Susan Hiller: Death, Desire and Language
The work of artist Susan Hiller is described as being radical, provocative and inventive dealing with issues around death, encounters with UFOs, E.S.P., automatic writing and the artist as shaman. She cites major influences in her work as being Minimalism, Fluxus, aspects of Surrealism and her previous area of study in anthropology. Using postcards, photomat machines, wallpaper and other denigrated aspects of popular culture to make work which is widely regarded, according to Nicolas Serota, as having a huge influence on younger British artists.
Hiller’s work has spanned four decades and gained wide critical acclaim but she is not a household name and does not court fame and publicity as perhaps some artists do. She is an intellectual artist who does not turn out the kind of work that looks good in a flashy loft or by means of autobiography (“I may have had as many abortions as any other female artist,” she once said. “But I’m not going to make that part of my CV”).
Making work that includes installations and sound pieces, photo-montages and combines, are complex and uncategorisable. Made for gallery spaces that enable the viewer to have the space and time to think more deeply about the work and are able to see the work more keenly. Currently there are four major works by Susan Hiller in Tate’s collection. The large-scale installations using a variety of media, the earliest, Monument (1980/81), consists of 41 colour photographs of commemorative plaques honouring Londoners who died while trying to rescue others; the photographs are arranged in a diamond-shaped cross pattern behind a park bench with headphones. Viewers may sit on the bench and don the headphones to hear the artist’s fragmented meditation on death, heroism, immortality , gender and representation. The viewers become participants in the work, completing the Monument tableau as seen by other viewers.
It has long been regarded that she was also inspired by Freud’s own collection of antiquities and the history of psychoanalysis. In her installation we see a personalized act of re-collecting, incorporating elusive traces of memory, allusions to her earlier works and personal associations. Her serious but unsettling technique of juxtaposing knowledge derived from anthropology, psychoanalysis and other scientific disciplines with materials usually considered to be of no great weight, has a long history in her practice. In From the Freud Museum, Hiller handles the scientific, museological display format in a very particular way. In From the Freud Museum she does not materially alter the objects but creatively and skilfully contextualizes them.
The common denominator in all Susan Hiller’s works is their starting point in a cultural artefact from our own society. Her work is an excavation of the overlooked, ignored, or rejected aspects of our shared cultural production, and her varied projects collectively have been described as “investigations into the ‘unconscious’ of our culture.”
In the latest exhibition of her work being shown at Tate Britain, which opened 30th January, Hiller also pays homage to a number of artists and writers; for example Joseph Beuys, Yves Klein, Marchel Duchamp and Gertrude Stein. Notably the largest of her 10 tributes to Beuys, consists of wooden boxes filled with bottles of sacred water collected by Hiller over many years.
Why water? Why Joseph Beuys? What is it about Hiller’s work that is so engaging? Is it the natural human fascination with the morbid?