Susan Hiller

Susan Hiller (Wild Talents/From the Freud Museum)

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

Some words generated by some of the work of Susan Hiller.


‘There are cracks in everything, that’s how the light gets in'
Leonard Cohen. 'Democracy.'

In 1986 three of us are sitting in a cold front room of a flat in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the north of England. We are watching a television that’s placed just to the right of a disused Victorian fire place, which has a two bar electric heater in it that’s not doing a lot to heat up the room. On the t.v. we are watching flames flickering, dancing, snapping back into darkness, shifting from representation to abstraction. The movements of light and dark in this fire conjure up hints of figures and landscapes, that we’re half seeing, not trying too hard to hang onto them. The soundtrack to the flames carries whispers of newspaper reports of alien sightings seen on television after the close-down of programmed broadcasting, a retelling of the story of Belshazzars feast, a description of a painting and singing.

This is the broadcast of Susan Hiller’s Belshazzar’s Feast on Channel 4, a nationwide t.v. station. It’s a sort of magical work, and we’re lying there, smoking, letting it wash over us, half focussed allowing it to take us away. It operates on many levels. The happy co-incidence that the t.v. is close to the fire-place re-inforces the idea that the t.v. has replaced the fireplace as the twentieth century focus for a living room. It has also replaced it as the site for reverie. Victorian novels are full of scenes where people are depicted staring into the fire, perhaps a cup of mulled wine clasped in their hand, staring intently at, or through, the flames, allowing the pictures and rhythms to take them away. Like staring at the stain on the wall to discovers scenes as Leonardo recommends. Now it’s the box that encourages this, and it occurs to me now (1997) that this operation has been significantly increased with the wide availability of the remote control, where we flash from program to program; never engaging with the (intended) narratives, but allowing the play of light and chance conjunctions to encourage and inform some hypnagogic state.

Belshazzar’s Feast is full of hints and suggestions that are never articulated, but which register and disappear generating their own narratives which still seem somehow concrete. Are these aliens ‘real’ and ‘out there’ or are they the expressions of submerged psyche — individual or collective — that take these contemporary forms so as to be nearly assimilatable in our consensus agreements of possibility? Certainly these artefacts of our culture (television sets, t.v. programmes etc) in our stories to ourselves, now contain and enact images and forces older than their history. Kipling used the new technology of the wireless as a metaphor in a ghost story, tape-recorders pick up the voices of the dead, and Philip K. Dick identified the trigger of his Gnosis — his sudden knowledge of Sophia and God — as a purple laser flash from a satellite, a satellite also under the control of aliens. I’d never seen a piece of work that did this sort of thing before: which seemed so contained but at the same time was so catalytic to various and wide reflection. In reading Susan Hiller’s c.v. I now realise that in fact the work caused other disruptions and cracks in ‘the actual’. Until now I was convinced that this was the first broadcast ever on channel 4, which I’d thought happening in about 1980 perhaps, and my picture of the work has it happening in a different flat, where we didn’t even have a t.v. But the actual date of broadcast makes my certain memory impossible: a fiction, as I’d left that one in 1981. All of which seems absolutely right somehow in association with the work; another belief made transparent and mirage-like.

Hiller says of this work ‘these incoherent insights at the margins of society and at the edge of consciousness stand as signs of what cannot be repressed or alienated, signs of that which is always and already destroying the kingdom of law.’ (1985 text reproduced in Tate Gallery catalogue 1996). In the Bible story of Belshazzar, untranslatable writing is interpreted as a warning that God’s law has been transgressed, and it is significant, in thinking about Hiller’s work, that the Biblical law is a masculine one, for want of a better word, patriarchal. Yahweh. The western systems of hegemonic culture that have generated from Judeo-Christian foundations have been positioned socially and otherwise in the realm of the masculine, squeezing out and excluding other possibilities and other voices, which necessarily contain (that which is constructed as) the feminine. This happens not only in current definitions of structures but in constructions and understandings of the past. However such constructions are always contingent and there are necessarily gaps and faults through which other voices and other narratives escape into representation. "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." (Susan Hiller). Sophia - wisdom - in Dick’s (ha!) epiphany, and in the traditions to which it links is female, and lies at the centre of the possibility of gnosis/knowledge. The Sisters of Menon, a project featuring automatic writing, suggests that not only are the boundaries of self porous, but that there might be a female or feminine sensitivity or entity, which these texts address. In a conflux of co-incidence (and there are no co-incidents) the writing occurred in a place in France that was a Cathar site. Not only did the Cathars see women as equals in mystical knowledge of god and within the heirarchies of the church, they inherited property through the female line.

Although gender is obviously an important concern, I don’t think that one can look for simple binary oppositions or essentialisms, as such positioning is opposed to the plurality that is central to the logic of the work. The works are not there to prove theses but to provide interruptions to the theses that our culture establishes: to generate through shift and slippage, to engender meaning through (our) reading of fragments. Reading here has many senses, but in a particular sense is dependant on language, and the slipperiness of language is explored constantly. (Language is also the site and articulation of the ‘law’). I find it interesting that many of Hiller’s ‘text’ works are ‘unreadable’ through the use of automatic writings; whilst others depend on the spoken word in the form of soundtracks, making us aware of the difference of orders between texts as read and as spoken (read to). Reading aloud/being read to, is at root a consensual experience. The social space offers the possibility of convergence, of agreement, of discourse, on arriving through exchange at shared narratives, almost a mythic space (think of the spoken texts in Belshazzar). Reading from a page is a silent individual activity, a zone of silence that is a relatively recent occurrence in Western cultures. Such silence allows particular relations to texts, encouraging ‘heretical’ understandings, as, ‘A book that can be read privately, reflected on as the eye unravels the sense of words, is no longer subject to immediate clarification or guidance, condemnation or censorship by a listener’. (A History of Reading. Harper and Collins 1996). St Thomas Aquinas said that the most mysterious thing in reading was identifying ’what the writer intends’ (‘quem auctor intendit’). How much more difficult, mysterious — and how much more heretical — when ‘reading’ automatic texts; where the forms are not quite letters and where there is the possibility that the author lies elsewhere from the writer. We are some-how judo thrown through our ideological expectations into a zone of multiplicity. Again the work becomes the site, the engine, for the generation of multiple meanings which confound cultural expectations and constructions.

Hillers projects are like dowsing sticks passing over objects in our culture and identifying aquifers. All these sites are seen as concrete, material: be they the television, memorial plaques, magic lanterns, or acts, ideas and expressions, and allowed their autonomy in the act and place of art. Talking on the Sister of Menon, she says "at a certain point I realised that the scripts were a fragment and an irrational production; you could spend your life interpreting it but you wouldn’t get anywhere. It was a question of accepting this production as a drawing as well as an utterance" (my emphasis: interview with Stuart Morgan). 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. A locus that can manifest possibilities: which contradict our previous definitions of self and of our boundaries, perhaps of free association which helps ‘the ‘unconscious’ of culture’ (from a letter from the artist) find expression .

Richard Grayson

The Works:

At the E.A.F. Susan Hiller is presenting two works: From the Freud Museum andWild Talents

Of From 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 Susan Hiller Catalogue 1996). From the Freud Museum is an ongoing project — started 1991- growing out of an exhibition where she was invited to make a work at Freud’s (last) home in London. She was fascinated by the idea of collecting as evinced in the rooms of the house; where each object had been, carefully and with great pleasure, 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’ from which multiple relationships are generated in our act of reading.

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 programmes 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).