thu 30/06/2022

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

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.

Whether she believes in any of this stuff herself I couldn’t tell you, but her fascination has endured for over four decades in her work as an artist, though why she seems never to have touched astrology is a further mystery. Perhaps a belief in the power of celestial bodies to affect human behaviour simply doesn’t figure with Hiller’s tendency to aesthetically frame her preoccupations through a quaintly Victorian or early-20th-century lens. This may be because that was a time when artists got sucked in by some interesting “out there” ideas themselves. Today, Hollywood stars who profess faith in Scientology, or who flaunt their tacky Kabbalah bracelets, or who empty-headedly embrace whatever half-baked spiritual fad happens to be floating on the ether, are routinely derided. But back then a commitment to the ideas expounded by Madame Blavatsky, a more than passing interest in Theosophy and the occult, and not least a belief in the cosmic significance of geometric lines, were pretty much what you’d expect. And it was all taken terribly seriously.

The_Tao_of_Water_2So ponder one of Hiller’s installations of “holy water”, The Tao of Water: Homage to Joseph Beuys, 1969-2010 (pictured right). Arranged in an old-fashioned cabinet is a cramped display of tiny Victorian medicine bottles, each filled with water apparently sourced from middens and wells renowned for their supposedly healing properties. Like a lot of Hiller’s work, it’s visually arresting in a traditionally feminine and daintily pretty way, but it’s given intellectual ballast with its dedication to Beuys, the biggest shaman-artist of the 20th century. Similarly seductive are Hiller’s collections of old illustrated postcards depicting English seaside resorts lashed by stormy seas, many neatly arranged behind prisms of coloured glass.

Whatever the purported intellectual underpinning of Hiller’s work, there is much that is just irritatingly fey, or just plain irritating. Inviting a group of friends to sleep inside a “fairy ring” formed by mushrooms on a Hampshire farm, and then getting them to record their dreams as an exploration of the unconscious in Dream Mapping, 1974, is really as dull as listening to anyone jaw on about their “fascinating” dream of the night before. Being presented as an artwork makes it no less dull, no less cringingly eye-rolling and, of course, certainly no more insightful.

Hiller’s early training as an anthropologist, a career she rejected on the grounds of its apparent phoney objectivity, has been much commented on as an abiding influence, for she apes its methodology, assiduously documenting and cataloguing and presenting written or audio-recorded commentaries. And as much as anything she’s concerned not just with the subjectivity of experience but the subjectivity of interpretations of the world presented as fact. Enquiries/Inquiries, 1973-75, for instance, presents two screens on which encyclopaedic definitions - from petrified pebbles to the etymology of certain words and phrases – roll by. One screen presents the “facts” from an English source, the other from an American one, but we just have to take Hiller’s word for it that the two definitions are at constant variance: they change on the respective screens so quickly that the viewer is unable to give them more than a cursory read-through, if that.

Indeed, there is something rather imperious and perversely dogmatic about Hiller’s issue with “so-called” objectivity that I find slightly objectionable, since this seems to give her permission to treat every hokey idea with the same kind of seriousness - or non-seriousness as the mood takes her - as those ideas which may simply be wrong. The former doesn’t change despite whatever material evidence is thrown at it, and the latter does. It’s a basic difference, but one Hiller seems to have forgotten about, as indeed have the writers of the catalogue that accompanies this exhibition, insisting, as they do, on referring to the “so-called” scientific method, as if everything can be reduced to the same old humanities-driven, culturally relative gloop. This is just groan-inducing.

Still, this is a well-curated exhibition and it shows Hiller’s work to great advantage. Few could fail to be visually dazzled by Witness, 2000 (main picture), or powerfully moved by Monument, 1980-81 (pictured below left). The first sees a spectral glow emanating from a darkened room where hundreds of translucent, glinting wires hang from the ceiling. From each of these wires dangles a small oval speaker transmitting a tale of an alien visitation or abduction (a babel of different tongues hiss out of the work as a whole). But it’s the dramatic staging of the piece that’s far more seductive than anything to do with what the work’s “about”. I’ve certainly never seen it displayed so well.

Hiller_Monument1However, it’s Monument , featuring a series of photographs of Victorian ceramic tiles commemorating those who died helping others, that packs the biggest visceral punch. It’s a reproduction of the Monument to Heroic Self-Sacrifice in the City of London's Postman's Park, though the images here are displayed in the shape of a cruciform, with the 41 prints corresponding to the age Hiller was when she made the work.

But although Hiller tries to broaden the significance of the work in line with her own preoccupations, the simple and devastating testimonies pinned up on the wall far transcend Hiller’s drily ponderous, and yes, achingly pseudo musings on death, memory and consciousness that accompany the piece.


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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