Susan MacWilliam was selected by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and the British Council to represent Northern Ireland with a solo exhibition entitled Remote Viewing at the Venice Biennale of Art in 2009.
“In the depths of a Parisian cellar, Madame Yvonne Duplessis conducts fingertip vision experiments; New York in the 1950s and Irish-born medium Eileen J Garrett is exploring the psychic potential of LSD with Aldous Huxley; Winnipeg in the 1930s and the name of the French Astronomer and psychical researcher, Flammarion, appears as a teleplasm on the back of a séance cabinet.”
These are the strange worlds and other times we are transported to through the remarkable video installations of Susan MacWilliam, one of the leading artists to emerge from Northern Ireland in the last decade.
In Remote Viewing, her solo exhibition at the 53rd Venice Biennale, she presented video works based on her detailed research into the archives of paranormal activity. Underlying the compelling narratives are recorded historical cases, from séances to x-ray vision, which MacWilliam retells through a process of reconstruction and a layering of textual fragments, faded newspaper clippings, archive photographs and first-hand accounts.
Modern spiritualism emerged with the development of photography, which was used alongside scientific testing to document and verify spiritualist activities. Exploring these connections, MacWilliam’s work reveals striking parallels between the medium and the artist, the séance and the process of creating art, raising questions about the possibilities and limits of vision, memory and representation.
MacWilliam’s exhibition, curated by Karen Downey, featured three significant video works: Dermo Optics (2006), an account of MacWilliam’s visit to the Dermo Optical Laboratory of Dr Yvonne Duplessis in Paris, where MacWilliam participated in experiments testing ‘fingertip vision; Eileen (2008) explores the social world of Eileen Garrett, Irish medium and founder of the Parapsychology Foundation in New York; and a major new work commissioned for Venice, F-L-A-M-M-A-R-I-O-N (2009), which draws on the TG Hamilton Spirit Photograph Archive in Winnipeg and features Belfast poet and writer Ciaran Carson and Atlanta-based poltergeist investigator Dr William Roll.
Immersing the audience in the haunting anecdote and imagery of these extraordinary histories, MacWilliam creates a remarkable bridge between worlds: between past and present and between the worlds of science, the supernatural and art.