Susan Hiller does it big or she doesn’t do it at all. Her retrospective at Tate Britain charts a career that burnt for two decades on a long slow fuse without going anywhere in particular. Then, in the series of ambitious multimedia installations for which she is now famous, she began to look at areas of human experience that had rarely been explored in art before. Now over 70 and one of our most influential artists, she could easily take on the Unilever commission for Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, but I still can’t imagine her having a show in Cork Street.
Hiller came to London from America in the early Seventies. I don’t want to dismiss the work she did during her first decade here, but neither do I want to linger on it. The text- and photo-based pieces you encounter at the beginning of the show are much more interesting after you’ve seen the installations she was to make 30 years later. That is because in early pieces exploring dream states, unconscious thoughts and automatic writing, Hiller wasn’t so much looking for her voice as finding her wavelength. That’s the right word to describe her developing interest in unseen realms of experience – things you can’t see, touch or measure and yet know to be real.
The breakthrough came with Monument in 1980, her meditation on the commemorative plaques in Postman’s Park in London. Created by the visionary Victorian artist GF Watts to call attention to acts of “heroic self-sacrifice” in everyday life, each memorial briefly recounts the story of a man, woman or child who gave their life attempting to save another person from drowning, a fire, a runaway horse or a train.
In a tape recording that we listen to while seated in front of enlarged photographs of 41 memorial plaques, Hiller speaks movingly of how these terse inscriptions can be experienced as channels through which the dead live on in our imaginations.
Here, for the first time, Hiller states the great theme that underlies all her mature work: the deep human need to be held in the memories of others.
Susan Hiller, Tate Britain, Seven magazine review 04 Feb 2011
Arts agenda: February 04 Jan 2011
If, ultimately, Monument fails, it is because in taking on the role of commentator, Hiller interprets the meaning of the memorial for us. What she needed to do was find a way to step back from her own work, to place nothing between her audiences and the “voices” she wants us to hear. Only then can we confront the universal fear of our own extinction. But to achieve this, she first has to locate that fear in our collective unconscious – and then make it audible as well as visible.
It took another 10 years, but when it happened it was in one of the most upsetting works of art I’ve ever seen. An Entertainment is a DVD installation that fills all four walls of a windowless gallery from floor to ceiling with clips from films of Punch and Judy shows. Hiller went to seaside towns around Britain filming these traditional shows with a hand-held camera, and then deftly edited the footage to exclude everything except the moments of horrific violence.
Over and over for 20 gruelling minutes Mr Punch beats Judy with his club, kills the Baby and goes to the gallows as skeletons dance with delight. Projected out of synch, an incident that appears on one wall reappears a few seconds later on another. So we stand in the middle of the gallery, surrounded by screams and turning our heads from left to right, like children watching parents argue about something they don’t understand.
The soundtrack is too grainy for us to understand what the puppets are saying, so Hiller provides a deadpan voiceover. When Mr Punch dashes the Baby against a wall, as well as Judy’s shrill cry of “Wicked! Wicked! Wicked!” we also hear Hiller repeating her words, like a police officer reading the transcript of the interrogation of a witness at a trial.
Hiller’s genius was to realise that Punch and Judy hold up a mirror to an unseen culture of domestic violence, child abuse and infanticide we normally acknowledge only when we read about cases like Victoria Climbie and Baby Peter. Children love these entertainments because they can watch from a safe distance as the puppets act out the deepest fear of all – that dad will kill mum and then come after me. I suppose a psychoanalyst would say that such entertainments are projections of thoughts and feelings that we don’t know what to do with and have to put somewhere safe, such as a book or a play.
To see Witness, Hiller’s breathtakingly beautiful installation from 2000, the viewer enters a darkened gallery in which 600 circular microphones dangle from wires attached to the ceiling. Place a microphone to your ear and you’ll hear a muffled voice speaking in English, French, Russian, German Japanese or Swedish, each telling his or her story of an encounter with an alien being or UFO.
All speak in matter-of-fact voices that blend into a soft babble rippling through the gallery. Then, suddenly, all quieten down as one voice rises above the din to tell us what must have been the single most memorable experience of their life. The speakers appear sane and we listeners have no reason to suppose they are lying. And yet what they are saying cannot possibly be true.
So what are these stories? Fact? Fantasy? Psychiatric disorder? When I reviewed Witness 11 years ago, I concluded that the answer is “art”. Hiller’s true subject was the human need to tell stories, to hold a listener spellbound and in doing so to join hands with Homer or the Brothers Grimm. This time I saw something else – that the work is also about listening.
Whether or not the storytellers are telling you a verifiable fact, they are always telling you something about themselves – that they are unable to bear the thought that when they die, there will be no memory of them. So powerful is the need to live on, that the unconscious takes over and convinces the storyteller that what he saw in his imagination is true. Hiller asks us to pay attention to stories that are usually consigned to mouldering police reports or the pages of the tabloids and to respect them for what they are: a means to eternal life.
A darkened gallery, a black screen, the voice of an unseen man or woman speaking in an unintelligible language: The Last Silent Movie (2007) takes the theme of extinction and memory and what remains of us when we die to its logical conclusion. For what we are listening to are the last speakers of extinct or endangered languages. Hiller found their voices in archives and had their words translated into English. As they speak their words appear on screen. A few seconds later, we hear an English speaker repeating their words.
It takes a moment to grasp the strangeness of the experience. For as we stare into the darkness, we listen to the voices of the dead speaking languages that are also dead. What must these people have felt as they spoke these words for the last time, knowing their language would die with them? Hiller is an uneven artist, but the moral beauty I find in these works sends a shiver down my spine. How appropriate that through them she will live for ever.