Susan Hiller

Gimpel Fils

In 1972 Susan Hiller’s attempts at automatic writing resulted in texts apparently dictated by some external force. Plural, female, and rhapsodic, the “writers” called themselves “sisters of Menon.” In a script that was not her own, they beseeched Hiller to join their company. Their voices, which Hiller described as insistent, repetitive, personal, and punning, set up a paradoxical relationship between asserted existence and apparent insubstantiality (“I live my sister,” “the riddle is the sister of the zero”); it constantly switched from “I” to “we” to “everyone.”

As an artist, Hiller’s chosen task has often been to examine images or writing as evidence—fragments of Pueblo pottery, monumental inscriptions, postcards—in an attempt to reveal unacknowledged cultural assumptions while paying homage to the originals. In time the Menon texts have been treated in a similar way, providing Hiller with a focus for the investigation not only of such recurring themes as art and death, but also of the nature of signs and the limits of individuality. In Hiller’s video Belshazzar’s Feast/The Writing on Your Wall, 1983–84, noises of burning, images of flame, the sound of the artist improvising lullabylike music, and a child’s halting description of Rembrandt’s painting of Belshazzar’s feast all give way to a whispered summary of the various British newspaper reports, in 1983, that aliens are employing television screens to transmit a message about the fate of the earth—a message too terrifying for those who heard it to repeat. The glare of the television screen, a modern equivalent of the fire in which shapes can be discerned and fortunes told, mocks Daniel’s detective work. Was he really translating what the moving finger wrote? Or was he himself becoming a transmitter?

Albeit tentatively, Julian Jaynes’ book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1977) proposes a link between the expression of schizophrenics, mediums, and oracles and an earlier state of consciousness than ours, marked by a different relation between the cerebral hemispheres. Gods addressed their worshippers directly, he argues; decision-making, the experience of time, above all the sense of selfhood differed from ours. Though much of Jaynes’ book relates to Hiller’s researches, it is interesting that he confesses that he knows of no examples of contemporary hallucinations sounding like a group of people in unison. Is it possible that the sisters of Menon are daughters of Mnemosyne—those Muses whose mother lent her name to the concept of memory? Hiller’s contribution to the debate on the “death of the author” involves the ascent of dictation over composition; the adoption of an oracular role may represent a late stage in the quest to recover lost authority. On the gallery walls is evidence of Hiller’s interest in automatism and the study of the marks she makes, a language that is no known language. Allover fields of signs, created with oriental fluency, offer one more alien message, a different fire, another kind of television screen. And as with Daniel construing the foreign text for Belshazzar, Hiller, the investigator, is mysteriously part of the riddle. Gradually she is doing as she has been bidden, and becoming one of Menon’s sisters.

Stuart Morgan