1st February 2011 — 15th May 2011
There is a school of thought which holds that pretty much anything can be interesting providing one looks at it in the right way: that being bored by something represents the observer's failure to engage with the stimulus in a sufficiently thoughtful and inquisitive manner, rather than a shortcoming in the stimulus itself, which would be endlessly fascinating if only one would ask the appropriate questions of it. I pondered on this as, with increasing disillusionment, I surveyed the Susan Hiller retrospective currently showing at Tate Britain. Feeling largely underwhelmed by what I was seeing and hearing, I wondered whether it was not the work that was lacking but my approach to it: perhaps in mostly failing to appreciate what the exhibition catalogue assures us are 'startlingly original works', the fault was my own. Then again, this was the second occasion on which I had been distinctly unstartled by a survey of Hiller's work, the first time being at Gateshead's Baltic in 2004, in a show which contained some of the same pieces. Nevertheless, I had decided to give her stuff another go, chiefly because the kind of subject matter her work deals with is such potentially fertile territory for artistic exploration: from dreams and the workings of the sub-conscious mind, to various paranormal and irrational phenomena, to arcane objects and cultural ephemera.
How is it then that Hiller frequently manages to explore such rich subjects in – with one or two notable exceptions - such a dry, stultifying way? The artist is quoted in the catalogue writing of 'the way the mundane becomes special as soon as you pay attention to it', but I found that Hiller's work often creates quite the opposite effect, taking lots of interesting source material, and completely deadening it through her practice. Sometimes this is achieved through the sheer weight of the repetition she employs, as in an early piece called Dedicated to the Unknown Artists, a methodical display of her large collection of postcards captioned with the words 'rough sea' and depicting such a scene in umpteen coastal locations around the UK and elsewhere. The postcards themselves are not really mundane at all, and each carries its own quietly resonant and nostalgic charge, especially if, like me, you have an abiding interest in the imagery and topology of seaside towns. However, when appropriated in the manner they are here – a display of several hundred arranged according to some tedious and esoteric methodology – any intrinsic interest the postcards hold becomes dispersed across the set, their individuality lost to seriality, the characterful and sometimes idiosyncratic images subsumed (appropriately enough) beneath the dead weight of volume. Of course, this is clearly the intention of the piece, which becomes, as the critic Brian Dillon points out, a work about invisibility. Indeed, there is perhaps something here of the blank, repetitive fetishism of the collector, of the mania that Derrida called 'archive fever'. But this seems a nihilistic and reductive re-appropriation of such a collection, the end product serving as only a very empty and somewhat cynical dedication to these unknown artists, through a soulless requisition of their work into a cold, clinical, conceptual aesthetic.
The mal-appropriation of interesting material continues in the piece Magic Lantern, in the shape of a sound recording made by the parapsychologist Konstantine Raudive documenting some of his experiments with EVP (electronic voice phenomena). Raudive's work is fairly well known: he isolated and amplified miniscule traces of sound picked up when recording in putatively silent spaces, and claimed that the weird, strangled noises that resulted were actually words and short phrases spoken by voices from beyond the grave. The crackly old recording we hear in Magic Lantern is a fascinating piece of archive, its ghostly snatches of supposed voices quite chilling, regardless of whether we believe Raudive's eccentric assertions. In fact it's remarkably easy to be convinced of his claims, providing we want to be convinced, and it's this exposition of the seduction and power of belief that is perhaps Hiller's main interest in the material. However, her visual appendment to the recording merely comprises a projection on to the gallery wall of three coloured circles of light that appear in various configurations. One essay reprinted in the catalogue asserts that, as we watch these simple projections, 'distinctions between objective perception and subjective response become ever more unstable', although it isn't explained how the piece supposedly does this, or indeed what this even means. Anyway, surely the notion of 'objective perception' is a contradiction in terms. This bit of blather is unquestioningly recycled, without attribution, in the curator's introduction (the work 'subverts the boundaries between objective perception and subjective response'), perhaps because there is so little to say about Hiller's fairly banal and seemingly arbitrary visual accompaniment to Raudive's compelling recording.
A far more fundamental problem with the curation of the show becomes apparent in the placement of Hiller's installation Belshazzar's Feast. The piece recreates a domestic living room, in which we are invited to sit and watch images of flames flickering on a television and listen to a soundtrack of Hiller reading, in a whispered voice, newspaper reports on the phenomenon of people claiming to have seen ghostly images on their televisions one night after broadcasting had ended. There is clearly meant to be a cosy, intimate feel to the piece, by means of which we might be drawn into the hypnotic images of the flames and the incantatory sound of Hiller's whisper and the strange occurrences it relates. Unfortunately, any such atmosphere was stymied from the outset by having the work installed in a fairly open space right in the centre of the exhibition, with visitors frequently walking back and forth through the room. Worse perhaps was that the loud, jarring soundtrack from the video installation next door poured continuously into the space, making it totally impossible to make out the whispered soundtrack. I strained to try and hear it for some minutes, but to no avail, and so I can't say whether Belshazzar's Feast is a strong piece or not, as it simply wasn't possible to engage properly with the work. Surely the Tate should be able to get basics like this right.
The aural pollution emanated from a work that is the exhibition's one redeeming feature: Hiller's four-channel video installation from 1990, An Entertainment, which presents a melange of footage of Punch and Judy shows, projected so as to completely cover the four walls of an otherwise completely dark room. Short sequences of low-resolution video frame the puppets so as to eliminate the surrounding booth, making these garish manikins loom large over the viewer and divesting them of their usual lightweight appearance. Snatches of footage are variously repeated, slowed down and frozen, edited in a variety of combinations across the work's four screens. The resulting images depart about as far from children's entertainment as can be imagined: the abiding impression created being that of ritual violence, as we see different versions of Punch repeatedly meting out beatings upon his wife and baby with his traditional stick. The words spoken by Punch in his distinctive and grotesque squawk are translated in voiceover (an echo there of Raudive's vocal 'translations') in an affectless monotone, so that the menacing subtexts of his stock phrases ('that's the way to do it') are made all too clear. This is a work in which Hiller succeeds in her aim of extricating aspects of familiar cultural material that are often overlooked despite being all too plain to see, yet it also achieves much more than that. Seldom have I seen multi-channel video and sound utilised to such claustrophobic, uncanny effect, creating a powerfully dreamlike intensity. Standing inside the installation feels like physically inhabiting someone else's nightmare, and it is worth making the trip to Tate Britain to see this work alone.
There are some other pieces in the show that are interesting enough. I quite liked her Homage to Joseph Beuys: a cabinet of assorted little phials and bottles of 'holy water' that Hiller has apparently collected from sacred sites around the world. The J. Street Project, a recent film that documents every street sign in Germany that has Juden (Jew) in its name, is a powerful idea, although the results are rather too tedious to sit through for 67 minutes. There are other works that it is difficult to engage with at all, so devoid of aesthetic content do they seem to me. This is most particularly the case with another of her homage works, this one to Marcel Duchamp. For this series, alluding to an 'aura portrait' that Duchamp painted in 1910, Hiller presents us with a collection of 'aura photos' she has found online: ordinary photographic portraits appended with spurious 'auras' of coloured light. There is no great mystery to this simple bit of digital image manipulation, and the series feels totally banal and artistically bereft, which I suppose some people might consider a fitting tribute to the ur-conceptualist. Whilst elsewhere Hiller manages the difficult trick of transforming something interesting into something dull, here she takes something dull and just shows it to us in all its original dullness: it's the work – or rather, someone else's work - of an artist who seems to have run out of ideas.
By presenting work like this in such an uncritical, unchallenged way, and by composing the catalogue as one long encomium to the artist and everything she produces, the Tate strives to perpetuate the myth I outlined above – that if the work fails to excite, the fault lies with the viewer not the work - and succeeds in investing Hiller's often mediocre and occasionally just plain bad art with a significant level of cultural cachet. Such prestige is highly lucrative for the right people, and indeed on the same day that I visited the Tate, a publicly funded institution, I also paid a visit to Hiller's gallery - Timothy Taylor, a mile or so away in Mayfair – where, lo and behold, lots of her work - much of it from the same series being exhibited at Millbank - was being offered for sale, no doubt at stupendous prices. I suppose you can't blame the gallerist for so blatantly attempting to cash in (any opportunity to shift those bloody aura photos gathering dust), but it left me with a depressing sense of the connivance and cronyism that permeates the higher echelons of the contemporary art world. I suppose it has ever been thus.
London SE1 9TG