By Dr Catherine Harper
Selvedge Feature, December 2008
Having recently completed the installation of Shell at Pallant House, Chichester, Susie MacMurray has opened Echo at York St Mary’s, and it’s a good time for reflection…
While Shell is a brooding and exotic work made of 20,000 prised-open mussel shells engorged with burnt-red silk velvet, heavy with hints of the uncanny and pulsing with gothic sexual undertones, Echo is a more contemplative and serene work. Where Shell references the petit mort of tiny deaths beating out sensual rhythms like butterflies on pins, Echo holds still… where Shell is Dionysian, decadent and dirty, Echo is humble piety, the counting of the rosary, the stations of the cross, the slow ascension of the soul to the glory of (a) god. York St. Mary’s is a deconsecrated site for worship, faith and contemplation, stretching back through a millennium. Its stone walls, flag floors and vaulted ceilings are invested with ethereal traces of the whispered wishes, confessions and secrets of countless individuals. As if to catch their tiny essences MacMurray suspended 10,000 fragile hairnets and 3,580 rosin-coated horsehair bow-strings in a great ‘host’ within the central space. Like ‘the host’ this piece presses outwards from its physical manifestation to inhabit every echoing corner and tiny space.
As one great cloud of netted filaments, the work operates as a monumental sieve, filtering pain and suffering, rendering sinners pure, an ageless ancient tissue mysteriously vibrating in the stillness of this sacred space. Its poetic physicality, its sensuality is profoundly, intensely affective.
As a delicacy of multiple hairnets, however, the work reads differently. The abject humanity conjured by discarded, inconsequential hairnets is immensely moving. Whose propriety did they keep intact, whose curls did they control? These intimate and personal scraps of interlinked thread are animated in great numbers as tiny trawling containers, nets for souls or the immateriality that is left behind, as memento mori.
As with many of MacMurray’s works the body is nearby. First, in the powdery skin cells and perfumed air interwoven in these nets, and second in the animation of fingers and fiddlers whose sweated bowing will have wrought the Devil’s tunes from fiddles and Angels’ harmonies from violins. Equine hairs, plucked from manes and tails, powdered and stretched taught, then sawn and drawn. MacMurray writes that “Violin bow hair carries traces of its former use as an accomplice in the intense, sublime and emotive human experience of music making. When I first came across them, coiled up as the violinmaker discards them, they reminded me of little memorial wreaths or Victorian mementos.” In her use of the word ‘accomplice’ MacMurray implicates her viewer in a more robust involvement than that of mere looking. We are embroiled in the delicate web of Echo, emotionally ensnar ed and held immobile by these netted, feminine traps. Echo disappeared in October 2006, leaving just a memory or an almost imperceptible haunting in aplace already layered upon layer with emotional narrative and potent meaning.
Previous works by MacMurray have sought to merge the particularities of history, the specifics of site, and the meanings of materials. Stratum, created in 2000 for a Salford Mill, saw 40 kilos of white feather down coat the floor like the pious souls of a thousand virgins. By their absence and its poetic purity, the work was imbued with the remembrance of those who toiled here, without comfort or peace. Tiny singularly insignificant elements combined in numbers in a vast space – a motif used in Salford, a signature employed in Shell, a modus operandi for Echo.
In Maidenhair (2001) human hairs were French knitted by hand to form a long delicate umbilicus, an ephemeral, not-quite-there virgin-chain. Its power was in its readiness to break, and it communicated the impossible vulnerability of maidenliness as a metaphor for precious faith. The body of the maiden, enthralled and bound by this almost single strand, was very present in this work.
MacMurray executes works brilliantly by hand: her ability to ‘play’ the materials and seduce the audience – like the musician she was professionally before becoming an artist – is another hallmark of her practice. There is a fine sensitivity to concept, material and pitch, the works resonating and humming in air just prior to settling. But MacMurray continues to labour the sheer numbers of individual elements that combine in the work, and needs her viewers to understand the obsessive making and the time investment. Echo could just have manifested in the nave of York St. Mary rsquo;s, conjured by need and faith and held aloft by belief. A miracle, a splendid irrational happening, an inexplicable hovering of materialized something, a promise of salvation… It’s nearly there, and certainly in the finished work, halfclose your eyes and the work appears angelic. But, and this is an over-riding issue in some of the text surrounding MacMurray’s work, it is unnecessary to know that students worked hard with her to make Echo. Men cut the stone and built the nave, and raised the great roof to their church. They sought, but could not touch, their god. They were comforted by knowing god was above them, not of them. These men are dead, ghostly traces only in dust, fingerprints in time, stains on cloths. Echo reminds us of the absent present, those who haunt our memories and walk through our dreams. Where do the dead go? Where are prayers heard? Why is sadness coupled by joy? For the existential Echo, its repetitive resonances afford no answer other than the reassurance of the rightness of repeated asking
Dr Catherine Harper is Reader in Textiles and Research Coordinator, University College for the Creative Arts at Epsom, UK.