Grace Williams, Escamotage

I visited Grace Williams’ exhibition on two occasions. On the first, my immediate response was to the almost overwhelming citrus smell emanating from the gallery. The scent was generated by an elaborate sculptural installation ‘Apport’ that incorporated fresh flowers, foliage, oranges and lemons with a synthetic citrus fragrance. The flowers and fruit were meticulously woven into a long arcing structure that emerged as a vibrant gush from beneath a white cotton petticoat suspended in mid-air. The petticoat operated as an echo or ghostly trace of a body, yet one made highly visceral and sensual by the lusciousness of the excreted natural forms. The work takes its point of departure from a historical report of a female medium called Anna Rothe who was searched by police in a séance on 1902. Rothe was found to have hidden one hundred and fifty seven flowers, oranges and lemons beneath her petticoat. The term ‘apport’ refers to the supernormal appearance of an object and research into bodily manifestations of ectoplasm informs this piece.

‘Apport’ 2014, image copyright Grace Williams

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‘Apport’ 2014, (detail),  image copyright Grace Williams

These plump, juicy, and vibrantly coloured fruits and flowers had changed somewhat upon my second visit to the exhibition. Now moulded and decayed, the work took on a far more melancholic tone, now more in-keeping with the rest of Rothe’s story: that she was charged with fraud and spent almost a year in jail awaiting trial. Williams has carefully selected flowers to retain the structure of the installation even upon decay but this is a work that does not stand still. Visually and conceptually ‘Apport’ is in constant, almost imperceptible change, and meanings shift and unfold over time as the material substances of the work transform and degrade.

Exhibition installation view,  image copyright Grace Williams

Themes of magic, illusion and mediumship run throughout ‘Escamotage.’ These are emphasised by dark walls and dramatic, theatrical lighting that shapes the space and directs the experience. If ‘Apport’ relates specifically to material objects and to scent, then other works within the exhibition refer to other senses and more ephemeral phenomena. ‘Simultaneity,’ for instance, taps into the idea of sound in connection to mediumship, as another sensory way in which the body can channel or manifest the spirit world. It features the voices of the female mediums Doris Stokes and Sylvia Brown, again exploring the performative aspects of the field of mediumship as it exists today. The work is displayed on a suspended projection screen and features waves of sound as green dancing lines that move according to the voices of Stokes and Brown. Sound clips edited by Williams create new narratives that tap into some of the controversy surrounding the theatricalisation of mediumship and its potential to exploit the grieving and the vulnerable.

Exhibition installation view, ‘Simultaneity’ on right,  image copyright Grace Williams

The work that shares its title with that of the exhibition, ‘Escamotage,’ meaning ‘to vanish’ is a series of five large scale slide projections. These incorporate heavily patterned ‘Oriental’ style rugs within domestic settings of ambiguous historical context. Taking some influence from the ‘hidden mother’ photographs that have been recently been popularised, the rugs are positioned to cover the body of the artist. In concealing the body, however, the strange positions of the textile confers an uncanny quality, for after all, rugs do not usually stand by themselves on end. In this way, the patterned textiles both hide and point attention toward the body behind, creating dramatic self-portraits of a sort, where nothing is quite as it seems (in fact some of the photographs contain no body at all). The lamp from the projector is slowly eating into Williams’ slides, creating a series of subtle colours in the black and white film that she cannot fully control. I got the feeling that these projected images were moving just a tiny amount, but they couldn’t be: they’re only slides …

‘Escamotage’ 2014, image copyright Grace Williams

Escamotage’ 2014, installation view,  image copyright Grace Williams

Williams’ exhibition is an ambitious and rich display. The highly finished works showcase not only her extraordinary levels of skill in working with materials as diverse as flowers, photography, textiles and sound clips, but also her passion for and knowledge of this field of research. It is no surprise that the exhibition roughly marks the half-way point of a practice-led PhD research into these supernormal areas. It is an unsettling, affective and sophisticated body of visual research and I look forward to seeing more.

You can see more of Grace’s work on her website http://www.grace-a-williams.com

Grace Williams
Escamotage
ARTicle Gallery, Birmingham
25 June – 16 July 2014

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