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Susan Hiller. Photo: Carla Borel.

Susan Hiller (1940–2019)

Artist Susan Hiller, known for her multimedia works that explored the margins of consciousness, died on Monday at age seventy-eight. Her inquiries into automatic writing (Sisters of Menon, 1972/79), paranormal activity (Witness, 2000; Belshazzar’s Feast, 1983–84), and the limits and illogic of language (J Street Project, 2002–05, and The Last Silent Movie, 2007) reflected her fascination with encountering different systems of being, as well as an ability to lend conceptual order to the disorder of the subconscious.
 
“Conceptual artists, Sol LeWitt famously suggested, are mystics rather than rationalists; Hiller splits the difference, filling legible structures with arcana and unreason,” Martin Herbert wrote in the May 2011 issue of Artforum. “This is her signature move: One begins from a point of skepticism and ends up in a space that borders on belief. The ostensible craziness Hiller is describing becomes edged with plausibility, and her postulates becomes harder and harder to keep at arm’s length. . . . Meaning, Hiller avers, lies in combination and accumulation, however irrational.” 
 
Hiller’s practice was considered a precursor to post-Conceptual British art. Works such as Dedicated to the Unknown Artists, 1972–76, collected and ordered some three hundred postcards of rough sea along the British coastline, synthesizing popular boating culture with the history of landscape, Romanticism, and mysticism. 
 
Hiller was born in 1940 in Tallahassee, Florida, and lived and worked primarily in London beginning in the early 1960s. She studied film and photography at Cooper Union and linguistics and archaeology at Hunter College in New York before conducting anthropological fieldwork in Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala. She soon became troubled by the field’s “objectification of the contrariness of lived events” and decided to become an artist. Hiller exhibited widely (a retrospective was held at Tate Britain in 2011), and her work resides in numerous permanent collections throughout the world.
 
“I like to stand in the midst of the whirlwind, and show what’s out there and what’s denied,” she said in a 2017 interview with Artforum. “My approach to all this is political. The politics has to do with a conviction that it’s only in moments of liminality that anything new can come into being.”

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