Sound Relics

By Annabel Lucas

‘Violin bow-hairs carry traces of their former use as accomplices in the intense, sublime and emotive human experience of music-making’1

Empty, silent, sealed, the bandstand in the Castle grounds stands as an imposing monument to past performances hosted. Where do these transient events reside? Are they embedded in the edifice itself? Imprinted on the musical instruments that once played? Or buried deep within the memories of the audience who came?

Susie MacMurray is preoccupied with ‘where one finds the residue of a fleeting but intensely emotional activity’ such as a musical performance. She explores this through her own, less solid monument within the bandstand entitled Tempus Mutatum (time/change). A series of independent sound relics in the form of individual, used instrument strings and bow-hairs combine to form a delicate, hovering sound shadow. A mass of strings and hairs have been collected and united, yet the volume within the bandstand is taken up by almost nothing, a presence and an absence exist. Animated but silent, these relics spin slowly in the slight draft from the windows, rhythmically recalling the performances to which they contributed. MacMurray re-introduces these objects, and other instrument-parts, in an accompanying series of photograms which attempt to capture this same ephemeral experience through frozen (in a sense absent) images.

Alongside her gallery-based practice, MacMurray seeks opportunities to respond to historic sites, sensitively introducing objects to amplify layers of past activity or presence. She effectively marries the qualities of a given place, with ideas and artefacts being investigated in her studio. In Stratum (2000) at Islington Mill a layer of soft white featherdown interrupted the grimy former factory-space in reference to the traces of it’s past inhabitants; an archaeology of memory. The more recent installation Echo (2006) at York St Mary’s has particular resonance with Tempus Mutatum. Incorporating used bow-hair with hairnets, MacMurray created a floating cloud to reflect the atmospheric essence of this spectacular ecclesiastic architecture.

MacMurray’s interest in the bandstand is multi-layered, reflecting the building’s own existence over time. Previously a professional musician, she retains a preoccupation with the experience and processes of music-making. The bandstand appealed to her as a ‘space where music is not’, that could act as a giant vitrene to host a tangible manifestation of absent sounds. Recalling the composition of Miasma (2008) for Florence Nightingale Museum – a cased exhibit of discarded sutures – Tempus Mutatum has the feel of a ‘cabinet of curiosities’ that contains the uncontainable, tantalizingly observed from outside.

As evidenced by this new commission, MacMurray has developed an increasingly sophisticated and faceted relationship to place. Recent works such as Echo, Miasma and Lost (2008) at UH Galleries are distinctly ‘interventions’ into a site, rather than a ‘dressing’ of space. (Earlier pieces like Flock (2004) at Manchester Art Gallery or Argus (2004) at firstsite are characterised by a covering of seductive, more substantial materials). By contrast, these more mature interventions are conceptually rigorous and physically subtle, and the relationship between site and object increasingly intriguing.

Over the past few years, MacMurray’s artistic activity has been redefining itself – moving away from a material-led approach and a practice contextualised by its laborious process, associated with a legacy of female handicrafts. Instead, there is resonance with artists like Ann Hamilton, Mona Hatoum, and especially Cornelia Parker whose work has been said to trigger ‘cultural metaphors and personal associations that allow the viewer to witness the transformation of the ordinary object into the abstract and extraordinary, and the monumental or unfathomable into the quotidian’2.

Objects are now MacMurray’s medium. She scrutinises and selects an object for its aesthetic value and symbolic potential. Her love of materials may initially draw her to the physical properties of an object, yet it is its history and associations as a functioning object that are central to her consideration. The artist aptly describes her creative process as being about ‘tuning’ a n object; making the necessary, yet subtle, structural or presentational interventions to ensure its transformation into a successful artwork. Her audience will be drawn initially by the object’s seductive power, but remain to interrogate its meaning and relevance to them:

‘Every object is afloat on the processes that created it and will consume it; it can also be read as a symbol of those processes and scrutinized for signs of them.3‘

Site-specificity plays a key role in this transformation, as does MacMurray’s use of multiplicity. Multiple objects are usually the framework for her installations, cleverly removing the object from its everyday context and taking it into a new space, with fresh possibilities. For Tempus Mutatum, the artist presents over 1500 strings and bow-hairs collected from a range of local and national orchestras and music schools. Each ‘witness object’4 brings its own provenance and past musical performances to create a collective, abstract celebration.

Selected objects share common qualities, defining the distinctive iconography across her oeuvre: hairnets, steel wool, feathers, horse-hair, sutures, rubber tubing, balloons. Usually, chosen objects have a close relationship to the human body, inviting visceral responses o f appeal and repulsio n. This feature reinforces the notion of mortality permeating MacMurray’s work; these artefacts are ephemeral in themselves, will decay and be lost over time. Increasingly, in pursuing her ambition of giving physical form to intangible experience, the objects the mselves are becoming necessarily i nsubstantial. It has been said: ‘If one could touch them, one could barely feel them’5. By their near invisibility they suggest the absence of their referent.

The use of real objects is so pertinent to an artistic practice that continually seeks to pin down and capture the illusive. It reflects the broader cultural preoccupation, dating back to Victorian times, of needing to hang on to or possess the transient through souvenirs and keepsakes – lockets of hair are often kept as personal memorials of birth and death. When MacMurray first came across stored violin bow hair, it reminded her of ‘little memorial wreaths or Victorian mementos’; an image she now re-creates in some of the photograms.

The medium of photogram is new to the artist and full of possibilities in terms of photography’s ability to capture something transient, as ‘every photograph is a certificate of presence’6. The object in these photograms had direct contact with the paper in order to create these surprising images, so what remains is a shadow of the original, enforcing the absence of it and the sound it represents. This idea can be taken further to conclude that all photographs are ‘memento mori’:

‘To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt’7

The convention of memento mori within art history is something that MacMurray has responded to previously with the reinstallation of Flock within the Dutch 17th century still-life collection at York Art Gallery in 2005. Traditionally, alongside the more commonly associated images of a skull or burning candle, the iconography of memento mori includes references to the vanitas of earthly life, such as musical instruments. This gives the sound relics within Tempus Mutatum and the photograms new meaning and greater significance. MacMurray’s delicate new installation within the bandstand invites us to consider: how do we live with the knowledge of transience and mortality? From the position of artist and musician, she proposes music as a metaphor for the struggle to reconcile our physical existence and the ultimate uncertainty of life.

‘The more passionately the player bows the strings, the more the hairs will flay…..’8

© Annabel Lucas, Susie MacMurray, Nottingham Castle Museum & Art Gallery

1Susie MacMurray

2Morgan J, Matter and What it Means, 2000, Cornelia Parker The Institute of Contemporary Art Boston, Art Data, London, p11

3Solnit R, 2001, As Eve Said to the Serpent, The University of Georgia Press, Athens, Georgia, p163

4The term ‘witness object’ has been used to describe Kimsooja’s celebrated ‘Bottari’ (or bedspread) installations. In the artist’s native Korea, the bedspread ‘accompanies love, sex, dreams, nightmares, childbirth… and finally, at the moment of death, it becomes a shroud’. Zugazagoita J, An Incantation to Presence, 2003, Kimsooja Conditions of Humanity, Musée d’art Contemporain de Lyon, p23

5Gilbert A, Echoes of Life and Music, 2006, Echo Susie MacMurray, York Museums Trust, York

6Barthes R, 1980, Camera Lucida, Vintage, London, p87

7Sontag S, 1971, On Photography, Penguin Books, p15

8Gilbert A, Echoes of Life and Music, 2006, Echo Susie MacMurray, York Museums Trust, York