tue 26/03/2019

Susan Hiller, Lisson Gallery | reviews, news & interviews

Susan Hiller, Lisson Gallery

Susan Hiller, Lisson Gallery

An artist fascinated by the wild, the untamed and the paranormal

'On the Edge', 2015 © Susan Hiller courtesy Lisson Gallery

This is Susan Hiller’s first exhibition since her Tate retrospective in 2011, and as it includes work from the 1970s to the present, it can also be seen as a retrospective of sorts. But since the selection was obviously governed by what was available for sale, it inevitably offers a piecemeal view of her achievements.

Nor can I do full justice to the work, which is complex and multi-layered, so I’ll concentrate on one aspect – the importance of unorthodox views and marginal voices (especially those of women who have been silenced for centuries) that challenge the hegemony of received opinion and rational thought. “The world is ruled by cast-iron laws, unbelievably boring,” declares a voice (in Russian) on the soundtrack of a film in her installation Wild Talents, 1997. “There is no telepathy, no ghosts, no flying saucers – they can’t exist... Don’t you feel the dreadful tedium of such an assertion?” Hiller evidently does, since she goes to great lengths to seek out the irrational and inexplicable.

The title of her installation is borrowed from a book by Charles Fort exploring the phenomenon of children who demonstrate extraordinary psychic powers. Clips from feature films show angelic young blondes breaking glass, bringing water to the boil and setting people on fire solely through the power of their gaze. Meanwhile a boy unleashes vast jets of water that surge cataclysmically through city streets, and another watches, in horror, his toys come to belligerent life. But whereas the boys seem at the mercy of their unnerving powers, the girls are clearly in control. The boys are innocent, the girls demonic; but that’s another story.

Emergency Case: Homage to Joseph Beuys, 2012An acceptance of paranormal activity is not restricted to Hollywood, of course. Religious belief is often sustained by inexplicable happenings. On a small monitor strung with votive lights, a black and white documentary follows pilgrims on their way to meet children who have had authenticated religious visions.

According to one argument, our faith in science and medicine elevates them to the status of a religion. One of the best pieces in the show, Emergency Case: Homage to Joseph Beuys, 2012 (pictured above), juxtaposes outdated first-aid kits with cabinets crammed with phials of holy water collected from shrines as far afield as Egypt, New Mexico, Jordan, Italy, Scotland, Turkey and Greece. The work seems to imply that faith in the remedy – whether it be valid or misguided – is important as an aid to healing.

Generally speaking, though, people can be divided into two camps – those who view paranormal phenomena as delusional nonsense and those who regard them as welcome proof that, in a world increasingly governed by reason, the marvellous still persists. Having studied anthropology, Hiller assumes the guise of a dispassionate observer, collecting and analysing data and presenting her findings as artworks rather than as research papers; since her preoccupation has lasted over 40 years, it seems safe to assume that the wondrous holds a deep fascination for her. This is where I have problems with the work; scepticism about her subject matter undermines my enjoyment of it.

Take her recent video Resounding (Infrared), 2013. Visually it is very beautiful; horizontal bands of vivid colour resembling batik are accompanied by a soundtrack of cosmic background radiation – fallout, we are told, from the Big Bang – and the testimonies of people who claim to have seen UFOs and other bright lights in the sky.

Belshazzar's Feast, 1983Shown on a pyramid of monitors, her video Belshazzar’s Feast, 1983 (pictured right) features the flickering flames of a campfire. On the soundtrack, her young son recalls the biblical story of a warning being miraculously written on the wall during Belshazzar’s feast, and Rembrandt’s painting of the event. Hiller improvises some trance-like keening and, in an urgent whisper, recounts newspaper reports of ghostly images appearing on people’s television screens after close-down.

Both videos are mesmeric but if, like me, you take with a pinch of salt the claims they report, it makes it hard to embrace Hiller’s degree of engagement with the subject, no matter how serious her intentions. It is possible, of course, to persuade an audience to suspend their disbelief. She achieved this in Witness, 2000, an installation of 600 small speakers dangling from the ceiling, through which one hears people describing encounters with UFOs. Their whispered certainties are so compelling that all scepticism melts away; unfortunately, though, the piece is not included in the show.

One glorious series, which elicits no such doubts, also records people’s fascination with an uninvited and potentially dangerous guest – the sea. Ever since the 1970s, Hiller has collected postcards portraying huge waves battering the coastline of Britain. Some images appear several times in different versions, some are obviously fanciful, others have been enhanced, but all testify to our ambivalent relationship with the element that surrounds our island and threatens our wellbeing while keeping us safe from invaders.

Rough Dawns, 2015On the Edge, 2015, (main picture) revisits the subject in 482 postcards sorted according to location around the coast and presented in a series of grids. This arrangement is as pleasing and as reassuring as the shipping forecast – perhaps because it reiterates our boundaries, or perhaps because it provides proof that there are things we have singularly failed to control, despite our arrogant attempts at mastery and our belief that the planet is our playground (pictured above: Rough Dawns, 2015).

In understanding this, perhaps I have gone some way to explain the fascination that UFOs and paranormal happenings have for Susan Hiller and many others. It's a shame that I don’t share it.

Presented in a series of grids, 'On the Edge' is as pleasing and as reassuring as the shipping forecast

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Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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