All Things Bright and Beautiful

By Pauline van Mourik Broekman, 10 September 1997

Pauline van Mourik Broekman on Susan Collins

'Electronic Art' is becoming an increasingly mutable term. While it sits in the waiting room of the art movements' Valhallah, we use the time to sift through its current archive...

In many ways, Susan Collins' work could be seen as quintessentially 'English'. Quietly sensual, never up front, with its imagery of rolling hills, grazing sheep - and now - feminine totems such as handbags, purses and linen cupboards, it also provides amply for some of today's most popular curatorial keywords: memory/identity/public-space/private-space. Although she has persistently attempted to hone in on the more unsettling aspects of social and bodily dynamics, a superficial reading of Collins' work can evoke the drab conservatism and cloying sentimentality of Major's now infamous middle England. Her use of the soft and culturally stable ciphers of this 'green and pleasant land' can stand in the way of an examination of their darker underside - the recesses of individual and collective memory. Yet these, ultimately, are what drive Collins' endeavour. More Cronenberg than Merchant Ivory, her work harbours a strong sexual pulse which its humour and delicacy often disguise.

The fact that Polanski's Repulsion is an influence on Collins' recent work is telling. With Deneuve's body kept in (self)enforced captivity, the film's scenario opens up a rich space for the exploration and amplification of her ever intensifying psycho-sexual fears and fantasies. As in Pedestrian Gestures (Woolwich Foot Tunnel, 1994) or Camouflage (State of Illinois Gallery, Chicago, 1992) Collins' use of sampled whispers and sexual innuendo change spaces - and images - around. In both, habit is challenged. In the case of Pedestrian Gestures through the use of suggestive audio samples connected to triggers, or in Camouflage through an animation that borders on sexual slapstick (a bowl of fruit, displayed in an exclusive gallery window, throbs and morphs its way to proverbial climax). Although the tone of Polanski's film is far more hysterical and intense than any of Collins' work, it parallels her enduring interest in the psychological investments people have in the space and objects that surround them. In its more hallucinatory moments, it also parallels Collins' endeavour to point to their changeability. Things are not what they seem.

With artists such as Natalie Jeremijenko whose sound boxes quite literally replicated and replaced virtual sound icons in space, Collins shares a concern with the ways that electronic space enables us to experience physical space once over. Both share a deep scepticism about the value of concentrating solely and exclusively on virtual environments. Ultimately, you could say Collins' interest lies in teasing out those things in our environments that are virtual, but that we take for granted as mundane and unimportant. The deep texture of sounds and architecture, social etiquette and gaging of mutual personal space, the tacit understandings that shape the way we relate to other people and move around the city. Qualities of that which has happened or, importantly, that which could happen. The things which can be as oppressive as they are liberating and that, like a blind person moved off the correct route home, we only notice once their order is upset.

Pauline van Mourik Broekman <pauline AT>

Current and forthcoming projects include: "Imaginary Places" (Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, group show), "Suspect Devices" (Laing Gallery, Newcastle and touring), "In Conversation" (BNI/Lighthouse/Fabrica, Brighton) []