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22 May 2011

From the Tate Britain

'From the Freud' museum and other works by Susan Hiller came together in a retrospective of the artists work at the Tate Britain this spring. Running for sixteen weeks I managed to catch this exhibition just before it closed on the 15th of this month. The exhibition features the artists postcard works of the 1970's up to the more recent mixed media installation and video projection works. Prior to seeing this show I didn't really know much about or had either seen any of Hiller's work, which is sometimes much better because it meant I had no pre-conceptions of what to expect. Some of the best shows I've seen in fact have been 'better' because I've gone into them blind and not knowing anything about the artist or the artists work; Annette Messager's exhibition at the Hayward being another example of this. So, the question beckons then, 'why, then exactly did I go to the Susan Hiller exhibition if I didn't know anything about the artist or her work?'
Answer: I did go specifically to see the 'From the Freud museum' piece (in the image below) because of my recent project working with the Somerset Heritage Centre (a.k.a The Museum of Somerset) for art weeks and Hiller's work was mentioned as an interesting example of how an artist has worked with museum forms of presentation responding to ideas of the collection and archiving. I have to admit, I did enjoy exploring this piece of work and how everyday and banal bits of 'tat' from toy plastic animals, records and bars of soap sat labeled and like 'precious' artifacts in their respective cardboard boxes. It was intriguing and invited you as the viewer to look at it with a different pace to that of which I'm used to. For example, in my own work I have always opted for the more iconographic, 'boom, in your face!' kind of approach as to a more subtle one that lures you in and quietly asks you to read and inspect it. When you learn of Hiller's background as an anthropologist you can see where the interest in objects and collections comes from, but more importantly I suppose for Hiller its the significance of the objects in the piece that she is more interested in and playing with the context the objects are in and how that creates alternative meanings.
However, this piece was just one of the many delights of this exhibition as a whole and for me the piece that really surprised me was 'Witness'. To briefly describe it, 'Witness' is a sound installation about people's encounters with UFOs or extraterrestrial phenomena, in which recorded dialogues from people all over the world are played all at once out of different speakers hanging from the ceiling (see second image below to get an idea). Anyway, the result is this room full of chatter of which none of it makes any sense until you walk in amongst the hanging speakers and pick up the sound of a language you understand (obviously in my case, I am pretty limited to English with the occasional bit of French or German). It is then that you hear someones story of their 'extraterrestrial experience'. Its not so much the content of what they're saying that's interesting, but the overall feel of being an individual in a space trying to make sense of things. In this case the you as the viewer, trying to make sense of one story/voice over all the other voices but in a way I think its trying to allude to the bigger metaphor of how we are all one voice of many voices all chattering at the same time and how we wander through our busy lives trying to make sense of things amongst all the other noise; sometimes picking out bits that resonate and speak to us as individuals or otherwise missing other things that pass us by. In a way 'Witness' is a perfect example of how one can be surrounded by hundreds of people yet feel completely alone. That, and the way in which all the cables/speakers picked up the light as they were hung in a dark room kind of made me think of stars/space or even UFOs, making it also visually interesting. As you can tell, I was pretty impressed with this piece and it once again reaffirms my ever increasing belief that installation art is up there in the way it creates experience and 'moves' you more often than painting does. I say that, however, the act of painting certainly has the same affect for me, its the end product from that which I'm not sure if it has the same affect as the making of it.
That was just the start of things, this exhibition had a whole lot more and I haven't touched upon some of the video projection pieces, like 'Psi girls' as well as a postcard project and a Joesph Beuys style piece that consisted of hundreds of labelled bottles of water in a glass case (to put it very simply). So all very exciting and coming from four decades of the now 70 years old artists career, making this a diverse and surprising show. I say surprising because for an artist that, in a way has become famous from categorising everyday objects, I wouldn't however, really know how best to categorise her. She's not really entirely conceptual, minimal, feminist, anthropologist, surrealist, installation, mixed media, photographer, film maker, found-object, Dada, Duchampian anything-a-ma-bob. That's why I like it, because like the nature of anthropology and humankind, we are a polysemic, organic and forever changing and re-writing of the same things. The diversity of the work in Hiller's career really reflects that.

(Top) 'From the Freud museum' 1991, (Middle) 'Witness' 2000, (Bottom) Auras: Homage to Marcel Duchamp 2008.

Susan Hiller at the Tate Britain has now ended but you can check out more info/images of her work at:

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