Susan Hiller

In Sisters of Menon, 1972–79, writing slips across the pages, in and out of legibility; “We three sisters are one sister / You are one sister / You are the sister / Menon is this one.” Our thoughts drift with the rhythm of this script that recalls, perhaps, the Oresteian chorus summoning the Furies in response to a crime (matricide).

Sisters of Menon was the first Susan Hiller work to materialize from her experiences with automatic script, the theme around which her present exhibition circulates. Automatic writing here does not reveal the autobiographical self, but instead unmasks the limits of the subject in language. Like words in the dreamwork, Menon resonates with its anagrammatical others: “no men,” “nomen,” and their condensation, “no name.” The cross at the center of the work is likewise a negative space, an absence. If it is not precisely of matricide that this work writes, it nonetheless directs our thoughts toward a consideration of the feminine as that which is rendered illegible (illegal) under the patriarchal laws of language.

How does one present a “writing of the feminine,” of that which is unrepresentable except as absence? Hiller addresses the problem on a double front by undermining the structures of representation and by taking on those “paranormal” phenomena (“normal” being that which is representable) usually relegated to the “lunatic fringe.” Works such as the collaborative Dream Mapping, 1974, mime scientific methodologies and yet remain speculative, seeing beyond but not seeing to a conclusion. Elsewhere, the work’s presentation appears to conform to the organizing principles of minimalism—the module and the grid—that reflect the laws of enclosure, homogeneity, repetition (only that which can be contained, repeated, is legitimate); but an overspill or discharge destabilizes the grid. In Hiller’s ongoing series of photo-booth self-portraits, where the fragmentary body is displaced further by a “tattoo” of script, the “interior” self is exterior to the frame, contrary to our expectations of the traditional portrait. In the “Home Truths” series begun last year, Hiller uses script over the wallpaper for children’s rooms, or projects a negative reversal of wordless script across the floor; it is not the verbal that illuminates, but the absence of the nonverbalizable. An invagination takes place between inside and outside, revealing an invisible labyrinth beyond the grid, where sight and hearing, logic and speech, lose their priority. This, perhaps, is the “message” of Belshazzar’s Feast/The Writing on Your Wall,1983–84. The “camp-fire” version, consisting of a cluster of video monitors on the floor, presents constantly transforming, slowly moving flames, together with the echolalia of a female voice; it closes with a child’s faltering account of the biblical tale. But it is not in the prelinguistic that we find a guarantee of the feminine. The artist equates seeing pictures in the fire with reports in Britain of alien television transmissions. Such bizarre cultural phenomena are, like the prophetic writing on the wall, hallucinatory fragments or hieroglyphs emerging, perhaps, as the effect of something repressed in language; manifestations alluding to a scene of desire that cannot, or will not, be remembered, and that can never appear. But in a deciphering of this “writing” that is both prior and subsequent to what is given, appearance is made possible.

In refusing to represent, in refusing to identify with the patriarchal Word that—as Monument, 1980–81, suggests —writes the contract to murder the self, Hiller presents the possibility of a “writing of the feminine”: of those others of either gender who have no access to the means of production of their own representations.

Jean Fisher