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The first in a series of interviews with artists whose interests lie in the accumulation of bizarre materials. First up Manchester’s Susie MacMurray’s fascination with the body and protection encompasses hairnets, gloves, leather and hooks. Simultaneously on show in the V&A’s ‘Power of Making’ exhibition and her first solo-exhibition at Agnew’s Gallery this month.
jotta: You currently have a piece in the Power of Making exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum, a major institution, and a solo exhibition ‘The Eyes of the Skin’ at the indipendent Agnew’s Gallery. How did your experiences dealing with both institution differ from one another?
Susie MacMurray: Both places are of course highly professional and well organised. I've worked with other large museums before, both in the USA and the UK, but working with a commercial gallery is a new experience for me. What I am loving is the more personal nature of the relationship I am developing with Agnew's. The interaction I have with them is more like the way I work with people when doing a site-specific project. You get to know people better and there is much more collaboration as opposed to straightforward loaning and installing an existing piece of work. It's that part that I love, sharing together with likeminded people the ambitions, the risks and the excitement of trying to do something new.
What do you think is the biggest challenge facing young artists emerging from University now? Can you offer any tips?
I graduated from my MA at Manchester Metropolitan ten years ago so I suppose both the nature of art education and, particularly in the last couple of years the landscape of the art world has changed. But still I think I'd say you need to 'do your time' after college. You have to learn your craft and spend those years discovering what kind of artist you really are. At the beginning make up your own opportunities, do artist-led stuff, develop relationships with people and be open to avenues you maybe hadn't considered. You also need to learn what the art world is, how all the different bits of it connect and where you think your place might be in it all. I didn't have a game plan, I just wanted to explore my ideas and questions, and to make good work. Basically that's still all I want to do!
The language of your work often seems reminiscent of my favorite artist, Eva Hesse, in the sense that you both often manipulate and reinvent seemingly random materials, extending the objects original functional value into something much more potent. I am curious about how you select the materials you use. Do you decide on a material, say fish hooks, and then consider how you might use it? How cognoscente are you of the potential metaphor of say, using white domestic gloves to make a bridal gown in your piece 'A Mixture of Frailties'?
The materials I use mostly have some kind of relationship with the body. Either they have come from it, like hair, leather or feathers for example, or they are something that has been used to touch/constrain/protect in some way, i.e. hooks, bandages, hairnets, clingfilm etc. The metaphors, semiotics and connotations attached to the object and materials I use are very important to me. My way of working is a strange non linear process of questions, thoughts, experiences and ideas floating round in my head, gradually coalescing with the physical stuff I am drawn to. My studio is full of odd objects and materials that sometimes hang around for years before finding their place in a piece or a body of work. I am constantly juggling materials, ideas and contexts around together trying to get them to come into focus.
What do you feel is the biggest challenge an artist faces when undergoing a site specific work?
There are so many! You need to know what the commissioner’s needs and constraints are. You need to be prepared to work within the boundaries of any conservation issues and develop a good working relationship with those responsible for them. You need to be aware of how the building is used and who the audience might be in order to gauge how interactive and how challenging the work can be. Then of course you need to try to make a good, relevant uncompromised piece of work!
You have a very multifaceted style. How do you feel your works like 'Anima' are in dialogue with 'After Flock'? Those two pieces come from very different places.
'After Flock' is really an echo of an installation called 'Flock' which I've made in several different places - first in my studio, then at Manchester Art Gallery, York Art Gallery and last year at the Museum of Art & Design in New York. 'After Flock' uses the original feathers from the piece that are of course gradually diminishing. It's a kind of remnant, almost molted, but still with an inkling of the ambiguity of what it was like to be immersed within four walls of inky crow-like feathers. 'Anima' is in a way more personal and the most recent. It was made specifically for the Agnew's exhibition and along with pieces like 'Animus', 'Attachment', 'Swarm' and 'Feast' it is the result of the opportunity to be released from the context of site-specific working and explore psychological areas of my own choosing.
I was told that in pieces such as 'Maiden', the pieces that involve human hair, the hair is from your studio assistant. Does the person who's hair it is bear any meaning for the work? What do you look for in a potential assistant? (Nice hair?!)
Ha! No, my current studio assistant is male with short hair! No, so far the person is hasn't had any meaning, because I don't think I could make that apparent in the work without using accompanying text, which I don't like to have to do. However, I am developing a new piece where the person's name may be the title and will have a double meaning within the work.
Do you have any exciting projects coming up?
Yes I do, but they are in the early stages. One is a performance garment, and the other involves using video which would be a first for me.