By Caroline Worthington
Echo: the repetition of sound-by-sound waves; to repeat by echo or intimate words
The layers of history in this church, St Mary’s Castlegate, stretch back over a thousand years, to the ninth century, when it was founded by Efrard, Grim and Aesa, three Anglo Saxons. Who they were, like the great majority of people who worshipped here over the centuries, is a mystery. But traces of a few survive, their names set in stone in its walls and floor, forming the fabric of the church.
Susie MacMurray was inspired by this ancient church to create Echo, which hangs from the roof of the nave like the droplets that form a cloud. The Virgin Mary is traditionally shown in art being taken up to Heaven also in a cloud, as was Christ and many saints. She is often shown, borne aloft by choirs of angels playing musical instruments.
The title, Echo, suggests that the shape of the cloud is echoing the nave, the body and backbone of the church. MacMurray often works with materials intimately associated with our bodies. Here, the netting she has used normally restrains human hair. Another hair, this time from horses, provides the stuffing of the droplets. It has already been used to form the bow strings of violins.
Unlike the marble, stone and glass of the church, which has stood for hundreds of years, the hair netting and coiled bow strings will decay. This is deliberate. MacMurray likens it to our own mortality. “How can we be here, so strong, powerful, full of life and energy, so confident as a species and yet so desperately fragile?” she asks.
When she was creating Echo, MacMurraywas partly inspired by the writer Marina Warner who explores the idea of ‘memory maps’; how we project our own experiences onto a place, an object or a work of art. MacMurray is also interested in trying to listen to the ghosts of those who have sung and prayed on this spot over the centuries. Through Echo she wants to give a fleeting form to what she calls, “the stuff that’s left in the building, which is more than you can explain or understand.” It’s the place where ghost stories come from. There are many ghost trails through York. This is a ghostly memento mori made of net and hair that is as light as gossamer but also strong.
MacMurray increasingly creates works of art that are shaped by and respond to a specific place. This gives each work its starting and end point. It is an approach she has become comfortable with having found studio-based work frustrating, because she “can’t find the edges of the work”. ‘Finding the Edges’ began in an old plaster casting room where she created her degree show work Flood (2000), her first opportunity to have a “conversation” with a space.
Echo is the latest in a series of works that she has created in historic sites. In 2000, MacMurray made Stratum in a Salford mill. She used feather down, 40kgs of it. It suggested the tonnes of cotton fluff and dust created there, the environment of the mill’s former workers.
In a ballroom (never in fact used for dancing), in the army town of Colchester she created Argus (2004). Rows of “blinded” peacock feathers (with their eyes cut out) suggested soldiers on parade. At the time MacMurray was reading war poetry and saw in the ballroom a relationship between the room waiting for courtship and dancing and the lives of young men lost fighting on the Western front during the First World War.
At York Art Gallery, MacMurray responded to a 17th century Dutch still life, a table groaning with dead game birds by making “Flock” from thousands of hand dyed black turkey feathers, which cover the wall.
Creating such work is slow, labour intensive and repetitive. She is aided by a small team, often including young female art students. Sh e likens this to an age old tradition of women gathering together to spin and weave, sharing knowledge and wisdom as they work. MacMurray thinks of making art as “spinning straw into gold”. This she compares to how women have told fairy tales, stories of witches and created a landscape of magic down the years. In 2001 she made a work called Rumpelstiltskin unravelling a coil of rope and piling it high on the gallery floor.
An important element in Echo, as in Flood, Argus and her other works, is the way that MacMurray delights in exploring the possibilities of working with unusual materials be they hair, net, feathers or rope. “There is a freedom to travel in art – to explore the forks in the road,” she says. As an orchestral musician she felt, “boxed in by music, repeating sequences perfectly, and following the path set out by the ‘other’, the composer.”
She wants to capture, and encourage in the viewer, a child like sense of wonder at, “our amazing yet terrifying worl d”. Wonder is often a mixture of dread and desire, she says, attraction and recoil. There is something sinister in the beauty of a work such as Echo, with its element of relics of past lives, similar to the lockets of hair often kept as mementos of birth and d eath.
MacMurray invites us to bring a bit of ourselves to a work like Echo. We are invited to see a fragment of the world through her eyes in this ancient church in York. “Look what I’ve found,” she says, “what do you feel?”