Tate Britain

Susan Hiller (b.1940) is a conceptual artist who pioneered multi-media installation with video projections and sound. She’s obsessed with the unconscious and paranormal fringes of everyday experience, which she probes for meaning and knowledge. This show brings together works spanning the forty years since she arrived in England from the US, disenchanted with academic anthropology.

The appearance of anthropology is present throughout. The first work on entering is “Dedicated to the Unknown Artists” (1972-6), a collection of “rough seas” postcards depicting British seaside locations, carefully mounted and displayed. Narrow in range of colour, size and period, the postcards are categorised by “Linguistic” and “Visual” traits. What meanings emerge if this data is plotted and traced? Nothing clear: the “unknown artists” remain unknown, only the array of their similarities and differences are called to attention, which are in fact the artist’s peculiar interest. That may indeed be the point. Like an earlier work, “Enquiries/Inquiries” (1973-5), we see information presented such that we expect to find some (scientific) authority, but then find it represents only a particular viewpoint and we start to wonder about what lends the authority, or seeks it. But if the presentation is a diversion, then I’m left wondering about the sincerity of the “dedication”.

Since about 1980 Hiller has de- and re-composed her own work, starting with paintings cut into squares and sewn into “blocks”. Do we find some residue in these blocks or the ashes of paintings, bottled and labelled, or threads of unwoven canvas trailing from the wall and ceiling? I remind myself here that many of these works emerged from performances, and it is perhaps hard to recapture the tension evoked at the time, with Hiller herself doing the unpicking in an atmosphere of experiment. Without that tension, the materials and objects have to do the work alone, but they sometimes lack the aura and emotional density such as might be found in work of a similar vein by Joseph Beuys or Eva Hesse.

An exception is the homage to Joseph Beuys (2008), a felt-lined cabinet full of vials and medicine bottles dug up by Hiller from London soil and containing “holy water” from wells and springs all over England and elsewhere.

An underlying theme is the notion of our minds as the creators of the world we perceive. Goethe was interested in the “after-image” that we “see” when the object of our gaze disappears. Hiller constructs a school-room demonstration of this in “Magic Lantern” (1987), with bright projections of coloured discs to blink at in the darkness. This is always engaging and a moment when you might enter the reverie in which Hiller’s work can have the most impact. (This tuning-in happens again as we encounter the twittering wires of “Witness” (2000), but it’s elusive. With “Belshazzar’s Feast, The Writing On Your Wall” (1983-4), for example, you take your seat in front of the telly, but it’s not easy to throw off the feel of being in IKEA rather than in the intimate setting of one’s own home).

The sound accompaniment in “Magic Lantern” purports to be recordings from an empty, sound-proofed room and amid the grating background noise there are voices of dead people. It is a bit spooky! And the question is being put: “What is coming from you (the listener) when you hear that?” The dead voices are “translated” by a paranormal investigator before each excerpt is played, so you are primed to hear what you’re told is there. The same observer/creator ambiguity occurs in “An Entertainment” (1990), when the hideous cackle of a 10ft tall Mr Punch (a video projection) is “translated” before the moving image is played and replayed. The distorted close-up images and over-dubbing (possibly an excerpt from Laughton’s “Night of the Hunter”) are frightening and give an impression of how this “entertainment” might appear to a toddler.

I sometimes found too much attention drawn to Hiller’s own experience, interrupting a neutral reverie, so that spookiness can turn into babble. “Monument” (1981) brings forgotten lives into the present. Forty-one plaques from a neglected London monument tell of random heroism 100 years ago. Having taken these in, one takes a seat to hear (via an old tape recorder) Hiller’s own “disembodied” voice insisting, roughly, that these 41 dead are living: a woman “in body” for 17 years persists “as a representation” for 92 years, etc. The layering was perhaps too subtle for this participant. For example, what is added by knowing there is one plaque for each year of the artist’s life?

“The J Street Project” is the last work encountered (2002-5). It records in video (shown here) and stills otherwise anonymous streets in Germany that have the word “Jew” in their name. There’s some discomfort simply being reminded that streets should be so named (I know of a “Jews’ Walk” in south London) and the forgetting is what Hiller captures. Apparently the project to visit and record these 300 odd streets was begun with no pre-conceived notion as to what the collection would reveal. The result, however, is a quite powerful memorial to the absent Jewish people and the chilliness of the room in which the films are projected enhances this impact.

The effort of gathering and quest is evident in all of these works, but the results are disparate. At their best they are spooky and even alarming. Otherwise they are incidental and mildly confusing. I think you have to be in the right frame of mind to really enjoy it, so pick your moment.