Susan Hiller

Widely recognized as a pioneer of installation and multimedia art, Susan Hiller (1940-2019) was one of the most influential artists of her generation. Since first making innovative use of audio and video technology in the early ‘80s, her groundbreaking installations, multi-screen videos and audio works achieved international recognition.

Hiller grew up in and around Cleveland, Ohio until 1952 when her family moved to Coral Gables, Florida. After graduating from Smith College in 1961, she pursued doctoral studies in anthropology at Tulane University in New Orleans with a National Science Foundation fellowship. She conducted fieldwork in Mexico, Guatemala and Belize, but became uncomfortable with academic anthropology's claim to objectivity; she wrote that she did not wish her research to become part of anthropology's “objectification of the contrariness of lived events”. During a lecture on African art, she made the decision to abandon anthropology to become an artist. Leaving the United States, she lived in France, Morocco, Wales and India with her husband, the writer David Coxhead, settling in the late 1960s in London, where she developed an innovative artistic practice across a broad range of media.

Notable early pieces include group participation works such as Street Ceremonies (1973); linguistic explorations such as Enquiries/Inquiries (1973-75) and Dedicated to the Unknown Artists (1972-76); the museological installation Fragments (1976-78); studies of bodily experience such as 10 Months (1977-79); and works using photomat machines, children’s wallpaper, postcards and other commonly disregarded or denigrated aspects of popular culture. She also began her longstanding practice of ‘recycling’ previous pieces, altering their forms by unstitching canvas works or burning them to ashes. From the 1980s onwards, she became widely known for technically ambitious, large-scale multimedia installations – from the synchronized slide projectors of Magic Lantern (1987), to the pioneering 4-wall video projection format devised for An Entertainment (1990); from the forest of dangling loudspeakers in Witness (2000), to the banks of susurrating analogue televisions in Channels (2013).

Influenced by Minimalism, Fluxus, and aspects of Surrealism, as well as feminist thinking and her background in anthropology, Hiller described herself as a ‘second-generation’ conceptual artist: “The first generation of conceptualists made pronouncements about propositions that pre-existed in language; whereas the things I wanted to say were things that I had to painfully bring into language, because they weren’t already codified, spoken of, visualized, realized.”

Each of Hiller’s works is based on specific cultural artifacts from our society that she used as basic materials – aspects of our shared cultural production which are overlooked, ignored, or repressed. Her projects have been described as ‘investigations into the unconscious of our culture’. As she explained: “I’m committed to working with what I call ghosts, that is, with cultural discards, fragments and things that are invisible to most people but intensely important to a few: situations, ideas and experiences that haunt us collectively.”

Amongst Hiller’s most celebrated and seminal works are Monument (1980-81), a meditation on death and heroism based on memorial plaques in a London park; From the Freud Museum (1991-96), a vast vitrine brimming with small, everyday, psychically provocative artefacts; The J. Street Project (2002-05), a chillingly extensive search for every street sign in Germany bearing the word ‘Juden’ (Jew); and the film installation The Last Silent Movie (2007), which movingly choreographs speech recordings of extinct or endangered languages. She achieved particular renown for works exploring the liminality of certain phenomena, such as the practice of automatic writing in Sisters of Menon (1972/79) and Homage to Gertrude Stein (2010); near-death experiences in Clinic (2004) and Channels; and collective experiences of unconscious, subconscious or paranormal activity, in Dream Mapping (1974), Belshazzar’s Feast (1983-84), Dream Screens (1996), Psi Girls (1999) and Witness – an approach which she designated ‘paraconceptual’.

In describing this area of Hiller’s work, art historian Dr. Alexandra Kokoli draws attention to its palpable political subtext: “Hiller’s work unearths the repressed permeability ... of ... unstable yet prized constructs, such as rationality and consciousness, aesthetic value and artistic canons. Hiller refers to this precarious positioning of her oeuvre as 'paraconceptual,' just sideways of conceptualism and neighbouring the paranormal, a devalued site of culture where women and the feminine have been conversely privileged. Most interestingly, in the hybrid field of 'paraconceptualism,' neither conceptualism nor the paranormal are left intact, as ... the prefix 'para-‘ symbolizes the force of contamination through a proximity so great that it threatens the soundness of all boundaries."

Hiller's work features in numerous international private and public collections including the Tate Gallery, London; Museum of Modern Art, New York; National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.; National Portrait Gallery, London; British Museum, London; Centre Pompidou, Paris; National Museum of Norway, Oslo; Ludwig Museum, Cologne; Serralves Museum, Porto; Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney; and the Inhotim Centro de Arte Contemporanea, Brumadinho, Brazil.

The Estate of Susan Hiller is represented by Lisson Gallery.

susan hiller