Susan MacWilliam; Jack the Pelican Presents

By Wilson, Michael | Artforum International, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

Susan MacWilliam; Jack the Pelican Presents


Wilson, Michael, Artforum International


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 field 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 I' 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 Mac William's conversation with her five-year-old nephew about various figures 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. …

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