On the face of it, Belfast artist Susan MacWilliam breathes life into the obscure history of research into paranormal perception. Straddling the roles of scientific investigator, documentarian and artist, she delivers hauntingly beautiful video-based installations of real case studies. On another level, MacWilliam unravels some of our most basic assumptions about art, authenticity and perception.
In Dermo Optics , MacWilliam presents footage recorded in 2005 when she traveled to Paris to meet Madame Duplessis, a senior researcher in dermo optical perception and director Centre d’Information de la Couleur. Madame Duplessis and her colleagues are observed as they demonstrate the experimental apparatus in her cellar laboratory.
Testing and demonstrating the dermo optic phenomenon requires that experimental subjects cannot “see” what they are doing. The conventional scientific apparatus that has evolved is an architecture that dramatically severs the intimate connection between the eyes and the hands—not so much blinding the eyes, as with a blindfold, as putting the two into different spaces. For many of us, especially artists, this is a peculiar, even unthinkable dissection.
MacWilliam, having explored the terrain for over ten years, is an authority in her own right. She tastefully refrains from sensationalizing the procedure into a spectacular card-trick ta da! Instead, she rushes through the gestalt of the apparatus at great flickering speed to confound the viewer’s ability to emotionally invest in outcome, let alone even properly “observe” it, as might a scientist; then, she slows to linger on fragmentary moments of demonstration, evocatively choreographed to a jazz sound track. It is mysterious, even sexy. In a further twist, the demonstrating researcher is at times blindfolded. But then, of course, the piece is about showing how to see by not seeing.
To a contemporary mainstream art audience, this is as close to magic as it gets. And as such, it is as inherently suspect as it is seductive. Most of us have made up our minds from the beginning that this ESP stuff is a lot of hooey, and that any evidence to the contrary is a trick, or worse, outright fraud. To be sure, it is not a fair trial…
But what’s on trial here is not so much about how “gifted” research subjects read color, as how we read an image. MacWilliam drives home the point with her marvelous video “Explaining Magic to Mercer.” She finds in her five-year-old nephew a credulous listener. He is shown seated by himself at the kitchen table, half focusing on his drawing and half mumbling his end of a conversation about magic. His interlocutor, however, is unseen and unheard; instead the words appear onscreen as subtitles—authoritative, thoughtful and patient, but in no way romanticizing the subject. For all we know we are reading what isn’t there—as though these are messages from Mercer’s invisible (or imaginary?) friend… Yes, in him, bless his heart, magic is plausibly alive.
Susan MacWilliam has exhibited actively in important venues around the world. This is her first New York solo show.