Grace A Williams has a visual practice framed by the lens of ‘magick and mediumship’. Williams’ highly polished installations, videos, prints, sound works and photographs tap into the burgeoning popularity of the occult scene and are rooted in investigations of histories and stories from these fields that pertain to the female body. Yet the artist’s works also expose some of the contrived, problematic and highly political aspects of magic and mediumship that might be more often overlooked in the pleasure and thrill of the spectacle.
Escamotage, 2014 © Grace A Williams, Installation at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery
Escamotage, made in 2014, is indicative. Williams’ series of five black and white photographs are presented as slide projections, a choice with which Williams draws together both the historical and ephemeral/tangible nature of this format into direct correlation with its illusory content. Williams discovered early on in the making of the series that the digital printing method used to transfer the photographic image to the plastic slides was not colour-fast. The image was quickly degraded. By making the photograph visible, specifically by shining the projector’s lamp through the image, the colours within it were over time transformed through shifting iterations of green, purple and blood-red. In this way, the artist’s photographic subject is not static but invested with an uncanny mobility, liquidity and life of its own. Colour breathed into a monochromatic scene. Yet each slide also contains within itself its own death, for the heat, light and chemical reactions required to make the work present and visible are also slowly destroying it. Williams has explored such degradation and decomposition in three-dimensional works such as Apport (2014) in which fresh flowers and fruit were used in an installation engaging with the true story of spirit medium Anna Rothe whose ‘trick’ was to spontaneously produce fresh flowers and fruit from her body and clothing mid-séance. The medium was subsequently strip-searched by police and arrested in 1902, whereupon she was imprisoned for fraud. Williams’ Apport rotted away eventually too.
Processes of transformation lend a crucial force to the works’ subject, as within the five slides can be found a vanishing woman, or rather, the appearance of a vanishing woman. In each of the Escamotagephotographs the form of a body can be discerned beneath the heavy folds of a patterned Persian-style rug. Curiously folded, moulded to or stiffened against the artist’s body, the textiles induce a deeply unsettling effect. ‘Escamotage’ means ‘to vanish’. This is not the place for the ‘photograph as truth’. Curiously shadowed, the perspective of the scene is foreshortened, theatrical and stage-like. There is something more than a little disconcerting about Escamotage. The photographs show only a tiny part of an untold, perhaps untellable, narrative and references to gothic horror stories and to macabre television crime series niggle at the back of the mind. Why can’t the woman be seen? Can she see us? What might she be hiding from? Is she really there at all?
Magical illusions made to entertain were perhaps at the height of their popularity in the late nineteenth-century. The vanishing woman trick made famous by the illusion builder Bautier de Kolta, for instance, made a seated woman covered with a patterned rug disappear into thin air. These tricks upon women were, at the time, also invested with deeply political symbolic content, principally in connection with the removal of undesirable groups of people: a perceived ‘surplus’ of women in Britain in the Victorian period. Problems connected to the displacement, transportation and vanishing of unwanted bodies are gaining exposure and increasing political momentum today. What is the most effective way to make an inconvenient person disappear? That is the question.
Alongside tales and images of magical disappearances, images known as the ‘hidden mother photographs’ brought to popular attention in recent years contextualise Williams’ series politically. In these Victorian studio portraits, babies and young children unable to sit still long enough for the required photographic exposure were held in position by nannies or mothers who were covered with plain or patterned fabric. Their bodies were, essentially, rather poorly disguised as furniture and soft furnishings. These were to be portraits of the child or children only, but rather than hiding the women, the conspicuously bodily nature of the form draws attention to itself: revealing the body precisely by the attempt to conceal it. Williams’ works operate similarly: the body is emphasised beneath the rug precisely because it is obscured. Her use of dark curtains, wallpaper and patterned carpets mark the space of Williams’ photographic illusions out as domestic spaces too. Within the home the body of the woman can be suitably hidden away, a notion which finds resonance in too many contexts even today.
The display of the slides is also significant. Projected directly on to the wall, the photographic object is rendered image, its intangible and durational life played out in and against physical space. In its making,Escamotage has moved through numerous two and three-dimensional variations, from ‘real’ object/person, to image, to object and to projection in a process which has altered both the context and content of the work. That the entire gallery wall is painted black rather than displaying a white or grey framed space further underscores the illusory quality of the projected photograph. Without a clearly defined projection frame, the image is fuzzy along its edges, gently bleeding into the structure on which it is displayed. It gives the impression of vibrating softly against the wall and the figure beneath the rug seems to move very subtly. The ghostly effect is heightened the more time one spends with the work, as it alters beneath one’s eyes and possibilities are made manifest.
It is true, however, that in this case the audience is entirely aware of Williams’ illusions. The projector and the plastic slides are completely visible within the exhibition space. There is no attempt to conceal these. This is an illusion made and deliberately broken: a photographic suspension of disbelief built up and undercut by the technologies that the artist has presented, and that enable the presentation, appearance and consequent disappearance of the photographs themselves.
Grace A Williams lives in Birmingham, UK and is currently completing a practice-based PhD which explores the performance and sexual politics of the female body within the fields of Mediumship [channeling conduits] Magick [Occult, black magic] Magic [vanishing women] and pre-narrative cinema.
Williams will undertake a residency at New Art Gallery Walsall 30 June – 9 August 2015 researching its Garman Ryan archive and is exhibiting in the group exhibition One Leg Supporting the Weight of the Body, the Other Slightly Bent at National Trust property Croome Court, Worcestershire, from 6 August 2015.
Essay by Anneka French
Published by Photomonitor, July 2015