In 2010 at NCAD Gallery, Dublin, Susan MacWilliam restaged the video installation F-L-A-M-M-A-R-I-O-N. This was one of three works that were shown at the 53rd Venice Biennale, 2009. The press-release for F-L-A-M-M-A-R-I-O-N stated:

F-L-A-M-M-A-R-I-O-N (2009) is based on MacWilliam’s research into the spirit photography archive of T.G. Hamilton held at the University of Manitoba Archives in Winnipeg, Canada. Named after the French astronomer and psychical researcher Camile Flammarion (1842-1925),the work is inspired by a photograph which documents the appearance of a ‘teleplasmic text’ at a séance in June 1931.

10 years earlier in the short film work Faint (1999) MacWilliam finds herself dressed as a medium whom collapses repeatedly on a grassy clearing. It is the first work I experienced from MacWilliam’s art practice – now resembling and measuring an archive. I say experienced and not viewed, or saw, because it has stayed with me since, wedged in my memory. Not because it was that visually traumatic; but it left an imprint, a vestige. In Faint, This repeated moment, of what could be called “old fashioned female hysteria,” is interrupted intermittently by details of poised hands against a backdrop of folds of drapery and filigreed furniture. There is also what I imagine to be, a male voyeur present – breathing heavily while watching the episodes of collapse. MacWilliam is fully committed to the fall in the work, you can see her upper body collapsing in on its haunches; it is almost believable, but it is not real. The event is a fabrication; the faint, the dress, the birdsong: it is all a reworking. In a sense, MacWilliam is acting out a desire – to be – to see – to be seen.

Teasingly at NCAD Gallery, MacWilliam has placed two stereoscopes in plain view from outside the full window of the Gallery’s facade. As an introduction – and also seen in full view of the street – the artist has sited a plywood cutout text spanning 12-feet across, which spells out the unfamiliarly exotic word F-L-A-M-M-A-R- I-O-N. The placement of the stereoscopes suggests a view within a view and supplants a kid’s desire to enter the space to get a sneak peek. Traditionally, the common themes seen through a stereoscope was either fairy tales or travel destinations; commonly procured as a last minute ‘panic buy’ from the foreign gift shop. The recipient, usually a child, had one look and then it was discarded, the image trapped inside without an audience ad infinitum. The structure of the stereoscope can give some insight to where my line of inquiry is going: two images of the same subject are placed side-by-side. The trick of the eye is caused by one of the images being a slightly different view of the subject. The lens of the stereoscope aligns the two images at a virtual distance of infinity (vanishing point), and what you get is a 3-D effect. It is this articulation of a view through the nostalgic stereoscope that is pertinent to the themes that underpin MacWilliam’s art practice. The multifarious viewing and articulation of those varying points of view is what dislocates her work from pure research. Image and language are placed side-by-side in this private theatre.

The British Philosopher Gilbert Ryle denounced the Cartesian theory of mind, which claimed that the soul was a separate nonmaterial entity - a ghost. Ryle, (following Wittgenstein), also thought that philosophical problems were caused by our misuse of language.[1] From this philosophical standpoint, the basic nature of our understanding and view of the world is always compromised by the very things that we try to explain it with – language and speech. This path of inquiry situates MacWilliam’s work in an argument that not only revolves around issues of an “extramundane” nature but also one that is concerned with language.


to be – to see – to be seen

Susan MacWilliam, F-L-A-M-M-A-R-I-O-N

NCAD Gallery, Dublin, 2010

Susan MacWilliam, Faint, 1999 colour with sound, 3mins 40secs; image courtesy the artist.



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