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Susan Hiller, Witness, 2000, four hundred speakers, audio tracks, wires, lights. Installation view, 2011. Photo: Sam Drake.

Susan Hiller

Susan Hiller, Witness, 2000, four hundred speakers, audio tracks, wires, lights. Installation view, 2011. Photo: Sam Drake.

IN 1974, following several years in which she ritually renounced painting––chopping old canvases into little rectangles and stitching them together into tomblike blocks, preserving the ashes of burned works in vials––Susan Hiller found her enduring subject with Dream Mapping. Articulated via dream diaries (seen at Tate Britain in vitrines) kept by seven people sleeping within “fairy rings” of mushrooms in a supposedly enchanted Hampshire field, this lasting topic was the stubborn, abyssal irrationality of the human mind. On the evidence of Tate Britain’s forty-year survey, curated by Ann Gallagher in collaboration with the American-born, UK-based artist and featuring some sixteen bodies of work, it is a fairly inexhaustible focus, one that continually plays against the omnipotence of scientific method and technique. Conceptual artists, Sol LeWitt famously suggested, are mystics rather than rationalists; Hiller splits the difference, filling legible structures with arcana and unreason. It’s also apparent that stretching the dynamic over a full career has required some elaborate stage management.

Hiller turns out to be primarily what P. G. Wodehouse called a “slanter”––someone who, in formal terms, trims the sails to fit the prevailing wind. Traverse this show once without engaging with the works’ details, and the effect is one of accelerating through the dominant stylistics of the extended period it covers. Early on, we find Hiller locating pockets of symbolic turmoil within the everyday and paradoxically articulating them through a strict, tabulating conceptualism. Dedicated to the Unknown Artists, 1972–76, collects and orders three hundred-odd postcards, each titled “Rough Sea.” Automatic Writing, 1979–81, traps examples of Hiller’s use of the eponymous technique––in which mysterious entities called the Sisters of Menon eerily appear to speak through the artist––in a tight, cruciform set of frames, fringed with typed annotations and legible versions of Hiller’s scrawls.

In the 1980s, the artist turned to video installation, most potently in Belshazzar’s Feast/The Writing on Your Wall, 1983–84. Here, a diagrammatic living room––complete with sofa, plants, rug, and a television operating as an updated version of the communal “hearth,” with footage of flickering flames––serves as a setting for Hiller’s whispered, dub-echoed voice-over, in which she recounts newspaper-reported testimonials from individuals in England who had all seen disturbing imagery on their TV screens after programming had ended for the day (back when that used to happen). Hiller isn’t judgmental concerning the veracity of these people’s experiences. Rather, her commentary generates an atmosphere so spooked that, looking at the Rorschach-like flames on the installation’s TV screen, one begins to hallucinate diversities of malevolence. 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.

That effect is even more pronounced in An Entertainment, 1990, a four-channel video installation that takes the traditional fairground diversion of a Punch and Judy show and, via video distortion, repetition, quick cuts, freeze-frames, and a nightmarish, juddering sound track, estranges this seemingly harmless spectacle into a psychosphere, any core meaning in the “entertainment” dropping away––all its ominous inferences, it’s clear, are down to Hiller’s manipulations. Something similar might be said of From the Freud Museum, 1991–96, a pseudoanthropological display whose vitrined rows of cardboard archaeological collection boxes pair up disparate artifacts, inviting us to justify the conjunction of, say, an old jukebox record and an illustration of a scythe-clasping skeleton, or phials of holy water and a list of descriptors for sentient people. Meaning, Hiller avers, lies in combination and accumulation, however irrational.

At points, her art suggests the diligent procedures of someone who decided this was the case long ago and then set out to find ways of illustrating it. Witness, 2000, is an effective (and, again, very much of its time) bit of space-filling installation––a dramatically lit room full of suspended circular speakers, unspooling a murmuring Babel of recitations of encounters with UFOs––that feels, somehow, like Hiller is box-ticking a corner of human wackiness, confident of how the collective weight of the work’s testimony will pressure skepticism. This is a paradox of Hiller’s art: It manages to be controlling about things that are out of control.

That costive approach extends, here, to how audiences receive her work. Pieces such as The Tao of Water: Homage to Joseph Beuys, 1969–2009––a cabinet of collections of holy water stored in glass medicine bottles scavenged from the shores of the Thames and elsewhere—find her in a clarifying mood, pointing out the traditions in which she works: in this case the symbolic, both Beuysian and Christian, transmutation of the everyday. In other recent Homages, she associates herself with Duchamp, Broodthaers, and Yves Klein. This relentless overseeing––of where her work sits in art history, of what dimensions of disquiet viewers will access through her art––can feel wearying. I found myself hiding in the gallery housing The Last Silent Movie, 2007, where, on a black screen, subtitled extracts flash up of near-extinct or extinct languages, many of the speakers now themselves dead. We are in touch, here, with the afterlife: The black screen is a projection screen, potentially for the largest thoughts concerning what lies beyond the veil. Letting my mind drift, I felt briefly free in the darkness. Then I remembered that this, too, had been prepared for me by Susan Hiller.

Martin Herbert is a writer and critic based in Tunbridge Wells, UK.