Susan Hiller at Tate Britain and Timothy Taylor
Looking at the catalogue of the Susan Hiller exhibition at Tate Britain, it is a surprise to discover that this is the first proper survey of the artist's work to be staged in London. There have been retrospectives at Tate Liverpool and the Baltic in Gateshead in 1996 and 2004, but there has been no mid-career bulletin or a substantial representation of her work at the Whitechapel, Hayward or Serpentine galleries, for instance.
It is more remarkable because, as this show curated by Anne Gallagher demonstrates, Hiller identified the ideas and approaches that have animated her practice relatively early on and has since expanded and amplified these into an extraordinary and compelling body of work. In addition, her investigation into 'materials that have been culturally repressed or misunderstood ... relegated to the lunatic fringe É Postcards and dreams, séances and systems of classification ...' has taken place at a time when the dominant Rationalist and Enlightenment models (and the 'scientific' approaches of historical materialism) that shaped understandings of the world and ideas of the possibilities of progress, have become increasingly attenuated, and we are witnessing instead a return of supernatural and faith-based models.
Early works show the influence of the formal (and formless) fascinations of Arte Povera and post-object practices of the 1960s and 70s. Relics, started in 1972 and still continuing, has the artist burning earlier paintings and preserving their ashes in glass. Work in Progress, 1980, unpicked canvases and reconstituted their threads into fringes and woven plaits over a two-week long performance at Matt's Gallery. The emphasis on process and transformation not only has formal resonance but a political dimension. In a discussion in 1977 she spoke of the 'ambiguous placement' of women artists in the culture, and this remains a central concern of her work. Here the 'repressed' material is that of her own productions, transformed through the rigorous approaches of conceptual and systems-based practice.
In Dedicated to the Unknown Artists, 1972-76, 'postcards and dreams' are centre stage. Typewritten analyses of their structures and incidents frame the collection of old souvenir postcards of stormy seas. In the notes that are part of the work, Hiller writes that she has entered into a collaboration with the artists who made the cards, and through 'accepting the sometimes tedious function of the curator and the more exacting role of analyst' has been 'able to extend their work'. These not only articulate the artefacts but also poignantly suggest how the mass of experience and history that once contained them remains entirely beyond recuperation - the artists, after all, remain unknown.
The entropic drift from the known to the unknown is central to the J Street Project 2002-05 and The Last Silent Movie 2007. J Street is a collection and archive of every street in Germany that has the prefix 'Juden' in its name. These are documented in photographs and a video: we watch people going about their everyday business in unremarkable streets which were previously sites of other histories and cultures, of everyday actions and business. All this has been erased, except for the name that remains on the street sign. The Last Silent Movie uses sound and text to present us with the preserved utterances of dead (or dying) languages, each short isolated phrase conjuring up a universe of experience, meaning and signification now beyond our reach.
Automatic writing, alien contacts and other anomalous events constitute experiences that modern culture considers beyond - or below - its classifications: they are supernatural or parapsychological. Hiller treats the recordings, reports and representations of events and phenomena which are beyond the totalising agendas of the rational with the same sensitivity and delicacy that would be granted any valuable artefact. She articulates them to make propositions, but respects their autonomy - what she also describes as a 'truth to materials'. Her approaches refuse the usual, easy, binary positioning of an editorial identification on the side of the rational and measurable, or on the side of the immensurate and irrational. Witness, 2000, uses descriptions of alien and UFO contact, but it doesn't ask the viewer to consider alien contact per se - whether it is 'real' or not - rather the installation asks what might the belief in alien contact signify? How might that belief be understood? In an interview with Roger Malbert in 2007, Hiller said that she is 'making work that increasingly puts the viewer where I am, in this situation of "undecidableness"'. It is her success in this undertaking that makes the work so powerful, and which over her career has made it possible for some to misunderstand and misrepresent her work.
Hiller's fascination with the boundaries of dominant models of understanding combines with a fascination with cutting-edge technology, where it operates as a site in which a yearning for something beyond the mechanistic models that shape the technology is played out. New technologies may be able to detect things that were previously beyond reach: the video installation Belshazzar's Feast, 1983-84, uses newspaper reports of people seeing faces and other uncanny manifestations in the electronic snow of the television screen to reflect on the nature of reverie and the ways it is located in material culture. Magic Lantern, 1987, focuses on the tape recordings of silent empty rooms made by Raudive, where he believed the voices of the dead might be heard, embedded in the electronic fuzz. Technology is also used to make the work: audio recordings, tape slide and video projections abound. This is now part of the vocabulary of contemporary art practice, so when immersed in the brutal choreography of sound and image of Punch attacking Judy in An Entertainment, 1990, it is easy to forget that large scale multi-screen video projections were new at the time. She was pioneering a form. In 1996, Dream Screens explored the nature of cyberspace and the narratives of the digital realm. It was made for the world wide web and was to be experienced though the mouse and computer screen. Recent homages to Yves Klein and Marcel Duchamp from 2008 onwards - the most recent series of which form a significant component of the exhibition at Timothy Taylor Gallery - use images of people surrounded by auras or 'levitating' in mid air, sourced from the internet.
For all its engagement with erasures, occlusions and the past, Hiller's practice occupies a sort of constant present tense. The works have a vital engagement with the debates that are shaping the culture at the time of their making and anticipate and shape the present that is about to emerge. They have been consistently included in the 'what's happening now' type of group exhibition: the Festival of Independent Video at the Serpentine in 1975, the Hayward Annual in 1978, the British Art Show in 1984, the British Art Show 5 and Intelligence at Tate Britain in 2000, the Sydney Biennale in 2010. Perhaps that is why the retrospectives have been relatively few. As the exhibitions at Tate Britain and Timothy Taylor Gallery demonstrate, her practice remains vital to our understanding not only of the shifting limits of knowledge and erasures of the past, but how we might conceive the world today.
© Richard Grayson 2011
Susan Hiller was interviewed by Richard Grayson in the Art Monthly 'Talking Art' series in collaboration with Tate Modern in 2008.