51. Susan Hiller at Lisson Gallery

It’s rare for you to attend and write about an opening of a major show, but there you were, rubbing shoulders with the art world and the art crowd, to which you usually feel quite marginal. You even had a glass of Prosecco – though your inquisitive partner insisted on analysing the barmen to find out just how many bottles they were likely to get through (90 they estimated.)

You bumped into some old friends and a few colleagues and the atmosphere was as bubbly as the booze. But the great thing about this show and its crowded opening was not just the quantity and ‘quality’ of the works, the people and the Prosecco, it was that it provided rare opportunities to justifiably and accurately use the over-used and much-mis-used terms ‘fantastic’ and ‘amazing’ as a means by which to describe what you were experiencing.

You tend to believe that PVs are not the best moments at which to really see and respond to a show, but you found that, despite the crowds and the banter, the greetings and the wine this Hiller retrospective, with 1-2 more recent pieces, was surprisingly clear and comprehensible, meanwhile priding yourself on your ability to multi-task as a simultaneous socialite and curious art writer.


Some of the works you knew well; some were old but still surprising; some you felt you had seen and knew well but now realised you had only read about in books or seen online. Wild Talents (1997) fits this category. As a well known critic said when you bumped into him, Hiller is very good at “staging” her ideas, and Wild Talents here took on a fresh splendor in the form of its two converging projections occupying a large white-cube space and leaving a little, old fashioned TV monitor, perched on a chair and garlanded with faux flame lamps to provide an additional ritualistic element.

Wild Talents is a good place to begin this extensive show (it’s interesting to see a private gallery like Lisson emulating, and comfortably handling something like a small museum-style retrospective.) If you don’t know the work, Wild Talents consists of a collage of video clips showing movie history’s (mostly Hollywood’s) fascination with psychic children capable of telekinesis and other fearsome feats.

Hiller’s perhaps best-known images revolve around, add to and respond to Dedicated to the Unknown Artists (c. 1981) in which she anthropologically analysed very similar, sometimes near-identical postcards showing rough seas, made as souvenirs for coastal towns and holiday resorts around the coast of Britain. It remains an exemplary model of the artist-as-researcher, a model that all art students are today explicitly encouraged to follow (as an alternative to the artist-as-Romantic, careerist, genius, outsider, bohemian, megalomaniac, eccentric etc.)


Not only do these classic Hiller work stands the test of time, continuing to surprise and provoke contemporary thoughts, they work well when juxtaposed with Wild Talents (made 16 years after Dedicated to the Unknown Artists) and allow you to start underlining the artist’s work by means of certain consistencies.

In both cases Hiller has assembled, analysed and organised repeated examples. The postcards of one era become the video clips of another. Both provide material evidence of our semiconscious fascination with irrational ideas, and forces that continue to haunt and subtly inform our increasingly, all-too common-sens-ical, scientific, logical and now neurological understanding of ourselves and our environment.

Resounding [Infrared] (2013) brings these notions up to date as we hear numerous sound recordings of UFO sightings accompanying a large, pulsating, abstract, projected digital image, full of visual ‘noise’. Immersed within the crackly recorded voices and ominous image it feels strangely reassuring to hear spaces of possibility opened up for us, however fearful. They seem to alleviate this compressed world, a world that now seems, not only too knowing and too proud of its knowing, but increasingly ‘globalised’ and over-mapped, becoming an all-too-familiar place where once inaccessible mountain peaks are reduced to tourist destinations, and even local planets are routinely probed for headline-producing media stories.

Another aspect of Hiller’s oeuvre which this show clarifies is her conscious and artful deployment of a history of visual technologies, which she brings into effective play with the ideas for which the respective technologies become appropriate vehicles. The printed postcard, the portable TV, the faux-flame light bulb, digital projection and 35 mm colour slides each inform the particular subject matter of a certain work. They also remind us that technology continues to be its own kind of mysterious ‘magic’. Early experiments in electricity come to mind, events which became spectacular, quasi-alchemical and pyrotechnic demonstrations within scientific institutions, at about the same time that Mary Shelley wrote her notorious and enduring novel Frankenstein’s Monster. In the hands of an artist like Hiller, the history of visual technologies provides us with a path into a past where and when science and superstition, the rational and the irrational, intertwine, enfold and inform each other in complex and productive ways.

Meanwhile, by utilising the crash of waves on Victorian promenades, telekinetic suburban kids, and ubiquitous UFOs as her research material, Hiller upholds what might be called the obverse or ‘dark matter’ of hubristic modern knowledge. She may efficiently taxonomise the uncanny and sublime for us, but only in order to create an interface between that which we do and do not understand. In this way she maintains – often in a subtly understated way – what is perhaps the most ancient tradition, role, and purpose of the artist in and for any society.

Lisson Gallery Link


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