Susan Hiller

Susan Hiller (Wild Talents/From the Freud Museum)

Experimental Art Foundation publication, Adelaide Festival catalogue
& Museum of Contemporary Art catalogue - Oslo - Norway - 1998

'History isn't/the devastating bulldozer they say it is/It leaves underpasses, crypts, holes/and hiding places. There are survivors/ History's also benevolent, destroys/as much as it can: overdoing it,/Sure/ would be better, but history is short/ of news, doesn't carry out all its vendettas.'

Eugenio Montale 'Satura'


'There are cracks in the wall which the light gets through' Leonard Cohen. Democracy.


When reading about the work of Susan Hiller, a word that appears often in connection with her practice, in different texts from different writers, is 'diversity'. The word is used with an air almost of surprise somehow, with the merest ghost or hint of that this should be considered unusual or exceptional. Diversity and its synonyms are attached as a description of the materials that the artist uses to make her work, the formal outcomes of the work. the polysemy of her discourses, the various ways that she positions her audiences and their interactions. Perhaps I am wrong in detecting a slight unease, but one cannot help but feel that the idea(s) of the diverse sits at odds with the dictates of criticism, or the trajectories of modernism/post modernism and in the arenas of market, knowledge and capital, no matter what the vocabulary used in the current rhetorics or discourses of self definition: not only in the visual arts but of many fields of human enquiry as currently formulated by the institution or the academy (be they these institutions visible or invisible). Raphael Samuel, in discussing the discipline of history talks of 'The Balkanisation of the subject and the multiplication of subdisciplines (...) It can have the unintended effect of staking out propriety claims to knowledge, and locking it up in academic publication and seminar circuits.'


The acting out of 'Balkanisation' can be seen in the orders and orderings of knowledge and research that has developed in the twentieth century. In the larger arena, the ordering is not only to do with locking in knowledge, but dispossessing and locking out, whereby the definition of acceptable areas of enquiry has served to set up strong ideas of what is, and what is not 'real', and what can be accepted not only as areas of enquiry, but as means of enquiry. It's as if an inflatable globe of the world has been deflated, and flattened under glass pushing large volumes of material below the surface plane into invisibility.


Hillers practice strikes me as being of central contemporary importance in that it refutes and refuses this Balkanisation, and the hierarchies set up between and within the boundaries. "I'm interested in things that are outside or beneath recognition, whether that means cultural invisibility or has to do with some notion of what a person is." This approach has produced a complex body of work that addresses, amongst other things issues of gender, desire, death, telepathy, history and cultural construction, which through itself and its approaches (as much as the expressed 'content') is profoundly political. Her work serves to bring diverse materials -be they objects, or ideas i.e. 'cultural artefacts ­ up onto the same plane of significance (perhaps removing the glass, and re-inflating the globe) thus allowing us and the artist to travel across newly visible terrains as well as those already known, generating new models and realities.


Hiller's interest in archaeology and training in anthropology is often mentioned in connection with her practice, and in this even-handedness of approach and openness to the being and resonances of the material we do see a significant influence. Having worked as both an excavator then finds assistant on Bronze age and Iron age sites in the U.K. I recognise the way in which materials (the finds) are accreted, and given equal weight in the formation of an attempted picture or understanding of the site. The rookie excavator wants to find the skull or the helmet, later, the brown stain in the ground, a shift of layer in a section, the ghost of a post-hole is seen to have equivalent power to 'speak' in the narrative (and fiction) of re-construction and understanding. Also, it is probably only in the a romantic constructions of the archaeological process - say Schiellmann, Heyerdal and Indiana Jones (and certainly not at the dust or mud and rain of the site) ­ are the artefacts used to 'prove' some overarching thesis, although of course each sign/artefact is positioned within its own partial narratives be they formal, economic social, physical, biological, cultural, etcetera or whichever conflations and combinations of these are settled on. In talking on the work After the Freud Museum Hiller says 'My starting points were artless, worthless artefacts and materials - rubbish, discards, fragments trivia and reproductions - which seem to carry an aura of memory and to hint at meaning something, something that made me want to work with them and on them' (quoted in Tate Gallery Catalogue). After the Freud Museum is an ongoing project ­ started 1992 - growing out of an exhibition where she was invited to make a work at Freuds (last) home in London. She was fascinated by the idea of collecting as evinced in the rooms: where each object had, carefully and with great pleasure been registered and noted by Freud, and she took the idea of the narratives inherent in the 'conscious configuration' of objects as the basis for the project. Each component display box 'presents the viewer with the word (each is titled) a thing or object, and a representation' and between these there is some sort of relationship. In fact as the artists points out there are sets of relations: those that the artists was working with (in a 'process which is actually very dreamlike') and those that the viewer is reading. With the use of the fragmentary and the dream-like there is a temptation to make a direct corollary between the work and psychoanalysis 'an excavation of the unconscious where nothing is lost and everything is conceivably waiting to be disinterred' (Kate Bush Untitled: A Review of Contemporary art 1994), but to hold only to this reading could also sacrifice poignancy for neatness. The pregnant and resonant thing about the archaeological fragment; any fragment, is that its retrieval makes manifest that which cannot be retrieved, suggests orders that must remain lost. Each fragment is like the minutest tip of an iceberg of histories and narratives and stories which we can feel tugging at us on the edge of consciousness or knowledge, but which we know are to remain for-ever invisible and unknowable: to hold a fragment in your hand is to trigger a massive act of imagination to try and see it when, and this act achingly underscores the knowledge that its presumed past is forever beyond our direct experience. A work of Hillers which made this weight of the unknown manifest for me was Monument (1980-1) which consisted of a grid of photographs of memorial plaques in a London park for those who had died in acts of heroism. The texts are resonant: 'Alice Ayers daughter of a bricklayers labourer who by intrepid conduct saved 3 children from a burning house in union street borough at the cost of her own young life. April 24 1985." "David Selves aged 12 off Woolwich. Supported his drowning playfellow and sank with him clasped in his arms September 12 1885." Through memorialising and saving these fragments of lives and deaths, and the narratives and events we are also made extraordinarily aware of what has been lost, not only in the terms of the lives memorialised, but stories only hinted at (the bricklayer's labourer) and contexts which are suggested through the language itself; 'Playfellow' for instance conjures up entires pictures of Victorian ideas of childhood, 'sank with him clasped in his arms' the sentimental morbidity of the Victorian view: Charles Kingsley Water Babies, Little Nell et al. Which in turn suggests socio-economic forces, politics ad infinitum, but all now hinted at and hidden, only suggested and implied through the traces of guessed at narratives. Each memorial becomes a memento mori, not only for our organic selves but the knowledge's and stories that contain us.


However Susan Hillers practice is too generous and filled with the sense of possibilities to present us only with this closure - there is no 'either/or - although the seeming cognitive impossibility of death (which 'lies beyond the realm of such images as the living body knows' K Burke.) is one of her central concerns. Instead she suggests the arenas of culture and imagination, of art, as places that we can consider, receive, trace or maybe invent the traces of that which has become hidden, through which we can show ourselves possibilities that we had not suspected before: which contradict our previous definitions of self and of our boundaries 'I suppose I see psychoanalysis as more poetic than scientific, and in fact I don't even see a dichotomy between science and poetry' -my italics -(Susan Hiller Working through objects.) Wild Talents is a work that considers the spontaneous unfocussed abilities positioned in childhood such as telekinesis or precognition. The work uses combined extracts and quotations from specific movies that focus on these dangerous energies so prevalent in popular culture. These are placed next to footage from a documentary on a pilgrimage to see children experiencing visions of the Virgin Mary. The programs in Wild Talents 'represent collective dreams, cultural artefacts that form our common understanding of what is possible and our fantasies of what we wish were possible...they show how we imagine or represent the invisible and the unknown' (Susan Hiller unpublished artists statement)


The Wild Talents of the title are related to those that she has used to make/ explored other works: those using and exploring automatic writing, or telepathy: the Dream Works or the Sisters of Menon. These works not only serve to challenge the Balkanisation of knowledge but the frontiers and barricades of definition that we erect (and that are erected for us) around the very ideas and possibilities of self.