SUSAN HILLER

13 Apr

Tate Britain, London, 1st February-15th May 2011

I know it’s somewhat narcissistic, perhaps exceedingly narcissistic, but looking at this exhibition acted as a kind of meta-Hiller work reflecting myself back at me. Over her long career it seems she’s always been slightly too ambitious for the technological limitations of the time, never quite in step with what the art world deems fitting subjects for contemporary art; maybe deliberately and happily so. She returns repeatedly to the strategies of science and research, using or abusing them as she deems necessary or useful. Clearly she’s a huge weirdo and a proper nerd, fascinated by science fiction and horror, overlooked and undervalued genres dealing with overlooked and undervalued uncanny experiences. She returns willingly and repeatedly to drag things up from the seething, squirming darkness that’s the inevitable shadow counterpart to human civilisation’s peaceful and orderly progress. To all of the aforementioned: me too.

I even relate to her (not particularly interesting) ‘Recycled Works’ made from the cut up, unravelled or burned remnants of her painted juvenilia. Although she did this voluntarily as an obvious statement of intent and act of closure, the same thing happened to me involuntarily a few years ago when I lost all of my old work in a fire. In either case, one is left with little choice but to move on from whatever that old work represented and from the person who made them. It was a particular joy that although I’d heard of her work I hadn’t really encountered any of it until this evidently overdue encounter at Tate Britain, of all places, where the concurrent show downstairs has hordes of coffin dodgers gagging for watercolours. As I often say, even a broken clock tells the right time twice a day. Good job, Tate, although that doesn’t mean you’re forgiven for Chris Ofili.

I’m finding it increasingly tiresome that so many people apparently think that just neutrally describing what they saw amounts to review or criticism, even if they liked what they saw. Presumably it’s an extension of the generally pusillanimous atmosphere of the art world as a whole, because everyone’s terrified of stepping out of line in case they offend somebody “important”. Fuck that, and fuck anybody who works in the arts and thinks they’re too important to be told when they’re wrong. This is Career Suicide, baby. I’ve really got nothing bad to say about Susan Hiller, so in lieu of that I’m going to be enthusiastic instead. This isn’t done either, because enjoying art or getting excited about it is apparently not cool.

‘Dedicated to the Unknown Artists’ follows a quasi-OCD format that’s since become quite familiar if you see a lot of art exhibitions. In this case Hiller collected and taxonomised dozens of British seaside postcards with images and text of “rough seas” on them. Unlike many of the mental patient-style assemblages that are part of the contemporary art repertoire nowadays, the postcards themselves are charming in their own right, impressive en masse and not at all random. Above all, unlike many artists who have since done similar things Hiller’s “dedication” doesn’t come across as condescending or ironic. The loving collation and pseudo-scientific documentation of these cards really does appear to be sincere homage and not a smirking piss take. That’s very refreshing.

Her photograph and sound work ‘Monument’ is likewise a very sad and moving tribute to a very sad and moving monument. The original, physical monument in London commemorates the small-scale heroism of otherwise forgotten people who drowned while rescuing drowners, were crushed hurling strangers from the paths of runaway horses or carriages, or burned to death after rescuing their own families from burning houses.

There are a number of very compelling video and installation works on show, most of which reward the time it’s necessary to invest in order to see them through. The Punch and Judy bombardment of ‘An Entertainment’ is a bit hard to take, though, for any length of time. One assumes this is deliberate. The fact that it’s slightly dated technologically adds to a discombobulating effect that’s akin to one of the clumsily psychedelic brainwashing sessions regularly arranged for Number Six on ‘The Prisoner’.

I could have stayed all day inside the sound installation ‘Witness’, if the staff hadn’t been getting ants in their pants about closing despite the fact that they weren’t due to shut up shop for an hour. I hate that. ‘Witness’ is visually and sonically simple but compelling: countless speakers dangle on wires from the ceiling of a dimly lit room. From each speaker a voice emanates, telling the story of their encounter with a flying saucer, a spirit or some other type of paranormal event. It’s awesome in the old-fashioned, non-American sense of the word, almost like walking into some freaky shrine where the tendrils of some biomechanical god-alien extrude down to commune with us… even though it’s really just cheap speakers on wires. This is art that works, ladies and gentlemen.

And the whole exhibition has proper bloody seating, unlike the vast majority of video exhibitions whose curators really need to get their shit together when they’re showing video or any other kind of art work that requires lengthy engagement. Accompanying texts tell us what the work is called, when it was made and why, with nothing extraneous and no pretentious bullshit. Other galleries would do well to follow the example of this exhibition’s curator Ann Gallagher in that regard, too. I know they won’t because too many curators are too invested in justifying their wages and making themselves sound clever. It’s about the art and the artist, dummies.

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