Susan Morris’s sights and sites (2000)

R.J. Preece
artdesigncafé - art | 15 March 2011
This article was previously published in Sculpture, 19(6), pp. 12-3 in July 2000.

Susan Morris’s sights and sites

“In my work, the sight— what is seen— is always the site of fantasy and desire,” says Susan Morris about her video installations. Not another sensation-through-subject-matter Young British Artist, Morris has embarked on a different pursuit, taking ordinary sites and subjects, twisting them, and twisting them tightly. The resulting body of work explores relationships between the sights/sites in her video lens and the siting of her installations. Within this criss-crossing discourse, the ordinary becomes simultaneously soothing, hypnotic, and unnerving, sometimes emotional and sometimes spiritual.

Susan Morris’s sights/sites include architectural settings that subvert both their human element and their English Modernist architecture. “This is the last place where ‘desire’ resides. Most British architecture in this style is deeply flawed— the exposed bleakness of walkways, the many places where you are vulnerable to attack by muggers. It’s completely corrupted, nostalgic, and has a shadowy presence. Yet, on a balmy summer night, the form is almost perfect— and despite its problems, its beauty lingers.”

Her recurring “monotonous” non-moving video frame Parallel universe (1999) compositionally freezes a high-rise block of flats, which stands opposite— and is videotaped from— its architectural equivalent. Soundless (1997) frames a long balcony on the Royal Festival Hall, capturing textbook perspective lines. Courtyard (1997) takes an overhead shot— possibly a “sniper’s view”— of a barren concrete section of the Leeds University campus. Courtyard resembles an abstract painting at first, but it quickly becomes disorienting as people walk through and subvert the space. Soundless and Courtyard, two of five works sited in an exhibition-space-turned-voyeuristic-control-tower, play off desire, control, CCTV, and the deceptive quality of visual evidence. The viewer waits for something sensational to happen, and instead Morris gives us details.

Susan Morris used the exteriors and interiors of Danielle Arnaud’s Georgian gallery/salon to actively address and subvert its domesticity. For Morris, the interplays between these sights/sites “hypnotize the viewer and suggest a ‘haunting’ of a place by another space.” In Everything stays the same/Everything must change (1999), she positioned two video monitors side-by-side against a wall, with one playing in reverse scan; the viewer is invited to sit opposite in a salon chair between two windows. The videos show the window view behind the viewer— looking out at a busy street and apartment block. The result creates the sensation of psychologically spinning in the chair— the desire to turn around and compare the two sites, an experience oddly balanced by the reversed scans of the videotaped passing traffic. Amidst these different movements, the viewer is stabilized by the subjects’ symmetry— directing the viewer to the empty space between the monitors— further subverting any real sense of order.

In Vanitas: Hair (1997), situated in Danielle Arnaud’s very own bedroom-turned-art-installation, two identical monitors were placed (again, one video in reverse scan of the other) against a bay window overlooking a tranquil garden. The sight shows Morris getting her hair done by a local stylist, jazz music accompanying the visual monotony of primping, positioning, and repositioning. In order to view the piece, the viewer had to sit on the art gallerist’s lace-covered, four-poster bed and experience a video that is ritual-continuous, multiplied, endless, and unnerving. Outside the room, a video projection, Machine: IV (1987–99), was positioned parallel to the stairwell— a view looking out of a glass elevator sheathed within a Georgian interior— playing on the simple movement from one level to the next. On a wicked loop, the video replays the monotony, then cuts off, then begins again. The sight/site is layered once again— the glass elevator looks out across the street, at a Georgian façade.

Susan Morris has also enlisted her South London flat as both site and sight. In “Playing and Reality” (1998), a show she curated, highlights included a video sited inside a picture frame in her child’s room and an artwork hidden inside her refrigerator. Morris contributed a photograph of furry bondage handcuffs placed in her living room. “The work is actually about privacy— implying its use for activities when the viewer is not around. The photograph acts as a flashback or memory and haunts the space,” says Morris. Her home itself has also been the subject of her videos, including views looking out her flat’s windows.

From South London to Southeast Asia, Susan Morris brought her British-based work to Project 304, one of Bangkok’s leading experimental spaces. Her plays on sight/site were magnified by the new location, with works such as Parallel universe gaining new meaning in a city which has experienced over 1,000 poorly planned high-rises built during its economic boom. Blank screen (1999) shows an overhead view of a traffic intersection’s “no-go area.” In its painting-like “stillness,” the scene looks as though it belongs in Bangkok. However, London double-decker buses pass through, making both the sight and the siting disorienting. Since Morris had been niether to the gallery nor to Bangkok before planning the show, she designed the installation in a “virtual space” from architectural drawings. Further, she said, “I wanted to work with the features of the gallery— a typical Bangkok townhouse— and situated the plinths almost like sculptures,” says Morris. “Looking at the works required doing things, like actually leaving the gallery and going out into the street.”

Over the past three years alone, Susan Morris has built an impressive body of work, which reinvents itself at a remarkable pace while readdressing sight/site relationships. New investigations include “photographic renderings of archicad drawings of people in virtual/ideal places, digital video stills of roadside petrol stations, and a flood-lit building in Canada.” While these subjects may not sound as excitingly controversial as Damien Hirst’s cow and calf sliced in half and Chris Ofili’s Madonna with elephant dung, Morris doesn’t seem to mind. “I’m interested in the desire contained within the form,” she says, and she seems to be thriving.