The work of Susan Hiller involves some aspect of meaning-making that can only happen through a reciprocal interest in people and their place in the world. From explorations of the subconscious — with automatic writ-ing and investigations of memory — to the self-reflexive homage pieces dedicated to Joseph Beuys, Marcel Duchamp and Yves Klein, Hiller’s work is fundamentally motivated by a deep curiosity about the ways in which her fellow human beings make sense of their environment. This retrospective exhibition at Tate Britain also highlights that the works require an audience to fully come into their own.
In this sense, Hiller does not just see people as good subjects for her art but she invests a great level of trust in them to appropriate her works and instil them with meaning, personal and universal, by providing tenta-tive answers to her questions. What remains of disappearing languages (The Last Silent Movie)? Why are paranormal experiences so similar across the world (Witness)? The works are most often developed in series and they are not classified in any ideological or value-driven system. After the Freud Museum is a collection of fifty boxes containing relics, talismans and mementos that leads to a re-evaluation of the boundaries and value sys-tems of the museum: whereas this type of display was once the mainstay of archaeological museums, why is it not so common to encounter it in a contemporary art gallery? Perhaps because these works proceed less from a typology of art than from a typology of human interest.
One could almost say that the installations, cabinets and film works that represent her career of three decades in Britain constitute a corpus of study of humanity in all its banality as well as its quirks. That is perhaps why it is puzzling that Hiller herself disavows her former training as an anthropologist. Perhaps this defensiveness is a result of the difficulties she encountered in being taken seriously as a feminist artist early in her career. Indeed, her first show in London was compared to the contents of a handbag. She has since paid little attention to the critics and cultivated the low profile, that some would qualify as discrete, of a serious conceptual artist.
Whereas it is now common for contemporary conceptual work to lack in-depth intellectual engagement, it is clear from Hiller’s Tate retrospective that, at seventy, she has found this rare balance. That is not to say that she sacrifices aesthetic form either. Witness, multiple recordings of alien encounters in various languages, is presented as an eerie immersive instal-lation of hundreds of small speakers dangling from the ceiling of a dimly lit gallery. This form also reflects the very nature of Hiller’s interests: that the multiplicity of voices can never be exhausted.