Susan Hiller: Altered States
At the Polygon Gallery until September 2
In an interview with British curator Matthew Higgs, Susan Hiller states, “I consider that definitions of reality are always provisional…that we are all involved collectively in creating our notions of ‘the real’.” Then she adds, “Anything that is ‘super’ or ‘extra’ is just a way of throwing up a debate around the kind of experiences that people have all the time.” In addition to “super” and “extra”, you can add “para”—as in paranormal—to describe the human experiences that Hiller often investigates in her work. Over her 40-year career, she has made reference to subjects that range from clairvoyance and automatic writing to fairy rings, levitation, and UFO sightings.
Perhaps it would be more precise to say that Hiller’s art examines accounts of such things, posing questions about how the collective human psyche attempts to give form to the mysterious and the supernatural. The photographs, paintings, and video and sound installations in her Polygon Gallery exhibition Altered States, so smartly curated by Helga Pakasaar, indicate Hiller’s curiosity about certain tropes, images, and narratives that recur in our culture and that yet are often considered undeserving of serious examination or contemplation.
Born and educated in the United States and based for more than four decades in London, England, Hiller studied archaeology, linguistics, and anthropology before turning her high-beam intelligence toward art making. Critics and curators have frequently observed that her doctoral degree in anthropology has informed her practice. It is both illuminating and delightful that this influential senior artist, writer, and educator describes herself as a “paraconceptualist”. (“I’m interested in occult powers,” Hiller told the Guardian’s Kate Kellaway, “and if people find this ludicrous that is their problem.”) An example of a practice situated somewhere between conceptualism and the paranormal—between the histories of art and science, too—is G-STS. This work is composed of a grid of small photographs of what appear to be ghostly emanations or spectral presences in everyday settings, images Hiller found on the Internet and reconfigured to resemble Polaroids. (Polaroids suggest both immediacy and, yes, provisionality.) Two of the 16 squares in the photographic grid are blank, perhaps intended to accommodate our own projections, perhaps to symbolize the open-endedness of the phenomena, or perhaps, too, to suggest that the age-old belief in ghosts is an element of that provisional rather than absolute reality that Hiller cites. As is true of all the works in the show, the images are presented without judgment. Hiller insists, again to Higgs, that her art has nothing to do with her own “belief or disbelief in the realm of the supernatural”.
Other works here include backlit negatives of automatic writing, enlarged reproductions of antique postcard imagery of high seas pounding British shores, and paintings on collaged layers of old wallpaper. Most compelling, however, are Hiller’s two immersive video installations with sound.
Psi Girls, a five-screen work from 1999, employs brightly tinted, highly edited two-minute excerpts from the films The Fury, Stalker, The Craft, Firestarter, and Matilda. All were made between 1978 and 1996, all were written and directed by men, and all feature little or teenage girls exercising telekinetic or pyrokinetic abilities. Run without dialogue, Psi Girls is backed by a percussive soundtrack that builds in tempo, reaches a crescendo, then ends abruptly with a loud and static-y eruption of white noise as the screens go blank. The excerpts then rearrange themselves on different screens and the action begins again. It’s a mesmerizing work, drawing us in as it asks, among other questions, why popular culture of the period invested innocent-looking girls and young women with such frightening, even demonic powers. (This, before vampires took over centre stage and scary sexuality.)
Projected onto a single large screen in a darkened room, Resounding (Infrared) is equally mesmerizing throughout its 30-minute running time. Shifting and shimmering colours and patterns are projected onto a single large screen, keyed to a complex and encompassing soundtrack that includes audio transcriptions of Big Bang cosmic radiation, radio waves from Pulsar BO 838-45, unexplained short-wave radio recordings, and, significantly, spoken accounts of UFO sightings by many individuals around the world. Visually and aurally arresting, intellectually probing, Resounding asks us to join Hiller in examining the human longing to understand and give form to the deepest mysteries at the heart of our universe.
Can’t ask much more than that of any artwork anywhere.