Susie MacMurray: "Do Not Touch"

This post was originally written by Barbara Brownie on her blog UH Artists in Conversation.

Susie MacMurray’s works directly or indirectly relate to touch, in their subject, their shape, or their tactility. Sometimes the reference to touch is in the materials, and reference to wearing, as in Gauze Bandage 1 and 2 (2018). In Rapture (2014), snakelike chainmail forms entwine “like two bodies wrapped together”. The two parts are coiled together, “like a Mobius strip”; they cannot be pulled apart. They touch each other, intimately and permanently, unable to withdraw from their embrace. Elsewhere, MacMurray uses tactile materials, including silk velvet in Masquerade (2018) and Strange Fruit (2017), both of which are subject to further discussion in this previous blog post.

Despite these references to physical interaction, Susie MacMurray’s Masquerade should not be touched. Alongside the soft and inviting velvet, MacMurray’s exhibition features aggressive materials and forms that discourage physical contact. Host(2016) is an arrangement of seven Portland stone slabs from which barbed wire grows like tufts of grass. Barbed wire is also a feature of Strange Fruit, in which velvet berries of are skewered with barbed wire, projecting aggressively outwards.

Visitors’ inclination to touch her work has informed MacMurray’s approach to exhibiting. MacMurray is conscious that the St. Albans Museum is not a conventional art gallery, “a space that’s not just for an art audience”, and therefore, that audiences might have different expectations about the work and the ways in which they should interact with it. Visitors will include young children, and others who might feel the urge to handle her installation, “especially if you make work that is tactile”. In the past, visitors have interfered with her sculptures and installations, including the tentacles that surround Medusa (2014), which have been untangled and laid flat, drastically altering the mood of the work. MacMurray stresses, however, that this is “not an interactive artwork”. Her work is not designed to be touched.

For this exhibition, MacMurray has taken measures to guard against the destruction or alteration of her work by visitors. She has provided the museum staff with instructions that describe how to reattach the parcels that make up Masquerade (2018), and photographs that show where those parcels should be located, in case they need to be returned to their intended position. “I have reassured them not to be precious about it”, she says. After all, if visitors feel the urge to interact with a piece of work, this is “evidence that people are engaged”.

One work in this exhibition strongly discourages physical contact. Host is constructed from barbed wire that has been reclaimed from army barracks, and even the well-lit museum setting it is easy to imagine the pain and frustration of getting caught in its barbs, as if ensnared by brambles or thorns. These bundles of wire are, in the words of Paul Williams, “witnessing objects”, that have seen military action. In its previous role, the wire served the purpose of training soldiers for combat, and its closeness to real life conflict makes it “function simultaneously as primary evidence and as an incisive signifying device” (Williams, 2007, pp. 31; 29).

One significant consideration for MacMurray was “how problematic it is to memorialize things without sanitizing”. There has been a history of censorship that has, in many cases, led to the sanitization of visual arts that depict war. One approach, as demonstrated in Host, is not to depict war directly, but to invite viewers to draw on their own knowledge of conflict to imagine how else the artist’s materials might have been used. MacMurray makes visitors to the exhibition aware that the wire has previously been used in the training of soldiers who went on to serve in Afghanistan, Kosovo and the Falklands. Knowledge that it is served its purpose in not just one, but several wars, makes Host significant not in its relationship to any one particular battle, but as witness to the endless cycle of conflict and resolution that affects generation after generation of soldiers and their families. It is, in this way, a reminder of our inability to learn from our past mistakes.

MacMurray does not intend for Host to memorialize soldiers, but rather, the psychological impact on the families that they leave behind. War memorials are too often built in memory of those who have been directly engaged in fighting, but, MacMurray says, we don’t do enough to remember how war effects everyone else. The “psychological effects of war change the way we are” as a whole society, including those who remain at home. Host mourns the losses and damage that take place away from the battlefield, and that are often invisible in the conversation and imagery that surrounds war. Our culture is disinclined to remember this history unless it is represented in things that we can see and touch. Hidden and forgotten experiences are acknowledged only when made concrete, in keeping with our tendency towards “materialist… modes of mourning” (Doss, 2008, p. 40). To remember, we must touch, or imagine touching.

References:
Doss, E. (2008), The Emotional Life of Contemporary Public Memorials: Towards a Theory of Temporary Memorials, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.
Williams, P. (2007), Memorial Museums: The Global Rush to Commemorate Atrocities, London: Bloomsbury.

UHArts works in partnership with St Albans Museum + Gallery to deliver the visual arts programme for the venue.