By Javier Pez

Catalogue essay for Witness. National Justice Museum, 2021-2022.

They stand in a row, six irregular cylindrical columns formed by many metres of thick heavy rope laboriously woven. The site is the yard of Nottingham’s old country gaol, now preserved as part of the Galleries of Justice. Visitors to the award-winning museum are confronted by “Witness”, a site-specific commission by the artist Susie McMurray, on a journey that takes them through a grim history of crime and punishment in Britain. Each of the six vertical forms are slumped in different ways, self-supporting but appearing in danger of toppling. Raw, slightly frayed, exposed to the elements, individual but regimented, the rope columns embody the pathos of a human body in captivity, of people trapped in a coercive system.

“They are bearing witness to what happened in this space,” says MacMurray. “Witness” is also about “ justice and injustice, the fragility of life and the toughness of life,” she says.

At the far end of the narrow paved yard stands a mock gallows. It is the museum’s reenactors’ dramatic prop rather than a sinister relic. Nottingham’s public executions either took place in the street in front of the Shire Hall building or in open spaces where huge crowds could gather. “Witness” is not overshadowed by this touch of macabre spectacle, however, such is the physical presence of MacMurray’s work. It is impossible not to think of the columns in bodily terms, the rope sinuous and muscular. “Witness” adds a touch of humanity, as the artists says, that mix of strength and frailty in us all.

Rope in this museum context has other melancholy meanings beyond its use in capital punishment, all of which find resonances in “Witness”. The metres of rope MacMurray and her team laboriously knitted into columns (more than 200 metres per column) was principally designed for nautical uses. Nearby, in the museum’s galleries, visitors learn of the thousands of convicts who were transported from Britain to the far side of the world in the 19th century - for some permanent exile was a death sentence by other means. The team worked long, exhausting hours in the prison yard using a specially devised wooden contraption that could have dated from the era of the sailing ships that left Britain’s shore for Australia bearing their human cargo.

When Transportation as punishment ended, Victorian prison “reforms” included a new kind of prison regime. This included keeping prisoners in separate cells. “Witness” alludes to this, also. Prisoners  were allowed out for one hour in the day only, escorted to a prison yard for exercise but banned from talking. Meant to reform, extreme solitude and sensory deprivation proved as inhumane as the system it replaced.

On a visceral level MacMurray’s installation bears silent witness to the physical and mental toll of imprisonment with social contact largely denied. Another level of misery - or reform - depending on where in the Victorian criminal justice system you stood, was based on the physical work prisoners were compelled to do while incarcerated. Prisoners sentenced to hard labour would have to endure the monotony of picking oakum, which meant removing hard tar from lengths of old rope.

MacMurray is no stranger to repetitive work to create her art. She has used gold thread, red velvet, butterfly netting, chain link, turkey and peacock feathers, among other materials, typically transforming them into monumental sculpture through hours of dexterous labour.

“Witness” is different, however. There is nothing soft about manilla rope. It requires strength and stamina to weave into columns that stand nearly two metres tall.

“It’s very scratchy. It swells when it is wet and shrinks when it is hot, as we discovered,” the artist says, making light of the physical effort required to create ‘‘Witness”. There is a performative element to the work as the artist and her small team of assistants laboured in the former prison yard during the spring and summer, while the museum was open to the public. We could go home and have a warm bath, the artist says. That said, the installation evokes a sense of the harsh, forced labour undertaken by prisoners in the past.

“Witness” avoids the trap of being literal about life behind a prison wall. We cannot imagine what it must have been like for the men, women and children incarcerated on this spot, in the heart of the city. MacMurray points to one inscription in particular which is carved in clear firm letting in a stone in the wall. It reads: “S. Clark Condemned…” He was clinging to his identity, she notes.

Lining the wall of the prison yard are the museum’s illustrated accounts of other inmates, some of them near contemporaries, also condemned to die in the adjacent courthouse. They also spent their last days on earth here. The museum explains how more inmates, in fact, died of “gaol fever” or typhus than on the gallows in 18th century prisons. To be arrested could be a death sentence, it was certainly an ordeal.

“Everywhere you go in the museum you see shackles, the weight and heaviness of the iron that was put on human bodies,” MacMurray says. “It is just brutal.” She initially thought about using chains to create a work for the museum. However, rope allowed her to create an installation that will weather with age. The intricate, woven towers suggest how an individual is caught up in a system of law and its enforcement.

The artist liked the way there is no way of controlling how rope will change shape over time and with the elements. Each column will sag in a different way. “Witness” is about punishment, regimentation, loss of liberty but it is also about human strength and endurance, MacMurray says. “I find them incredibly poignant even though they are the roughest thing I have made.”

Andrea Hadley-Johnson, who is the artistic programme manager of the National Justice Museum, recalls the moment “Witness” was born and rope would be the material of choice. “We were just rapping with ideas. Susie said she had some unfinished ideas with rope that one of her sons said ‘why don’t you revisit that?,’” the curator says. It involved scaling up a tiny, hollow wooden contraption, based on a  French knitting dolly, into a larger-than-life version to create massive shapes and forms.

“The way the rope smells, where it takes you, there are connections that really get under your skin.” The curator hopes the work will also get under visitors’ skin, whether they draw the obvious, emotive link to the gallows in the yard or more nuanced connections to the histories of life behind bars, separated from the outside world.

Over the past two decades MacMurray has created memorable, large-scale works responding to historic sites, including “Doubt” at Southwark Cathedral, “Echo” in a former church in York, “Cloud” at Winchester’s Great Hall, and “Promenade” at Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire.

“Witness” feels as site specific as any of these works, only more so. It speaks of all those, for whatever reason, just or unjust, who have spent time denied their freedom on this particular hillside in Nottingham, which served as a prison for more than four hundred years.

Forlorn, fatalistic, bowed but not broken, “Witness” invites reflection on how societies down the ages have punished individuals deemed to have broken the law. It also raises questions about those whose freedoms are denied because of who they are or what they believe.

There have been, and still are, thousands imprisoned without a trial or after an unfair one, often mistreated in custody. Across the world, right now, we know there are prisoners of conscience because of their beliefs, their sexuality, their religion or ethnicity, for civil disobedience, because of war, the list is a long one. “Witness” speaks of the strength to resist, of the spirit to survive against the odds.

MacMurray’s installation is site specific, complex and packs a powerful psychological punch. It was completed towards the end of the summer. When we met to reflect on her work and the long, interrupted, process of its creation, the news was breaking about a tragedy unfolding in Afghanistan. (It was the Saturday that Kabul fell to the Taliban.) “Witness” is not a didactic work, a mere illustration to supplement the museum’s existing displays and interpretation. “Witness” stands on its own merits. Each viewer will find their own connections. For the artist and I, at that moment, it stood not just for the experiences that took place in a historic space, the men’s exercise yard of Nottingham gaol. “Witness” had acquired a greater resonance. Yes, it represented all those who had broken a law in this country. There were brave Nottingham suffragettes who were jailed for their fight to win the vote a hundred years ago. It also seemed to stand for all those who were opposed to the patriarchal tyranny into which that country had descended with terrifying speed. It felt like a monument to all the unknown prisoners, universal.

Javier Pes is an arts journalist and former editor of The Art Newspaper