Susan Hiller

Freud Museum/Gimpel Fils

The London house in which Freud lived for the last year of his life is now a museum, which houses, among other things, the large number of antique figures Freud collected throughout his life. This collection of cultural artifacts, the private house as public space (its status as a mark of Jewish persecution and displacement), and the legacy of psychoanalysis itself provide a rich context for the display of Susan Hiller’s Box Series, 1991–93. (Her installation is part of a larger project, “The Reading Room,”organized by Book Works and comprised of site-specific work around the United Kingdom, including installations by Joseph Kosuth and Elaine Reichek.)

At the Freud Museum, Hiller covered one wall of an upstairs room with a glassfronted cabinet containing a large number of open, brown, cardboard boxes. Their contents varied greatly, but the pattern was consistent: one or two objects in the box, each resting in a custom-made slot with a related image or text pasted to the inside of the lid. Cumulatively, the items, images, and texts speak of the assertion of cultural and sexual identity and of the problems that inevitably arise with the recognition of difference. Some of the material relating to Europe is concerned with 20th-century Jewish experience. It is a focus calculated to provoke a certain moral unease among those for whom the current Middle Eastern situation makes this a culture whose desires and priorities, their previous unequaled persecution notwhithstanding, it seems less than politically correct to assert.

An ironic colonizing/pioneering item pairs the photograph of a cowgirl, gun resting gently in her lap, with two white cow creamers. It relates, of course, to the displacement of Native Americans, whose culture is highlighted elsewhere, and to the broader themes of identity and of finding, a place that permeate the work as a whole, but it also bears on the consummately disingenuous side of all Hiller’s work. Box Series, with its photographs, texts, maps, diagrams and diverse objects all artfully packaged is undoubtedly an outcome of Hiller practicing as the anthropologist she is, but is also evidence of her deliberately “doing Conceptualism” with as much accomplishment as the male artists associated with the movement.

Another box, evoking the mythic underpinning of both Hiller’s subject matter and the exhibition space, contains phials of water labeled “Mnemosynen and ”Lethe." Memory and forgetting were also central to Hiller’s concurrent show at Gimpel Fils. Propped against one of the gallery’s pillars, the steel outer door from her studio had been used as a frame on which hung a cheap and fairly grubby toddler’s outfit. This Little Babylon Suit, 1992, in an unwholesomely acidic greeny-yellow stripe had two triangles of white material sewn on its chest to form a Star of David: a symbol of unspeakable persecution lifted and used as a badge of Rastafarian belonging. Hand Grenades, 1969–72, and Measure by Measure, 1973–92, consisted of burnt remnants of discarded paintings stored in stoppered glass containers. The grenades are puzzles to be lobbed into the future; the calibrated tubes of Measure by Measure, bunched laboratory beakers resting on a lead-lined shelf, delineate Hiller’s career year by year.

The focus on childhood and the process of acculturation to a set of beliefs and attitudes in this piece is an extension of Hiller’s earlier video work on Punch and Judy, An Entertainment, 1991, and of the paintings on nursery wallpaper of the mid ’80s. The paintings in this show, too, were done on wallpaper, their decorative but dated surfaces largely clouded by washes of blacks and browns into which Hiller had written indecipherable marks. These marks are the product of her own automatic writing session, dream texts whose potential significance is echoed in the paintings’ titles. Where they do not reiterate the childhood theme evident in Cradle Song, 1994, Generation, 1990, titles like Sybil, 1994, Witness, 1993, Beyond Intimate, 1993–94, and Sophia, 1994, characterize ways of knowing, interpreting and understanding. In the gallery window, visible from the street, a video image flickered. Indeterminate, oblique, unresolved and constantly interfered with by patterns of sunlight and shadow, its source and meaning remained obscure.

Michael Archer