British artist Susie MacMurray has created a compelling new site-specific installation ‘Witness’ in response to the complex past of Nottingham’s Shire Hall, a former courthouse and prison, now home to the National Justice Museum.
‘Witness’ consists of six freestanding sculptural pillars woven from rope and installed in the Museum’s 18th century outdoor exercise yard. MacMurray is renowned for her poetic site-specific installations and the artwork is a powerful reflection on the history and architecture of the Shire Hall – a building where a person could be tried, sentenced, imprisoned, and executed.
The pillars, arranged in a line, look upon the rope noose hanging from the gallows at one end of the exercise yard, inviting visitors to reflect on the stories of those who passed through the building, and to consider the fragility of life and the strength and courage required to bear witness.
Built from heavy rope ‘Witness’ was created in situ by a process similar to the traditional craft of French knitting – the seven foot tall pillars are given strength by the act of knitting and looping the rope together. The choice of material and its association with particular people and place is integral to MacMurray’s work. The use of rope and the strenuous repetitive mode of making the sculptures connects the viewer to the painstaking process of picking tar from old rope, known as ‘picking oakum’, a common form of penal labour in the Victorian era. It also alludes to the rope noose which looms over the installation.
Conceived in 2019 and postponed from last summer, the installation has taken on new layers of meaning following the global pandemic. The socially distanced pillars can be read as metaphorical witnesses, reflecting on the long period of constraint, and recalling the resilience required during the last year. The knitting together of the rope and the way each pillar will sag and fray over time and exposure to the elements draws to mind how lives, families and communities are strongly woven together, yet can also be unravelled by circumstance.
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