Here to Eternity, Susan Hiller catalogue essay,
Kunsthalle Nürnberg, Germany 2011
starting point is always a cultural artefact, whether a material artefact
or a social one.'
Susan Hiller's work 'The Curiosities of Sigmund Freud' 2005 has its origins in a residency the artist undertook at the Freud Museum in London. This occupies the house where the Freud family lived after their escape from Vienna in 1938, Sigmund Freud died there in 1939 when it became Anna Freud's work-place until her death in 1982. The museum includes Freud's library, his study, his couch, and the collections of Egyptian, Greek and Roman antiquities he assembled from the mid 1890s onwards. This was where Susan Hiller first developed and displayed 'From the Freud Museum' (1996) which took his collections as a starting point for an arrangement of disparate objects, images and texts that were presented in archaeological specimen boxes arranged in a vitrine which was added to and expanded by the artist over the following few years. The curator of the Museum, aware of Hiller's interest in lens-based technologies showed her some as yet un-catalogued glass slides that had been found stashed in a chest after Anna Freud's death. Among these was an incomplete set of glass microscope slides.
Rather than displaying mounted specimens and sections taken from the natural world, each of these 'Miniature Curiosities for the Microscope' holds a small black dot, which, when placed under the microscope lens, reveal images of people, objects or moments in history. Given the limits of the reproductive technologies of the time, the images are rather blurry, often hovering on the edge of abstraction, but magnified by Hiller into a set of prints, we can see that their range is diverse and somewhat baffling. One is simply called 'Oh' and is of a man or boy wearing a broad brimmed hat; another 'The Arctic Council discussing the plan of Rescue for Sir John Franklin: 11 portraits' shows a crepuscular room with a group of people gathered around a white table; 'Spirits Dark and Fair' has two floating figures. There is a cluster concerning royalty - 'The Jubilee Group of the Royal Family'; 'The State Visit to the Royal Italian Opera on Thursday April 19 1855' and 'The Kings and Queens of England from the Conquest of Queen Victoria' (an image that would be incomprehensible without the title). There is a scene of a church called 'Sunday Morning', a picture of a £1000 pound bank note, and a reproduction of a letter that Hiller has added to the set.
The anonymous developers of this amusement have replaced sections of tissues and cells with images of people and objects that can only be seen by using an apparatus that normally focuses on the minute. This substitution allows Hiller to investigate ways that an arrangement of tubes lenses and mirrors might be imagined as opening up realms of revelation and transformation even more marvelous than its normal function. The images seem to suggest the existence of an invisible world containing miniscule buildings inhabited by minute people. Moreover, the buildings and people are not just material objects but have a function as synecdoches, symbols and metonyms that suggest immaterial relationships and structures. The church and family talk of an ideal harmony of the domestic, the social, and the spiritual spheres; the men gathering to rescue Franklin embody valour in the service of exploration, Imperialism and Empire, and the Kings and Queens signify order and hierarchy, both Temporal and Spiritual. The implication is that these invisible structures of Victorian Society operate in the microscopic realm as well as the macroscopic world. As above so below, as the Hermetic and occult philosophies used to say. The absent microscope takes on some qualities of the miraculous Aleph described in the story by Borges where the narrator is shown an object in a dark cellar - whose 'diameter was probably little more than an inch', in which all the world is revealed. 'All space was there, each thing (a mirror's face, let us say) was infinite things, since I distinctly saw it from every angle of the universe. I saw the teeming sea; I saw daybreak and nightfall... I saw in a backyard of Soler Street. I saw bunches of grapes, snow, tobacco.... I saw the coupling of love and the modification of death.' (The Aleph Jorges Luis Borges 1945) The sights seen in 'Curiosities of Sigmund Freud' are considerably more limited in number but as wide in implication. As Borges' narrator writes 'It is said that it (the Aleph) takes the shape of a man pointing to both heaven and earth, in order to show that the lower world is the map and mirror of the higher'. The images demonstrate Hiller's belief that there is 'something elusive, uncanny and fascinating beneath the surface of what at first seems easy to understand as ordinary or banal' and demonstrate her contention that 'the shape of things shift when you look hard at them'. (Talk: The Provisional Texture of Reality: On Andrei Tarkovsky. JRP Ringier)
Hiller's practice has roots in the conceptual practices of the sixties and seventies which placed an emphasis on materiality, transparency and analysis. Work of the period adopted many of the approaches and methodologies of scientific and empirical investigation and adopted the tools and aesthetics of such research: the database, the type-written case-note, the grid, and the use of film, video and audio recording technologies, tools of the 'real' world. These media were considered to be less encumbered by history than those of paint or stone, and they represented a clear break with the past and allowed new engagements with incident and time. Hiller's practice shares this fascination with new media: she worked with slide projectors and reel-to-reel video in the seventies. 'An Entertainment' (1991) was one of the first works in the UK to use large scale video projection, and one of the reasons that 'Dream Screens' (1996) is remarkable is that it is an early engagement by an artist from outside the art and technology arena with the internet and world wide web. However she refuses a purely utilitarian or formal approach to these technologies and treats them as material, as complex coded cultural productions, as well as tools. The technologies of vision become sites of signification which, to borrow her description of the works she curated into her significant exhibition 'Dream Machines', 'are bridges, elastic locations where we can communicate about the reality of certain sorts of consciousness'.
'Magic Lantern' (1987), employs a specific combination of control boxes, audiotape and slide projectors to allow 35 millimeter slide images to change and dissolve in sync to a sound track. In the 1980s this tape/slide technology was at the cutting-edge of innovation and used by both the commercial world and experimental artists to construct multi-media events and displays. The stack of dense metal cubes and perspex drums autonomously clicking through slides seems to embody a cool modernity which is given a further rationalist gleam by the converging discs of coloured light that the programmed lenses deliver. These overlay each other to resolve into a single dazzling circle of white light that recalls both the groundbreaking experiments of Newtonian optics and the Platonic teleologies that underpin the intentions of pure abstraction. The intense colours of the projected discs form after images on the retina, new hues that the viewer experiences generated by the response of the nervous system of the eye and brain to the stimuli of the light, and which occur at an interface between the real and the subjective. The soundtrack of the work draws on Konstantin Raudive's research into Electronic Voice Phenomena, tape recordings made by the Latvian researcher under 'laboratory conditions' of empty rooms, where voices seem to emerge from the hiss of the audiotape. He collected and analysed hundreds of samples and proposed that what is heard is the voices of the dead captured by this new medium of magnetic oxide tape. The work positions the technological signifiers, modernity and rationality against their uses in investigations which lead outside the areas mapped - or even allowed - by mainstream scientific method and the Western Rationalist tradition.
Rationalist, Scientific methodologies and their attendant technologies privilege certain constructions of power, class and gender and exclude other approaches and narratives. The art world of conceptual and critical practice in the UK in which Hiller first started making work was subject to similar operations and it was her experience of this that motivated a shift in focus: 'The irregularities in art practice were supposedly smoothed out in this fully conscious way of working... it freed people up to do works on paper. Writing texts... But whole areas of possible practice were defined as a no-no, as 'don't go there'. Instead she sought ways to explore alternatives to dominant narratives, to 'move sideways', and her wish to move beyond accepted discourse and language underpins Hiller's ongoing engagement with cultural materials 'whose meanings have been repressed, suppressed, censored or simply ignored'. This has also found its expression in an emphasis on the dream and the altered state. In a paper for the Bristol Science Centre in 1999 Hiller quoted Constantine Baroni, 'The great absences where language stops, of course, are death, ecstasy and unconsciousness, but absence in this sense is experienced every day in sleep...the scientific account (of dreaming) is at odds with what we feel 'really' happens when we dream'. (The Provisional Texture of Reality, JRP Ringier)
Hiller sets up situations that allow for the possibility of understandings that are in flux and different to those permitted by normal models. She says of 'Belshazzar's Feast' (1983-84): 'I am clearly taking the side of those vernacular visionaries who witness something extraordinary, something repressed by society and mis-represented by empiricism' (Talk: Bristol Science Centre 1999). Works are constructed as if they are experiments, but ones that seek exceptions rather than prove a hypothesis yet never propose a simple opposition of models or binaries. The comfort of resolution is not offered: her practice is a process and an unfolding, not a closure or answer. Neither is it a statement of simple post-modern equivalence - that exhausted shrug that signals an end of possibility - rather it is an expression of the creative need to generate new understandings that move beyond the boundaries we inherit. An image in 'The Curiosities of Sigmund Freud' might operate as an instruction - or at least a description - of the tension at the heart of her work: from the artist to the viewer via the hand of the dead analyst. It is a letter from Freud that has two inkblots on it and he writes that, 'Here the pen fell out of my hand and inscribed these secret signs. I beg your forgiveness and ask that you not trouble yourself with an interpretation'. A quixotic and enriching demand when positioned against normal Rationalist approaches. However the blots are presented for us to see, and Hiller's inclusion of them into her work suggests that the arena currently defined by our culture as 'Art' is an environment for non-linear reflection and openness: for reverie, that allows us understandings outside the usual processes of 'interpretation' whilst maintaining self-awareness, consciousness and criticality.
Freud proposed the human psyche as a place of erotic (and later death centred) drives, where repressed trauma, anxiety, subpersonalities, psychic energies, mythopoeic functions and a mental life unknown to its possessor operate subliminally in the Unconscious, beyond the reach of the ego and super ego. Hiller's practice can be seen as modeling the possibility of a Cultural Unconscious: where hidden drives and needs will find expression in one way - or place - or another. In 'Civilisation and its Discontents' Freud came up with the poetic image of the mind being like the Forum in Rome, but one where all the buildings from its history are strangely present at the same time. Hiller's constructions of artefact and incident allow us to sense previous structures (as well as those of a possible future) in a circle of re-iteration and return: 'Belshazzar's Feast' parallels the role and position of a television in a contemporary house to that of the domestic hearth. Based on news reports of people seeing images in the 'snow' that used to appear on television screens after broadcasting had ended, she uses a video image of a flickering flame to explore television as a site of 'reverie', similar to the experience of staring into the embers of a fire in previous times. The scientific apparatus at the centre of 'The Curiosities of Sigmund Freud' seems to allow a pre-scientific Hermetic Universe. 'Magic Lantern' speaks of a porous boundary between the living and the dead and its title not only suggests an opposition to the world of 'science' but links to a history where the first Magic Lanterns of the mid-seventeenth century were 'mostly used by magicians and conjurers to project images, making them appear or disappear, transform one scene into a different scene, or even create the belief of bringing the dead back to life'. ('Devices and Desires'. Realms of Light. London, England: The Magic Lantern Society, 2005.). These diverse technologies are productions of our culture designed to make the invisible visible and to reveal things that are hidden or distant and in doing so occupy territories that were once considered those of the operations of magic.
The Magic Lantern is a precursor of the film projector, and the cinema and its productions play an important role in Hiller's work, although she has not used celluloid to make her work. Cinema's early history contains seemingly opposed poles that still drive the operations of the medium. On the one hand there is film's objective documentary function: where it records the world around us and represents the real - as in the film made by the Lumière brothers in 1895 of a steam-train pulling into the platform at the Gare de Ciotat, which is alleged to have caused a riot in the cinema. On the other hand there are the films that Meliès started making in 1896 where the impossible is made stunningly actual, time flows backwards and men travel by rocket to a grimacing moon. No matter how different the intentions of these early works, the response of the audience was a similar one of astonishment and wonder, as previously held ideas as to what might constitute the 'real' and the unreal collapsed. Video works such as 'Wild Talents' (1997) and 'Psi Girls' (1999) explore this confusion of orders and indexes. The works are linked: both take their titles from the writings of Charles Fort, the American journalist who spent his life investigating the records of newspapers and scientific journals for reports of anomalous phenomena and strange events that seem to lie outside the accepted theories and beliefs of the time, both use footage taken from cinema, both focus on young people with unusual and special powers. 'Psi Girls' concentrates on adolescent girls performing feats of telekinesis from non-documentary sources, whilst 'Wild Talents' incorporates footage from a documentary film as well as fictional representations of children with special powers. Their representations in film talk of the way our culture sees the shifting states of youth and adolescence as dangerous, uncanny, uncategorisable. By abstracting sections where we see these powers being deployed - a drinking glass moving across a table top powered by a child's fierce gaze, for instance - from the surrounding matrix of narrative, we are unable to locate the image as being either documentary or fiction. What we see recorded on the film seems as real as an arriving train. To add to our confusion, these images are spread across an enfolding plane rather than occupying a frame bounded by our vision. So they enclose us. They are duplicated, tinted, form a rhythm and a flashing ecstasy of repetition that parallels the disorganisation of the senses effected by music and light in rituals. It is as if the world is fragmenting. In 'Wild Talents', not only do we witness a pulse and kaleidoscopic movement of miraculous images that enchant and disorient us, but we can focus on documentary footage on a monitor at the center of our visual field, of children who are seeing visions during a religious experience, (although that which they are seeing remains invisible to us). Inner and outer worlds are confounded and orders of the real and imaginary confused. The film image becomes a place where desires are manifested as a momentary reality and are then returned to the flux and pulse of fantasy.
Tim Berners-Lee had built all the tools necessary for a working World Wide Web by 1990, the first web browser, the first web server and the first web pages, which, for lack of other content, described the project itself. The first photograph was uploaded onto the web in 1992 and bought into being a new digital realm that operates as an unimaginably vast archive of our activities and a site for new activity - a digital Aleph. In 1996 Hiller made her work 'Dream Screens' for the Dia Art Foundation in New York, looking at how an individual focus on a flickering screen links to the shifting social and narrative spaces of the web. A viewer clicks to change the radiant colour of the screen. A collage of sound surrounds them, shifting between the artist's paced and resonant voice and other female voices describing scenes from what seem to be dreams (but are recollections of remembered scenes from films that have the word 'dream' in their title) to reflections on the nature and function of dreams and meditations on colour; we can hear morse code, a heartbeat, and the sound of pulsars, all of which converge on the small bright portal in front of us.
The digital universe and the World Wide Web play a central role in Hiller's recent work, both as a source of material and as a stage where heterodox or suppressed expressions of our culture and imagination might be acted out. 'From Here to Eternity' (2008) overlays the choreographies of the computer game with the sacred geographies of the maze as well as the geometries of abstraction. Bright dots move along the patterned channels projected on the wall in front of us. The maze is a recurrent feature of computer games and of digital architectures, - the hyper-link offering the possibility of a maze so vast that we never return to the point where we started. Here it is the endless activity of the figure of 'Pac-Man' that is suggested by the red and green dots moving through a dazzling black and white maze. The patterns recall hard edge abstraction - of Frank Stella for instance, and designs embedded in medieval times in cathedral floors: most famously at Chartres, where geometric paths of coloured stone determined the movements of people as part of a religious ceremony - although now the details and symbolism of the pilgrims' movement and how these related to their relationship with the spiritual sphere have been lost.
Hiller's recent series of photographic homages to Yves Klein and Marcel Duchamp further interrogate overlaps between the digital and the supernatural, the histories of contemporary art practice, the fantastic and the everyday. She takes as a starting point a specific image by the artist, and then seeks similar photographic images from the World Wide Web, which are re-presented both as grids and as large stand-alone images. The set of photographs of people enveloped by flares of coloured light relate to the painting of Dr. R. Dumouchel by Marcel Duchamp of 1910 and the photographs of people floating in the air refer to Yves KleinÕs iconic 1960 image 'Leap into the Void'. The two artists represent important strands in contemporary art. Duchamp rejected the centrality of the 'visual' and drew on the hidden and arcane as organising structures for his art works, where, for instance pataphysical descriptions of repressed sex and onanism underpin both the complexities of 'The Large Glass' and 'Eau et Gaz', his final work which was kept hidden until his death to maintain the fiction that he had given up making art. Yves Klein is seen as an avant-garde modernist although one with an involvement with spirituality through his interest in Eastern culture and the idea of the void. 'Leap into the Void' was first published to support his claim to levitate. Over recent years he has been revealed to be less the Zen master than Catholic Mystic, with a devotion to St. Rita, the patron saint of lost causes. By drawing together images from the net that echo the artistÕs works, we are asked to look at differences between actual and imaginative truth, the documentary and the hypothetical, and to consider that the people generating and placing these images are also (unreliable, unknown) artists testing the limits and boundaries of the everyday.
Hiller's practice is an exploration of exceptions and exclusions to dominant rules and this allows it to evolve and take on new roles and resonances, even when the debates that formed the conditions of a work's development have changed; and today her work is perhaps more influential than it has ever been. Her practice has unfolded over a time that has witnessed the serial erasure of the certainties that shaped dominant cultural and social models of the world. Many of the avant-garde and critical practices of the sixties and seventies were underpinned by the 'science' of dialectical materialism and the historical inevitability of the triumph of the working classes. The collapse of the communist states revealed these 'rational' beliefs to be a form of magical thinking. The later collapse of the financial markets had the same effect on beliefs that the 'free' market is either rational, natural and/or subject to the operations of a hidden hand. Psychoanalysis has moved from the category of science into that of poetry, religion has increasingly replaced political ideology as the locus of identity and struggle, and rational scientific method increasingly describes a universe of dark-matter and worm-holes as irrational and counter-intuitive as any revealed by hallucination or mythology. The digital universe allows seepage between the real and fictional. In these conditions, Hiller's constant focus on the limits of explanation, her fleet-footed ambiguity and her openness to the possibilities and potentials to be found in excluded data and in non-linear mental processes, ensure that her work is central to way we try to imagine and understand our world.
© Richard Grayson 2011