here the artist considers the book as portal to knowledge and a means by which we might navigate and make sense of the world.