tue 22/05/2018

Susan Hiller, Tate Britain | reviews, news & interviews

Susan Hiller, Tate Britain

Susan Hiller, Tate Britain

Visually seductive work whose meaning leaves a lot to be desired

'Witness': It’s the dramatic staging of the piece that’s far more seductive than anything to do with what the work’s 'about'

Susan Hiller describes herself as a curator as well as an artist. She makes work out of objects that she’s collected over the years. She collates information, too, and personal testimonies. These all go toward making works whose primary aim is to question meanings and categories and belief systems. These belief systems are those that are often found on the outer fringes of mainstream norms – or, if you’re put off by the dry language of academe – which Hiller isn’t – the loopy stuff that’s a bit “out there”. Paranormal activity, alien abductions, séances, the healing power of holy water, levitation, auras. All these are dealt with in Hiller’s work.

Indeed, there is something rather imperious and dogmatic about Hiller’s issue with “so-called” objectivity that is slightly objectionable

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What a weirdly warped review. The reviewer obviously simply doesn't understand what it is that Hiller's art is about at all. Having just got back from seeing the show myself, I can say the work certainly isn't 'daintily pretty' or 'traditionally feminine' at all, and to describe it as such simply shows up a whole area of strange prejudice and stereotype on the part of the reviewer. The holy-water-bottle works may be referring to Victoriana, but that's part of the deliberate meaning of the work (about how both magic and art function, endowing normal objects with special properties); and besides, lots of the works are slickly hi-tech, multimedia, immersive environments, with a really scary, emotional impact... Many of the works are astonishing on a physical, direct level – nothing particularly dry or intellectual about them at all (the reviewer only describes a tiny fraction of the works on display). In all honesty, I thought it was one of the best contemporary art shows I've seen in a long, long time... I know art criticism is subjective and people have different opinions, but I've rarely read a review that was just so blatantly wrong, so misinformed and muddle-headed, as this one.

Simon, I'm not altogether sure that you mean what you seem to be saying. Do you mean that if only I could grasp the work's meaning then I would stop being so "muddle-headed" and fall in love with it? This is an astonishingly strange and presumptuous thing to say, especially in the light of my giving clear reasons for my objections to her work, which you fail to address. Perhaps you should read what I actually say in my review. But, in any case, you like the work; others may not. There is nothing further - least of all accusations of "muddle-headedness" - to be said about that.

Fisun, I don't mind if you don't like Hiller's work. What did annoy me though was the way you totally misrepresented it in your review, almost as if you had some strangely resentful, anti-intellectual agenda going on. It's pretty suspicious, after all, the way you pick out only 5 works from, what, 25 (?) on display, many of which are huge, hi-tech, film installations and other multimedia environments... More charitably, therefore, I suggested that perhaps you simply don't understand her work all that well. You seem to consistently confuse a work's subject matter with its meaning, for instance, so that you end up accusing her work as being daintily pretty, feminine etc, which, as anyone who knows Hiller's work will tell you is just... odd. Yes, I'm obviously an admirer of (some, not all of) her work. That's because she tends to deal with 'big' issues to do with science, belief, death, magic etc. in a very direct, confrontational, yet open-ended way – so that to reduce the issues, as you try to do, to whether things are provably 'right' or 'wrong' seems, to me at least, to rather mundanely miss the whole point.

Merely embracing big ideas doesn’t necessarily make for ‘intellectual’, or even interesting work, so I’m miffed, Simon, by your accusation that I have some kind of resentful ‘anti-intellectual’ agenda going on. Hiller is interested in ideas, for sure (and, in fact, the questions she raises are, indeed, interesting ones, on top of which her work is often visually impressive and seductive - I describe Witness as 'dazzling', and I've never seen it displayed so well), but I’m questioning the results of that engagement. My point about her tiresome attacks on 'so-called objectivity’ remains a valid one, and this nonsense about ‘if only I “got” it’ is frankly a silly attempt at a rebuttal. As for mentioning only 5 works, over which you remain 'suspicious'. What can I say? Perhaps make a habit of reading reviews? Tell you what: read some positive reviews of the exhibition - for there are plenty of them - and make a list of how many works are discussed per review, whilst also factoring in permitted word length. I’m really sorry if that sounds a bit facetious, but really, that’s all I have to say about Hiller. But thanks for your comments.

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