Susan Hiller, Towards an Autobiography of Night, 1983, gold ink on twelve C-prints, each 20 × 30".

Susan Hiller, Towards an Autobiography of Night, 1983, gold ink on twelve C-prints, each 20 × 30".

Susan Hiller

Susan Hiller, Towards an Autobiography of Night, 1983, gold ink on twelve C-prints, each 20 × 30".

In 2011, Susan Hiller staged a major retrospective at Tate Britain in London. At the time, Hiller—whose background is in anthropology—expressed relief that her art had received enough attention to keep her going, but not enough to create the kind of market demand that would encourage overproduction. Go to most retrospectives, she noted, “and you’ll see that all the interesting work is at the beginning.” Her debut exhibition at London’s Lisson Gallery, curated by Andreas Leventis, makes clear Hiller’s resistance to such a fate.

Take On the Edge, 2015: “a collection of 482 views from 219 locations presented on 15 framed panels” featuring rough seas as depicted in vintage postcards Hiller collected along Britain’s coastline. These were arranged in two rows across two walls, each panel corresponding to points on a master map. The images are captioned (ROUGH SEA AT INVERGORDON, reads one) and some also have messages scrawled across them in cursive script (one asks after a mother; another announces that its author misses Paris). The result is an objective and affective cartography—a visualization of Britain’s true border, the tempestuous sea. The work was born out of Hiller’s Dedicated to the Unknown Artists, 1972–76, a gathering of 305 postcards of rough seas mounted on fourteen panels, with charts, maps, a book, and a dossier. But rather than show the original piece, this exhibition featured a number of 1981 supplements or sequels to that work, such as Addenda III, Section N: Nature’s Battering Ram: four postcards and a chart identifying various details, including visual traits like the two mediums used in creating each postcard, photographs and paint—the same components as in another ongoing series of archival dry prints begun in 1982, “Rough Seas.” The latter series was represented here in Towards an Autobiography of Night, 1983 (twelve C-type prints handpainted with gold ink elements), as well as Rough Dawns II (twelve archival pigment prints tinted various shades of red) and Roughly in Dreams (nine archival pigment prints), both 2015. The career-spanning continuity of this ongoing inquiry speaks to a rigor in Hiller’s approach to fluidity as both a method and a subject.

But the rough-sea works were only the tip of the iceberg. The inclusion of works in homage to Gertrude Stein, Marcel Duchamp, and Joseph Beuys signaled lines of investigation Hiller has sustained throughout her career, from automatic writing and visualizations of the aura, to a continued interest in bodies of water (in the case of Beuys, holy water). Also featured were never-before-seen photo-booth portraits taken between 1971 and 1981, and an installation, Enquiries/Inquiries, from 1973–75, with a neon sign reading ENQUIRIES (UK) and INQUIRIES (USA) hung over a stairwell leading to a projection presenting texts from British and American encyclopedias in parallel. Aside from evoking the artist’s personal relation to the two countries (born in Cleveland, she has lived in London for many years), the work reflects her fascination with the quirks of language, the instability of meaning, and the mediation required when encountering different systems of being.

In Hiller’s work, we are never far from a fluid dialectics. This is exemplified in Wild Talents, 1997: a large video projection for which the artist collected fragments from American and European horror films in which children possess telekinetic powers. Projected on two walls, the video shows children embodying unknown magical forces, girls on one screen and boys on the other. Meanwhile, in the center of the room, a small TV set screened a documentary about children who’ve had visions of the Virgin Mary. Even here, within a staged gender divide, oppositions were broken down through mediation.

Stephanie Bailey