Magazine article The Spectator

Out of Place

Magazine article The Spectator

Out of Place

Article excerpt

Susan Hiller

Tate Britain, until 15 May

Georgian Faces: Portrait of a County

Dorset County Museum, until 30 April

Since pluralism in the arts became the order of the day, categories have been bursting at the seams, and the old definitions have lost validity. No longer does visual art denote painting, sculpture, printmaking and drawing, but all manner of extraneous and tangentially linked activities as well. Film, installation and performance are crammed in under the same umbrella as Michelangelo, Durer and Monet, when it's painfully clear they have almost nothing in common with such illustrious forerunners.

In fact, it's extremely doubtful whether much of the stuff that currently parades under the banner of art has any justification for being there. Quite obviously, all film and photographic work should be removed to galleries of film and photography, performance should go back to theatre whence it came, and installation could profitably be confined to empty office buildings, where much of it would blend in nicely. Our great national art museums and galleries should be kept for their original purpose - the preservation and display of art.

These thoughts were uppermost in my mind as I perused the current exhibition (supported by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts) by the American Susan Hiller (born 1940), who trained as an anthropologist before settling in London in the early-1970s. Hiller is an acute, or perhaps indulgently idiosyncratic, social and cultural observer who collects information and presents it to us under the guise of art.

She makes exhibits of chopped-up paintings, photos, postcards, automatic writing and fragmented filmic narratives. She's keen on soundscapes and garbled language. A unifying idea behind these installations seems to be the difficulty (or ease) of communication;

this, interestingly enough, is conveyed with abundant clarity.

Hiller is interested in dreams, memories and supernatural phenomena, so it's no surprise to learn that she has worked closely with the collections at the Freud Museum.

There her work could be seen in a suitable context, as indeed much of it would fit, more or less happily, in the Science or Natural History Museums. But I am not convinced it is appropriate for the Tate. I was quite looking forward to seeing this show, partly because Hiller's accumulations of objects can be interesting, and partly because I remembered with some affection her early video piece 'Belshazzar's Feast/The Writing on the Wall' (1983-4). Sadly, this does not stand the test of time, however elaborate the viewing lounge in which it is presented. The flames for this tale told by the fireside have all the conviction of a lava lamp, and the crackle of burning sounds like someone having a shower.

Even 'Witness' (2000), a potentially beautiful and intriguing installation of 400 dangling speakers murmuring multiple reports of UFO sightings, makes the wrong impression here, and has none of the eerie magic it had when first I encountered it in The Chapel in Golborne Road, W10. In the Tate it descends into banal cacophony. Context, with Hiller's work, is quite clearly of fundamental importance.

So much of this exhibition comes across as sanitised, portentous and oddly dreary.

However, it is quite literary in conception - which encourages commentators to write reams of pretentious verbiage about it - and this tends to reassure the word-loving English. …

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