The Tallahassee-born artist tackled such esoteric subjects as alien abduction, fairy rings and the soundwaves made by dying languages
Alex Needham – the Guardian
The artist Susan Hiller – whose work tackled such esoteric subjects as automatic writing, near-death experiences and alien abduction – has died aged 78 after a short illness. The news was confirmed by Matt’s Gallery in London, who described her as “a unique and idiosyncratic voice, a great artist, writer, thinker and mentor to many”.
Using media including film, video and sculpture, together with her background as an anthropologist, Hiller’s work delved into the frontiers of consciousness, in investigations she described as “paraconceptual”. Her 2000 installation Witness, first shown in an abandoned chapel in London, comprised dozens of speakers hanging from the ceiling in a darkened room, each relating a different experience of alien abduction. The Last Silent Move, from 2007, displayed the soundwaves created by dead or dying languages.
Hiller’s intention was to research and gather together the “meaningless, the banal, the unknown, even the weird and ridiculous”, giving expression to things regarded as occult and arcane, and questioning the boundaries that normally keeps them in the shadows of the subconscious. Reviewing her 2011 Tate Britain retrospective, the Guardian’s art critic Adrian Searle wrote: “What interests her is that we put our faith in, and that includes art itself.”
A 1974 work, Dream Mapping, recorded the dreams that had visited Hiller and her friends over the courses of three midsummer nights as they slept in “fairy rings” in Wiltshire – rings of mushrooms claimed in folklore to be portals to a spirit world, a project she described as “intensely serious and very funny”.
Other work brought to light more sinister hidden information, like The J-Street Project, a film which saw her search for every street sign in Germany bearing the word Juden, meaning Jew.
Much of her work had a political dimension. At Documenta in 2012, Hiller placed five jukeboxes around Kassel, the German town where the art festival took place, loaded with protest songs ranging from Clampdown by the Clash to Fight the Power by Public Enemy. It was another manifestation of Hiller’s fascination with the transmissions of the human voice.
A statement from Lisson Gallery said Hiller would be remembered “not only as a friend, thinker and mentor, but as a powerful and unique voice in contemporary art over the last four decades. Her investigations and revelations of the hidden depths of human imagination found their expression in installation, film, painting, writing, sculpture and photography.”
“I don’t make singularities,” Hiller told the Observer’s Rachel Cooke in 2011. “I work in series. It’s a political commitment. There’s a non-hierarchical principle of organisation in the work. I combine a minimalist aesthetic with a surrealist sensibility.”
Hiller was born in Tallahassee, Florida, in 1940. Initially discouraged from art because of her gender, Hiller studied anthropology, but the Vietnam war and the radicalism of the late 60s grew her to a belief that its practices and politics were suspect.
In 1967 she moved to London, got married, and worked at various jobs, including as a secretary in a Skoda factory, while developing her art. Her first exhibition was in 1973: at the time she was engaged in work including Dedicated to the Unknown Artists, a collection of some 300 postcards of the British coastline that were then categorised and logged – the result somehow capturing an enduring strain of romanticism in the British character.
By the time of her death, Hiller’s work had been collected by institutions including MoMA and Tate, while last year she had major exhibitions in Canada and Italy. She told Cooke: “Artists have a function. We’re part of a conversation. It’s our job to represent and mirror back the values of the culture in a way that people haven’t seen before.”