How ‘Paraconceptual’ Artist Susan Hiller (1940-2019) Probed the Fringes of the Familiar

Hiller’s discomfort towards dominant narratives made her look at all sorts of suppressed subjects, from outlaw cowgirls to protest songs

BY Barbara Casavecchia in Profiles | 31 JAN 19

Last week, after reading the interview ‘Have Aliens Found Us?’ between the writer Isaac Chotiner and Avi Loeb, the chair of Harvard’s astronomy department, in The New Yorker, I thought about Susan. She would have liked it, I imagined, because it discusses the fact that all the images of Oumuamua – an interstellar and possibly alien object detected in our Solar System – that have circulated online are artists’ illustrations. She also would have enjoyed lines like ‘all of these are facts. I am following the facts’ and ‘we tend to see things that we can’t know or understand through the prism of things we have heard about since we were kids’. Thanks to contemporary physics, it’s now common knowledge that the universe is mainly composed of ‘dark matter’, a substance we have not seen and know nothing about.

The visibility of what lies at the fringes of the familiar was at the core of Susan Hiller’s practice. She dealt with UFO sightings, apparitions, ghosts, dreams, sonic echoes, magic and the uncanny. Her collection of texts was aptly titled The Provisional Texture of Reality (2008), because she used as artistic matter our cultural representations and artefacts, i.e. how reality is interpreted in relation to the political, historical, scientific and technological context of its times. Annoyed by the idea of making work ‘that illustrates what’s already known and in place’, she was interested instead in ‘how gaps and silences contribute to our understanding’. 

Susan Hiller, Channels, 2013, video installation with sound. Courtesy: the artist and Lisson Gallery, London; photograph: OH DANCY 

In her video Illuminazioni (Illuminations, 2018), which was projected on a huge screen, both images and words lack definition. The inability of a group of witnesses to explain their encounters with unidentified luminous globes is matched by a blurry flow in shades of turquoise blue, a colour at the edge of the visible spectrum. The soundtrack mixes human voices with sounds produced by scientific instruments used to ‘translate’ cosmic light that has travelled through space and time since the Big Bang. Occasionally, the sounds of Morse code from a lucid dreamer tapping out ‘I am dreaming, I am dreaming’ can be heard. I spent weeks translating into Italian and editing the stories of the witnesses, in preparation for Susan’s exhibition ‘Social Facts’, that I curated at OGR in Turin last spring. Her work haunted me then and I still struggle with suspending my disbelief. When I invited her to make a show, I said that I couldn’t think of a better artist to interpret the zeitgeist of an age of ‘alternative facts’. She laughed, liked the idea and agreed to do it. It was tough, feverish and demanding to work with her, but also stimulating, exciting and profound. I learned so much from her close attention to detail and the importance she placed on the accessibility of communicating her ideas. As a result of our conversations and several, scrupulous rounds of editing this is how she agreed to be introduced to the visitors: 

‘Susan Hiller (b. 1940, American-born, London-based since the 1960s) is one of the most influential artists of her generation. With her pioneering installations, multi-screen videos, sound works, ‘group investigations’, photographs, sculptures, online interactive projects, writings and lectures, spanning nearly five decades, Hiller devotes her attention to what is ‘other’, out of sight, unimportant, and often relegated to the margins of the mainstream. The artist says: “What I’m interested in is invisible, in a strange way. I don’t mean that it is literally invisible. I just mean that nobody pays any attention to it, and therefore they don’t see it.”’

Susan Hiller, The Last Silent Movie, 2007. Courtesy: Lisson Gallery, London; photograph: Hendrik Zeitler

Prior to her decision to work as an artist, Susan studied cinema, archaeology, linguistics and anthropology, although she didn’t like being described as an anthropologist. After moving to the UK, she began working in the field of conceptual art and actively participated in the feminist movement. The first work by her I ever came across was Women, Language and Truth, a text titled after a talk she had delivered in 1977 at a panel discussion on ‘Women’s Practice in Art’, organised by the Women’s free Art Alliance at A.I.E Gallery, London. I found myself drawn to its first and last page, over and over again: 

Each of us is simultaneously the beneficiary of our cultural heritage and the victim of it (…) for me, there is no possibility of adopting a theoretical stance (…), based on the language of an(y) other. It is always a question of following a thought, first incoherent, later more expressible, through its process of emergence out of and during the inconsistencies of experience, into language’. (…)

‘1) all my ideas begin as part of the necessity for truth-telling in art practice; 2) not being entirely at home in the ordinary, dominant language makes this less than simple. At the same time, it gives me a wide range of options; 

3) the greatest self-betrayal for an artist is not indulging in anarchic or careless opposition to rational politics, but in fashioning acceptable SEMBLANCES of truth. 

Susan Hiller, Rough Moonlit Nights, 2015, archival dry prints. Courtesy: Susan Hiller and Lisson Gallery, London; photograph: Jack Hems 

Susan’s discomfort towards dominant narratives made her look at all sorts of suppressed or ignored subjects, from outlaw cowgirls to protest songs. With the monumental video installation Psi Girls (1999), she paid homage to Girl Power while deconstructing the clichés of horror films and TV – think of Stranger Things and the character of 11, if you wish – in representing girls as ‘dangerous’ and ‘witchy’ at precisely the moment when their sexuality starts to emerge. In sequences from five films by Brian De Palma, Danny DeVito, Andrew Fleming, Mark L. Lester and Andrei Tarkovsky, saturated in primary colours and projected on a loop, we see the girls use telekinesis to control and move objects, as well as to start fires. 

‘Language, gender, desire and death are the immodest content of Susan Hiller’s art’, wrote Lucy Lippard in her preface to Thinking About Art (1996). And indeed, Susan tackled the enigma of death in a number of works. Some, like the installations Clinic (2004) and Channels (2013) are polyphonic compositions, where hundreds of voices induce a collective meditation on what we describe – and experience – as ‘the end’. The Last Silent Movie (2007/8) gives voice to extinct and endangered languages and cultures. Others, like the three digital animations From Here to Eternity (2008) – where a blue, green or red dot moves, like a Pac-man, inside a black and white maze (inspired by mandalas and the floor designs of Gothic cathedrals) – evoke the spiritual journey of humans with a healthy dose of Zen irony. A personal favourite is a minuscule artist book from 2008, titled Auras on one side, and, once flipped over, Levitations on the other, where a series of auratic, candy-coloured, digitally altered selfies meet halfway with a series of visibly photoshopped levitating bodies (all taken from the internet), in order to pay a tongue-in-cheekish homage to, respectively, Marcel Duchamp and Yves Klein. ‘I’d like to suggest that most of the sometimes-enchanting, sometimes-ludicrous (…) images I have collected were not made to mislead viewers’, Susan wrote in the introduction. ‘Rather, on a more profound level, I think these pictures are expressing a collective aspiration for a revised version of human being – poetic, imaginative and powerful, with as-yet unrealized abilities and potentials.’ So, farewell terrestrial gravity, and safe interstellar travels, Susan Hiller.

Main image: Susan Hiller, After Duchamp, 2016 - 2017, 50 colour archival dry prints. Courtesy: Lisson Gallery, London; photograph: Jack Hems

Barbara Casavecchia is a contributing editor of frieze and a freelance writer and curator based in Milan, Italy.