Susan Hiller

Ideal Work
(Artists from Australia and overseas were asked to describe the artwork that they would make were they operating in an ideal situation without physical and material constraints. These artworks have been published as a document with a written commentary on each work by a writer familiar with the artist's practice. )

Experimental Art Foundation publication


Susan Hiller's work has long had as one of its central concerns the exploration of ideas of reverie, dream, and other occluded - at least in terms of western rationalism - forms of expression, discourse, and communication. Her work, Sisters of Menon (1972-79) used automatic writing to explore the possible accessing of ancesteral or archetypal voices. The experiment, which took place near Sete in France - a town that had been a stronghold of the Cathars - seemed to result in the transcription of archaic collective female voices through the medium of the artists hand. The Dream Screens project for the World Wide Web and Belshazzars Feast address the social sites of reverie. Central to the current work are, the Draw Together Group investigation of (1972) which explored the telepathic transmission of images by artists, and the Dream Mapping project of 1974. Dream Mapping involved ten participants, who had previously developed and agreed a graphic means of describing their dreams. For three nights they slept outside, in an area remarkable for the number of fairy rings to be found there ( in folklore, to sleep in one of these rings provides acces to fairy land). Each morning they notated the dreams, superimposing them to generate a social cartography . The artist, in an interview with Stuart Morgan in a Tate Gallery catalogue of 1996, says of this work that it was "an enactment, a performance, where no gap exists between audience and participant. They're the same. So on one level what had seemed a perfect solution was not really such a good format, because the experience of the piece could not extend beyond the original participants. What I retained from this series of pieces was the conviction that the other person has to be in the work or it isn't interesting to do."


In refecting on the current project, it becomes significant that it was first proposed in 1969-70 in reference to statements by Sol Lewitt on Conceptual art and conceptual artists. At the time the rhetorics informing Conceptualism were those of the new start and perhaps the final chapter: it promised a liberation from the trammels of the making of the object and the determinants of previous approaches and practices and the generation of new orders of meaning. From our present stance we can detect echoes of Wordsworths 'Oh Brave new dawn, joy was it to be young etc' and with our now ironic ear hear teleological and millianistic subtexts in Sol Lewitts's words. Certainly we can still feel - but now have a frisson of nostalgia for - the optimistic drives manifested towards the absolute and the ideal. We can also feel the certainty that the arrow (of modernism, of history) is finally reaching its goal, the ultimate point. An end. Of History maybe. It is interesting now, to reflect on how, or whether, such rhetorics of disappearance and erasure unconsciously echoed the poetries of Marxism, where ultimately the structures of the 'dictatorship of the proletariat' evaporate and wither away leaving the residue of ideal social relations


Although addressing, and in reaction to, a particular moment in the development of art, and positing directions for a future, Conceptualism's placement of art and the object of art within philosophical discourse also re-capitulated and echoed previous models, ones which derive from Greek ideas of understanding and perception. Conceptualism expressed a charged, embracing celebration of an 'absolute' which ultimately is not to be found in the sad vale of the material world but rather in the clean and airy realms of the mind, of the abstract and of the philosophical. As such, it can be seen as building on the trajectories of much non representational practice, where, through a stripping back of representation to questions of relation - from Mondrian's tree for instance, to his horizontal and vertical grids - a material barrier between the viewer and 'real' forms of the universe is removed. It is almost Manichean in its suspicions of the potentially corrupting or occluding powers of the 'material', and in doing so expresses the desired future in terms of an antimaterial discourse articulated deep from the past. For Plato, truth was embodied in the Edios of the Idea, which was like a visible form blanched of its colour (visible is important here, as alone of all the senses he grouped sight with the soul and intelligence, rather than as part of the (lower) material being of humankind). The human eye he contended, is able to perceive light because it shares a like quality with the source of light, the sun. Here an analogy holds between the intellect, which he called 'the eye of the mind', and the highest form: the Good (which in the Platonic intellectual cosmos is the sun). More specifically we can detect in Lewitt's sentences and the Conceptual Art project, resonances of Plato's hostility to the mimetic arts - most notably that of painting, which along with others, he banned from his utopian state of the Republic.


A similar anti-material, transcendental drive can be located in Hiller's stated intention in the rationale for this project to 'close the gap between intention (mine) and interpretation (yours)'. This is made possible through the direct transference of thoughts and dreams. This achievement means the dissolution of the object as something out there in the physical realm and its replacement with the Idea, something that can be perceived and experienced even with our eyes closed, and so is known by and through the minds eye. Again, we detect echoes of Greek and Platonic thought -Democritus was said to have blinded himself in order to 'see' with his intellect, and the Greek seer, Tiresius for instance, is often blind - and it's medieval and heretical flowerings based in the realms of gnosis, and then, later, submerged romantic expressions: from William Blake damming the 'single vision and Newton's sleep' and demanding a fourfold vision, to Carlyle's call for 'spiritual optics'.


Through these precedents we can feel the beat of the 'mystic' heart of the Platonic tradition in Hiller's project. Bearing in mind the like substance of the 'eye of the mind' and the 'Good', we can identify a similar sharing of substance from the 'transmitter' to the 'receiver' in the Hiller work, and in the collapse of the distance between the subject and object. Indeed, the recipricosity between the transmitter and the viewer suggests the theory of extramission: which held that the eye transmitted as well as received light rays (this transmitted and received light is the 'like quality' that Plato speaks of). This 'sharing' leads Hans-Georg Gadamer in 'Truth and Method' to argue that Platonic 'theroria' was not disengaged and spectorial, instead it contained a moment of 'sacral communion' beyond contemplation. 'Theroria' he argues, 'is a true sharing, not something active, but something passive (pathos), namely being totally involved in and carried away by what one sees..'


In this project we have a work here that seems to close the circle: which resolves issues particular to the artists own practice in a way that also marries the ideals and intentions of a progressive contemporary practice with some of the deepest philosophical and mystical desires of the western and near eastern tradition. So why, as Susan Hiller said in a conversation about this work in 1998, is there more than a frisson of unease generated? An unease which lies outside of that occassioned by that which we have previously conceived of as the uncanny? Why now, she added, may the mechanics of transmission and reception seem problematic?


(My starting points were artless, worthless artefacts and materials - rubbish, discards, fragments ,..' Tate Gallery Susan Hiller Catalogue 1996)


I am reduced in response to these questions to feeling my way to an inchoate idea of 'resistance'. Resistance on specific and general levels, on the micro and the macro, and as an essential part of the poetry and approaches of this artists practice. A recurring theme in published interviews with Hiller is that of 'ideas' as 'material'. That they become another thing that you work with and which have the same potential for either transformation or inertia as basalt, paint, found objects or canvas. As material, things (objects, ideas, cultural artefacts) have a certain mute autonomy which suggest and hint in an almost subterranean way at contexts, narratives, and histories, ones which remain tangibly beyond reach outside the yearning of (my) imagination. In this way they resist our dissection and our reclamation, and retain their power to generate potential and suggestion. The successful outcome of this project removes the friction and obdurate core of mystery that we find in the fragment through making it whole, rather than getting a glimpse we are provided with a totality. Actuality rather than possibility.


'I think it's a kind of cherishing of things as they are, rather than trying to make them into other things. I deal with fragments of everyday life and I'm suggesting that a fragmentary view is all we've got.." S Hiller Spare Rib Anthology Penguin 1982


Totalisation too becomes an issue from the other side of the equation. The utopian desire for direct exchange is only supportable within an actual or imminent utopia: perhaps that presumed in the dynamics of the (late) modernist project, or in the Platonic realms of the Ideal. In this context it is perhaps worth noting that historically, the (neo-platonic) Gnostic traditions have found expression as an opposition, and alternative, a heresy; as the brutal history and suppression of the Cathars evinces. In the gaps between the present day and the environment of the projects initial conception, we have become too suspicious and fearful to happily embrace the outcome of this work. The dream exchange as first articulated, was in the contexts of the possibility of perfectability and of progress, rather than in the current cthonic movements and night fears of late global capitalism. Without the certainty of this optimism; the implications of the dream exchange, of projection and reception become reversed into possibilities of invasion and control rather than those of liberation. The utopian shifts effortlessly into the dystopian, and a project, that as a possibility offers a means of resistance to dominant totalising models and discources - an intention that must be seen as central to the importance and import of Hiller's work - can become, in actuality, something itself to be resisted.