Artforum / Summer 2008

Susan MacWilliam
JACK THE PELICAN PRESENTS

Artists who employ inherently intriguing subject matter set themselves a knotty challenge: how to avoid that fascination becoming the be-all and end-all of their work, leaving any individual twist looking superficial or superfluous next to its inspiration. The difficulty is most clearly discernable in “research art”—work made in direct response to its maker’s wonderstruck immersion in some (always colorful, frequently obscure, often historical) cultural artifact, incident, character, or site. The practice emerged concurrently with Conceptual art, but gained momentum in the bookish art of the 1990s via artists such as Tacita Dean and Simon Starling. Irish artist Susan MacWilliam, born in 1969, is not strictly part of this generation but her archive-based methodology is in tune with it, and she faces the same problem.

MacWilliam’s recent New York solo debut featured two video installations, Dermo Optics, 2006, and Explaining Magic to Mercer, 2005. Both works reflect the artist’s interest in parapsychology, a fi eld of inquiry that she has pursued for more than ten years, and which last notably materialized in a contemporary art context as the theme of Creative Time’s 2006 group exhibition “Strange Powers.” Dermo Optics is an account of the artist’s visit with Dr. Yvonne Duplessis, director of the Centre de l’Information de Couleur in Paris and a researcher into eyeless sight, the perception of color via a sensation in the skin (touch is not necessarily involved). Explaining Magic documents MacWilliam’s conversation with her five-year-old nephew about various fi gures from the history of this and other phenomena. Both works exploit strategies of focused obfuscation in an attempt to circumvent the aura of novelty that might otherwise restrict their effectiveness.

To make Dermo Optics, MacWilliam edited ninety hours of footage down to a little over four minutes, additionally speeding up some segments and adding a gentle
jazz sound track. The result frustrates any attempt to discern exactly how Duplessis’s experiments (some of which the artist takes part in as a test subject) function, but replaces such information with a subtle meditation on the psychology and atmosphere of these obscure proceedings that is more about the experience of immersive inquiry than about the demonstration or debunking of an eccentric-seeming theory. The video’s slightly overdetermined framing—a retro-styled sign spells out the title on a wall, and plastic-topped boxes modeled after the experiments’ homemade apparatus serve as seats—is its only real disappointment.

Explaining Magic also suffers from a fussy addition, in the form of an appended photograph and drawing, but is otherwise similarly effective in subverting our expectations. The video’s young subject is shown seated at a kitchen table, responding to the artist’s comments and questions in a manner at once interested and slightly distracted (he’s drawing at the same time, and often speaks without looking up from his work). That MacWilliam’s end of the exchange has been excised from the sound track but appears in the form of subtitles also suggests a division—between “magic” and the commonplace, but more significantly between individual modes and degrees of perception and comprehension. MacWilliam’s role here is ambiguous; the work’s title echoes Joseph Beuys’s How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, 1965, but the artist is hardly a shaman. And while her project appears to have a pedagogic bent, the “information” she imparts generates more questions than answers. As does Dermo Optics, Explaining Magic exploits the byways of perception and the history of weird science as frameworks on which to construct a study of human interaction, explicable or otherwise.

Image: Susan MacWilliam, Dermo Optics, 2006