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"I Wanted to Celebrate the Resilience of the Human Being" - Artist Susie MacMurray on Witness at the National Justice Museum

7 October 21 words: Lizzy O'Riordan
photos: Ekam Hundal

Created by artist Susie MacMurray and curated by Andrea Hadley-Johnson, Witness is a striking installation art piece made to be displayed at the National Justice Museum. We head over to have a gander and chat to Susie all about her intentions behind Witness and the creative process...

Walking into the National Justice Museum’s courtyard, you’ll spot six sculptures made of very heavy rope. The material means that they’ve started to sag over time, resulting in each having a distinct shape and personality. This is Suzie MacMurray’s new exhibition, Witness - a site-specific art installation commissioned by the National Justice Museum.

The installation is built to engage with the long history of our once County Gaol, and to spark conversations about the justice and injustice that has gone on there. I ask Susie if each structure is meant to represent a prisoner, and she replies that they aren’t. “I personally read them as entities,” Susie tells me. “I think it’s a bit naff to say each one represents a person, but they’re sort of standing for the idea of the body. That’s why it’s so important that they’re sagging. Like the human body, they age and they succumb to the conditions they’re in.”

When I visit Witness, I meet with curator and artistic programme manager Andrea Hadley-Johnson, who tells me that she became instantly attached to the pieces. I understand why, there’s something oddly human about the installation, and very sad. I tell Susie about my reaction to the exhibition, and she affirms my feelings, “Isn’t it strange that they are so big and so solid and yet they do feel very vulnerable? I wanted to capture that strength and power and roughness, because my God you would have to be tough to survive that, yet they have such humanity and vulnerability.”

Witness was created on site at the National Justice Museum, in what turned out to be a somewhat gruelling process. The heatwave meant that working conditions were tough, and the rope started to mould after being left out over lockdown. In many ways, this only added to Susie’s intentions of mirroring hard penal work. “I didn’t expect it to be easy,” Susie admits. “I knew it would be performative in that way. People could come in and see us doing our hard labour.”  The material likewise was chosen to reflect a prisoner’s experience in the gaol by referencing picking oakum, a Victorian form of penal labour that involves picking tar from old rope.

I wanted to celebrate the resilience of the human being, and to remember that we’re capable of awful things, but we’re also capable of amazing grace, resilience and endurance

Witness was made by weaving and looping the rope together in a movement inspired by French knitting. Susie says that creating it made her reflect on her own craft. “It’s a more rugged thing than my other work, so in a lot of ways it was a push to my practice. But then, in many ways, it was completely the same because all my work has involved that repetitive movement.” She comments that it made her muse about repetitive movement in a more philosophical sense: how it can be a punishment in one way, or a meditative activity depending on the context.

Although striking, the installation avoids goriness. “There’s more than enough shock in the world, horrifying people with statistics,” Susie explains, “and not many things that allow you to put yourself in the shoes of other people, and to imagine yourself in a position where you have no power.”

I ask Susie what she hopes the piece will achieve and she laughs, saying that it’s an impossible question. After a moment she answers, “I wanted to celebrate the resilience of the human being, and to remember that we’re capable of awful things, but we’re also capable of amazing grace, resilience and endurance. I hope it makes people muse on the issues for a while and sticks with them. When a piece of work does that you can feel you’ve made something of worth and use.”

Witness is an ongoing installation at the National Justice Museum. To learn more, visit the NJM website or search #NJMWitness

nationaljusticemuseum.org.uk

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