Susan Hiller: Conceptual and Sensitive Feminist

Orginal text by Lunettes Rouges, translated by Miss XS

It’s a beautiful retrospective that the Tate Britain has devoted to Susan Hiller (until 15 May), a relatively unknown artist in France but who- since my first encounter with her work- has constantly been of interest to me. It’s a retrospective; meaning a large number of works here weren’t a new discovery for me: my only disappointment came from the fact that the J-Street project, which had really fascinated me almost six years ago, was presented here merely in the form of film– which poorly translated the obsessive, systematic, exhaustive dimension of this project that censuses, documents, photographs and films all the street names that contain the word ‘Jude’ (Jewish). The presentation of the same artwork at the Tim Taylor Gallery however, consisted of a wall with 303 photos of street-name signs, and opposite them, a systematic, classified, referenced list with a map of Germany indicating their location and an atlas book. It’s here that Susan Hiller, an ex-anthropologist, excels when she applies her methodical approach and science of classification in her art.

With this systematical furor (in which I can recognise myself), this fine and sensible conceptual approach, she takes on some dense subjects: the evanescent trace of Jews in Germany, but also the inventory of languages on the verge of extinction. Amongst these are Livonian, Lenape, Wampanoag and a whistle-language from the Canary Islands; a few words in each langage appear on a black screen, translated from the soundtrack, as traces of extras, of unknown people, forgotten by history (The Last Silent Movie); and also the piece Dedicated to the Unknown Artists– where Susan Hiller collected, collated, and classified hundreds of postcards of rough sea on the English coasts, with a lexical, visual analysis and supporting cards. An installation that she first presented at the Freud Museum in London (titled From the Freud Museum, pictured opposite) resonates with the collecting obsession of Sigmund Freud himself: it’s not solely an anchorage in history or a “Mnemosyne”, but rather an interference with this heritage, a drift of the anchor, an exhibition of ambivalences, of incomprehension, of doubt. The work consists of around ten cardboard boxes with text (from Duchamp to the History of the Jews of Frankfurt) and relics (from Amerindians, antiques, aboriginals), that speak of songs, ghosts, religions and of divination. Another emblematic piece titled Ten Months (1977), presents a series of photos of her belly during her pregnancy, taken from above, using the same point of view. They are grouped in ten (lunar) months of 28 days: a simplicity of mediums used to convey a feminist and conceptual artwork.

A segment of her work focuses on the presence of those absent amongst us. Such are the videos Psi Girls (pictured opposite) that show the paranormal abilities of five adolescents, in extracts from Hollywood films. The room dedicated to Witness is particularly impressive, as it groups hundreds of fluorescent earphones suspended from the ceiling, in a strange, obscure composition- each one diffusing audio of witnesses’ UFO-sighting stories. The audience penetrates in the half-light, navigates through the suspended wires bathed in light, and grabs an earphone at random, sometimes recognising a familiar language whilst listening to these strange paranormal accounts (image above).

The most beautiful memorial piece is a wall where there are reproductions of 40 tombstones from the end of the 19th Century, photographed in a London cemetery; each on honouring an ordinary hero- a man who sacrificed his life to save his neighbour from a fire, from drowning or from quicksand (Monument). These photographs are arranged in the form of a cross, whereby the central motif is a tag that reads: “Strive to be your own hero.” We look at this mural-installation whilst standing, surrounded by a collective of other spectators, and then we can sit alone on the bench in front, listening to an audio-track where Susan Hiller talks about death and absence. This is all done whilst turning our backs on the monument and becoming an element of the visual experience for other spectators. This installation is particularly poignant, especially because our changing of positions renders us stakeholders somehow.  Susan Hiller works a lot with voice and language: other pieces such as Sisters of Menon deals with telepathy and automated writing.

We can also see older works, where, when she abandonned painting, she destroyed her canvases, recycling them into blocks of fabric, embroidery murals or into ashes thereby creating new pieces from destroyed pieces. Many of her pieces pay homage- to Klein, Broodthaers and Duchamp. I thoroughly liked an homage to Beuys titled The Tao Water wherein a little cabinet was enclosed with bottles carefully labelled as containing sacred water from the Ganges to Lourdes (pictured opposite): the power of these sacred waters and the mystic energy they diffuse seem to have been absorbed by the sheets of Beuysian felt carpeting the cabinet.

What I most appreciate about Susan Hiller is her ability to bring her analytical point of view, her systematic way of looking at the world, to be able to identify its revealing phenomena, and to present them to us in a context that is simultaneously conceptual and sensitive. But not everyone appreciates this: you can read two reviews of this exhibition that are hardly positive by Brian Sewell (who is very negative and acerbic), and Fisun Güner.

Photo 1: courtesy of the Tate’s press service. Other images courtesy of the author.

en francais

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