Jill Glenn reflects upon the Susan Hiller exhibition at Tate Britain
There’s something very disconcerting about being invited to a press view and discovering that the subject of the exhibition is described as ‘one of the most influential artists of her generation. And you’ve barely – no, let’s be honest – you’ve never heard of her. It rather sets you on edge…
…and when you find the place heaving with the great and the good of artistic London it begs the question: are they all here because they know and value and appreciate the work of Susan Hiller, because they can reliably set her in context and confidently cross-reference the different cultural influences on her artistic approach – or are they, like me, here on a whim, and wondering, like me, where the hell to begin?
Hell, actually, is a good reference point. Rapidly I encounter pieces that make me think that if this is the leading practitioner of her generation then modern art is going to hell in a handcart. Pictures I know about; sculpture I know about. Installations, video projections, panels of transcribed automatic writing and notebooks of dream memories: these I do not know about.
Susan Hiller, I’ve learned, was born in the USA in 1940, growing up in Tallahassee. Despite an early interest in art, anthropology was her first career choice; she cites disillusionment with the perceived worth of women artists, plus Margaret Mead’s pamphlet, 'Anthropology as a Career for Women', as critical influences. Art claimed her in the end, though: despite a degree and graduate work in anthropology she became unhappy with gender imbalances in both the practice and the reporting, concluding eventually that art was “value-free in a way that anthropology wasn't”.
She settled in the UK in the late 1960s, and had her first show in 1973. She has always been active in feminist politics, and while this doesn’t define all her work, as curator Ann Gallagher is keen to stress, it does nevertheless provide a glass through which to look at it. Hiller is also, apparently, frustrated at constant references to her anthropological past, but it is – sadly for her but fortunately for those of us looking for a way in to her world – impossible to ignore.
She’s been closely involved in the setting up of this exhibition, which, although not billed as a retrospective, is certainly the largest show dedicated to her to date. Whether that’s for practical reasons (some of these installations require vast amounts of space), or intellectual ones (I suspect I’m not the only gallery-goer to harbour a broad suspicion about conceptual art) isn’t clear, and critics certainly seem to suggest such a show is overdue. Her input means that how we see her work is directly mediated through what she thinks about it. To some degree this makes me uneasy. Surely, my rational, traditionalist brain argues, I should be able to ‘get it’ without having to be told, by artist or curator, what it’s about? But, my flexible, curious self counters, if a practitioner is pushing boundaries that I don’t even know are there, it’s not unreasonable to need guidance. Art is an intellectual, as well as an emotional, process – especially with Hiller, who acknowledges Minimalism, Fluxus and aspects of Surrealism among her influences.
Often I find myself biting back the ‘but is it art?’ question, and beating back, too, the irritation I feel in having the artist dictating to me how long I should be involved in her work. I’m used to being in control of the time-frame when I go to a gallery; to have to watch sequences of projected images is, quite frankly, demanding. It’s an exhibition for the YouTube generation. And I don’t do YouTube. I do films, though; these are, I rationalise, just films at the end of the day.
Some of her concepts I absolutely love, although if I’m honest, they’re probably the ones that feel most familiar to me, ones that don’t immediately demand the suspension of my disbelief. Take Monument, for example. It explores, in the Tate’s words, ‘memory, death, history, heroism, representation and time’, and it consists of 41 photographs of ceramic tiles that commemorate acts of courage, frequently by children who lost their lives in saving others. The photographs are overlarge and arranged formally on the wall; in front is a park bench, with an old-fashioned tape recorder. You look; you sit down; you press the button; you listen. On the tape is Hiller herself: “…The Monument is behind you. The Monument is in your past… This is my voice, unrolling in your present, my past. I’m speaking to you from my here-after, the hear-after…”. It’s extraordinarily enthralling – and, of course, she has seduced you in to the experience: as she points out, the people looking at the piece are now also looking at you. It was, when first shown in 1980-1, innovative in its combination of sound and image, and the soundtrack is, apparently, ‘crucial to an understanding of the work’. That’s as may be; I fall in love with the photography component before I step into the scene, and think I’m getting plenty from it… but it’s Hiller’s voice that haunts me when I come away.
Her most recent project, The Last Silent Movie, also relies heavily on the voice. Described prosaically as ‘single channel projection with sound, duration 20 minutes, and 24 etchings on paper’, it returns to her anthropological background in a more obvious, structured way than some of her interim pieces. These are recordings of extinct or endangered languages, a few words from each, with a written translation projected onto a black screen. It’s so sad. The etchings, based upon oscilloscope traces of the voices, are ridiculously and inappropriately lovely, like stills from a heart monitor, and as poignant in their own way as the disembodied sounds – from native speakers now mostly dead – in the next room. They are dead, their languages dead or dying; but they still live, words from their language are still heard. Like Monument, The Last Silent Movie toys with death, history, memory and time; I’m pleased to find myself able to make links between projects that initially appear so disparate. The interface between past and present, between emotion and intellect, is beautifully managed. Whether this is art, or history, or anthropology or international politics, I can’t say yet. Maybe I’ll never know. But certain of Hiller’s works, and this is one, do seem to me to be significant, to use art to say something that we may not hear in other ways.
Hiller’s obsession with the psychic, however, with other worlds, with collective and individual hallucinations, alienates me. But that’s a personal distaste. If UFOs, and ghosts, and strange phenomena, and the ethereal unexplained voices of the dead are your sort of thing, then this show has your name on it, as a channelling of illusions that is both academic and subjective. It’s not me, but, that said, I shock myself by my delight at Witness: a dark room, and 400 speakers hanging from wires, each playing voices describing encounters with extra-terrestrial beings. You walk through the hanging wires as if you’re making your way through mythical forest; it is most beautifully lit, and there are magic forces at work. Psi Girls, by contrast, I can’t watch. This simultaneous projection of five films of girls with telekinetic powers, to a drumming rhythm, is just too spooky, too distressing. I leave. It may not be the reaction that Hiller wants, but it’s my reaction, my experience – and that’s valid too.
By the time I leave I’m finding her work (dreams, psychics and automatic writings aside) transfixing, seductive. I can’t say I like all of it, but I wouldn’t have missed it. And despite my preference for more traditional forms of art, it’s the edgier stuff here that stays with me; her works on paper feel as though her heart isn’t really in them.
To enjoy this you need an open mind, and a fairly open diary; the video sequences take 15-30 minutes (one takes over an hour) to watch – it doesn’t do to have a pressing appointment preying on your mind. Can I recommend it to you? I don’t know. It depends what you want from your experience of art. All I can say is: Susan Hiller plays with your head. Perhaps that’s all that any artist, conceptual or otherwise, wants to do.
Susan Hiller continues at Tate Britain until 15 May. See www.tate.org.uk/britain or call 020 7887 8888.