Philadelphia

Susan Hiller

Born in this country but a resident of England since 1967, Susan Hiller is better known abroad, and “Wild Talents,” comprising a group of installations, was her first solo museum exhibition here. Much of Hiller’s work invokes a Conceptual strategy of the ’70s in which collections (of objects or images) and their display are critical components used to create a certain cool look and to emphasize the art’s conditional, mediated status. Though Hiller plays down her early training as an anthropologist, the collecting methodology that informs her work both overlaps this Conceptual stance and demonstrates a continuing line of interest in recovering traces of collective histories. The artist has subjected a wide range of cultural ideas and forms to this practice, and much of the work in this exhibition touched on the paranormal as it is framed by rationalist modes of thought.

Given Hiller’s ongoing interest in the irrational and the intuitive, it’s fitting that the works are all staged in the dark. The viewer is drawn into an intimate encounter with two pieces that consist of vertical strips of slides illuminated from behind by children’s nightlights. In Child’s Play, 1991–92, thirty-two slides show images from a picture-card game including a skeleton, a slice of melon, a spider, and a heart pierced by an arrow. Installed in a small, separate room, Human Relations, 1991–92, suggests an unlikely portrait gallery of thirty skulls, serving as a compact symbol of our biological fate. While it recalls a classic scientific display of evolutionary hierarchy, the work provides in this context a subjective moment of reflection. From India to the Planet Mars, 1998, filled the largest gallery space with ten wall-mounted light-boxes of photographic negatives showing examples from Hiller’s large collection of automatic writings. What’s legible (or translated) in the texts refers to guides and the “other side”; some of the writings are said to be in “unknown languages.” What can’t be read becomes drawing, language becomes image, as Hiller probes the spaces between recognition and discovery.

In Wild Talents, 1997, the artist turns our attention to the subject of supernatural powers in children and shifts the scale of the viewer’s engagement with the work. Two large video screens show a compilation of European and American film clips showing such remarkable actions as telekinesis and clairvoyance. The video has been toned a faded red or blue to heighten the sense of the fantastic, and edited with abrupt cuts and freeze-frames. A sound track that manipulates noises of dogs barking, glass breaking, and children’s voices adds emotional intensity to the moment. Between the two screens, in the glow of their altered light, a wooden chair supports a ring of devotional lights and a small TV monitor playing fuzzy black-and-white footage of a pilgrimage that took place in Medjugorja, Yugoslavia, to visit children who were said to have had religious visions. Invoking popular fascination with the supernatural, it opens another door on our ambivalent attraction to the world of miracles. Pulled into the piece to view this smaller image, we are closest to experiencing multiple perspectives as the operative metaphor of Hiller’s layered practice.

Eileen Neff