Matt’s Gallery, London
13 February–14 April 2013
by Dr JANET McKENZIE
The colours of the many screens create a room-size minimal pattern with intense light; a quiet crackle is audible as the viewer enters the room. Viewers are urged to stay in the room for at least 15 minutes by Robin Klassnik, who has run Matts Gallery for 40 years. Matt’s Gallery ‘exists to support artists with the space and time to take risks, test and who has shown four exhibitions by Hiller. He prepares the visiting school group, urging them to ask questions: “because you will have questions.”
As the gallery explains: “Hiller uses audio accounts in many languages from people who believe they have experienced death as the raw materials for her new work. Vivid stories of those who believe they have died and returned to tell the tale constitute a remarkable contemporary archive, whether the accounts are regarded as metaphors, misconceptions, (sic) myths, delusions or truth. Hiller's interest in this subject matter is neither the advocacy nor the dispute of the anecdotal, traditional or scientific evidence for or against the 'reality' of NDEs, but in considering them as social facts, widely spread in time and space, as appropriate for the subject matter of art as Cézanne's apples or Schwitters' bus tickets. Channels is an artwork designed to engage us in a consideration of some of the gaps and contradictions in our modern belief system and collective cultural life. It is not intended as a religious consolation nor 'new age' fantasy, but rather as a de-stabilising aesthetic device opening to the un-representable.”1
Hiller has a special relationship to Matt's Gallery where her exhibition in 1980 was one of the gallery's first; in 1991 Matt's Gallery commissioned the video installation An Entertainment (the first synchronised multi-screen video work made in Europe); and in 2008, the first London showing of The Last Silent Movie took place at the Gallery.2
The low-key electronic buzz in Channels, gives way to voices. One voice at a time, interspersed with the soft chatter of an A&E department, (that eerie juxtaposition of fear on the part of patient and relatives, and the seemingly mundane procedures of medics). The voice tells of his or her “near death experience”. Other television sets show ECG patient monitoring. Using an oscilloscope (a sonic measuring device which translates sound into line) the artist produces electronic patterns, which form a disconcerting theatre of sensation. The visualization of the sounds of language has an empowering effect. It can be viewed as a physical presentation of voices that have been overlooked, for the lines on hospital monitors, sound waves or digital graphs, denote accuracy, a scientific and therefore a “truthful” interpretation of data.
A sense of apprehension experienced when viewing Channels, can possibly be explained by the fact that it is a quintessentially human work of art without visible human images. The lack of imagery enables the viewer’s projection onto the space, although that can in itself, be unexpectedly emotional. The artist describes the “intimate contact” the viewer has with the speakers, “because sound touches the ear in contrast to something that we see does not touch our eyes. It sets up a close relationship with those speaking”. Susan Hiller does not seek to create didactic images about death, rather to create “a situation for audiences where an audience has a sense of connection with other people”.3 Channels can be better understood in the context of Hiller’s last project at Matt’s Gallery, The Last Silent Movie.
Susan Hiller’s work addresses the unknown, more specifically, the areas of knowledge that have been described as beneath recognition, or outside of normal experience. Research methods and materials chosen, in the case of Channels, television sets and ECG monitors, play an important role in eliciting a response in the viewer, as well as presenting the research material gathered. The use of everyday objects with associations or implied states of mind has been employed by a number of artists, following the canonical early conceptual work of Marcel Duchamp and later Joseph Beuys. Hiller harnesses the powerful medium of television and presents the dichotomy between the calm voices in matter of fact tones describing near death experiences, implying tragic loss but also establishing a continuity (the continuous presence of modern media such as a 24 hour rolling news programme); medical screens measuring life evoke a sense that life goes on. In fact the effect of Channels (due to this being my first physical experience of Hiller’s work perhaps?) inside the closed gallery door was almost eerie and quietly overbearing. Channels addresses the experiences of those who have been pronounced dead, and brought back to life. The testimonies question established notions of what death entails, and interestingly each of the narratives was calm and candid, in contrast to the fearful images, that our society as a whole associates with death.
Susan Hiller was born in the United States, and studied Archaeology and Anthropology at Colombia University and then Tulanes, New Orleans. The shift in practice from academic researcher, to that of a woman artist living in the UK from 1973, where she has established a remarkable career based on methods of: collaborating, collecting, archiving, and analyzing, culminated in a major retrospective: Susan Hiller at Tate Britain, London (2011). She has had a strong influence on younger artists here, through teaching and particularly through her projects that challenge the underlying premises of our intellectual heritage: a white, male, English speaking, cultural hegemony. Experiencing Hiller’s work at first-hand is essential, however much one can recognize the importance of her work in cerebral terms. The use of materials is also of great importance, establishing both a unique tenor and resonance in her works.
Language is central to all of her projects. Channels relates to Hiller’s post colonial project, The Last Silent Movie, where she uses a black television screen (after 20 minutes of silence), to present an audio version of extinct languages, sourced from sound libraries in linguistic or anthropology schools around the world. Her appropriation of anthropological research (the archive material) is used by Hiller to scrutinize the motives of nineteenth and twentieth century western attitudes to other cultures. In revealing biases inherent in cultural research, Susan Hiller explores the ramifications of endangered languages and asks whether dead languages can be given a new voice. The influence of Hiller’s desire to assert the validity and importance of peripheral cultures can be found too, in the work of Arthur Watson, President of the Royal Scottish Academy. An admirer of Hiller’s work, Singing for Dead Singers,4 (2000) a conceptual performance where Watson, an accomplished voice, sings ballads in Scots dialects that do not exist in written form, to represent oral traditions that would otherwise die out.
In The Last Silent Movie, layered voices speak in what are now dead languages from archive recordings, so that they emit the sound of a ‘conversation without meaning’ for the individuals who have no voice, an allusion to globalization, and the dehumanizing potential of homogeneity in culture in the present. Hiller has incorporated the use of text in this and other works. The very methodology of anthropological research is drawn into question by Susan Hiller - the scholarship she brings to bear and her inventive visual language- endow her work with a rare authority and originality.
She questions the loss of meaning through translation (everything nowadays into English) and the loss of nuance and therefore identity and self worth, as a consequence of cultural disintegration. The sensitivity with which Hiller uses her research materials enable the audience to comprehend the actually impoverished condition of contemporary global culture, and the danger of ignoring alternative perceptions of life. Over the past 25 years in particular, white Australians have been forced to recognize the deplorable actions of their forebears against the Indigenous population, and the extreme cultural condescension used to impose European methods of living in an alien environment. In the process they have begun to understand the unique and multifarious culture of the Indigenous populations, including complex language systems, now extinct.
The extinction of language becomes the extinction of other realities5, of other ways of living and experiencing the world. “Each extinction marks the termination of a site from which to critically view the world as constructed by English.” In The Last Silent Movie Hiller uses sub-titles, but she says it is soon clear that they are not adequate. In any case, it is the unique “rhythms, textures, speech, sound, the repertoire of different forms of vocalization and sound, some of which we cannot make”.6 Antony Gormley, who also studied anthropology before becoming an artist, observed in Arnhem Land in Northern Australia, the implied meaning in the voices of Aborigines there: “Some of the most sophisticated intuitions are resistant to deductive, analytical reasoning. As city-based people, much as it is valuable, we will never fully understand it. You just have to sit under a tree in the Kimberley Ranges or listen to the locals talking like the rustling of leaves, you feel there in the quiet, almost lost but in a wonderful way. I wish I could speak one of the many languages of that continent. There is something incredibly touching about Aboriginal diction that does not seem to be about the forming of subject/predicate relations, but about something else – perhaps more about being than doing.”7
Hiller however, recognises the paucity of historical anthropological methodology, for by the time a language is defined as in danger of extinction, and the tapes created and archived, (another form of silencing) the action required to stop living people facing such a fate, is ignored. The death of language is, like marginalized aspects of society, “the death of an entire worldview.”8 Hiller’s art practice seeks to draw attention to such lost aspects of culture, and to address the erasure of experience deemed less valuable within Western hegemony. It is difficult to imagine such a profound or varied career, since the 1970s without the Women’s Movement, which itself challenged power structures, and sought to redress the subjugation of female experience. Where the feminist artists then used consciousness-raising to empower women to question their position, so too does Susan Hiller endow her art practice with the ability to inform: “If people don’t think there are possibilities other than those that were laid down by official culture, it leads to despair, a lack of progressive development then occurs in societies.”9 Hiller does not “editorialise“, as she puts it, rather she presents material and allows the audience to fill the space she provides. This is a generous act, enabling the participation of the audience, in an essentially non-elitist and empowering role.