Wednesday, February 09, 2011

A Frayed Knot: Unpicking Susan Hiller @ Tate Britain

My earliest memory is of a dream. It was the house where we lived when I was three or four years of age. I dreamed I was asleep in the house in the upper room. That I awoke and came downstairs and stood in the living room, although it was hushed and empty. The usual dark green sofa and chairs stood along the usual pale green walls. it was the same old living room as ever, I knew it well, nothing was out of place. And yet it was utterly, certainly, different. Inside its usual appearance the living room was as changed as if it had gone mad. (Anne Carson, 'Every Exit is an Entrance (A Praise of Sleep)', Decreation, 19-20)

Walking around Susan Hiller's retrospective at Tate Britain is like walking around the living room in Anne Carson's dream. Here are the familiar materials of contemporary art: for the film installations, projectors and speakers and benches and headphones arranged in small dark rooms down narrow, dark, baffled corridors; for the rest, hyper-realist photographic reproductions and scientific diagrams and found objects and automatic writing and text panels and vitrines and series and repetitions.

And in the middle of it all, "The Writing on the Wall," a living room with a dark sofa and chairs and a television on which a video of a flickering fire plays. Softly lit in amber, this is a womb-like space. Comforting -- except for the haunting singing and child's voice and readings from distressing news stories playing almost inaudibly from speakers. Think Sarah Palmer moaning on the floor of her living room in Twin Peaks. I sat there with my co-conspirator in all things art for ages; we hugged cushions to our bellies and told stories of disturbed nights, possessed bedrooms and all things unhomely until we freaked ourselves into freezing cold.

It is in this territory of the embodied uncanny -- the gesture, object, ritual, sound just slightly out of place so that it shows the whole system is skewed -- that Hiller works. She is best known for "From the Freud Museum," an installation of vitrines containing Cornell-like boxes (except far more organised, their apparent rationality and decorum underlining their intuitive and disturbing associative illogic) that respond to objects owned by Freud and displayed in his museum in Hampstead. Although it's in Tate Modern's permanent collection, it is exhibited here in a new arrangement.

To get a sense of the variety and precision of her practice, as well as her assiduous engagement with verbal language as part of the texture of visual art, here is a list of the words Hiller uses to describe the composition of each individual box in "From the Freud Museum":
annotated, edited, collected, portrayed, collated, addressed, curated, indexed, extracted, displaced, realised, navigated, filed, diverted, presented, witnessed, classified, explored, represented, designed, compiled, assembled, positioned, practiced, surveyed, manifested, preserved, researched, acquired, included, remaindered, clarified, validated, labelled, processed, registered, analysed, organised, sampled, found, boxed, rated, bound, fitted, located, acquired, extracted, finalised, displayed, situated.
To which I could add, in terms of the effect on the viewer, stimulated, invigorated, dizzied, nauseated, disturbed, and slightly obsessed.

This is the sixth time I've seen "From the Freud Museum" and the second time I've seen a Hiller retrospective, which adds to the uncanny feeling of furniture just out of place. At the Baltic in 2004, "Witness" (a forest of speakers relaying stories of alien abduction) was installed in a bright, white high-ceilinged room that referred architecturally to the minimalist spaceships of our cultural imaginary. At Tate, the piece is installed in a smaller, darkened room with a round light in the centre: we are on earth, at night, perhaps on a highway where the streetlights have failed, and the spaceship is hovering above us. Claustrophobic and distinctly creepy, it was less moving than the Baltic installation, but also less clinical -- more uncanny, as I felt less an identification with the speakers, and more their urgency requiring that I believe.

Also in the dark are the video installations "An Entertainment," a Punch-and-Judy show I find too disturbing to watch (especially to the embarrassed accompaniment of undergrad art student high-pitched giggles), "Magic Lantern," an experiment in etheric voices and optical illusions that is at once blissful and disturbing, and "PSI Girls," a cultural history of telekinetic female film characters that moves from the joyous and chaotic energy of the pre-pubescent Matilda to the violently phallic, attenuated adolescent focus of Sarah Bailey (Robin Tunney) in The Craft.

But the most striking piece was one I hadn't seen/heard before -- the equivalent of that dream where you discover an impossible room in your house (as in The Eleventh Hour in the most recent season of Doctor Who, or the impossible extra spaces in House of Leaves or Coraline). "The Last Silent Movie" (2007) is described in the accompanying text panel as neither silent, nor a movie. Although it is a video and audio installation, I thought it was closer to 'Sisters of Menon,' Hiller's experiment in automatic writing, in the notes to which she writes that
'The Last Silent Movie' recuperates suppressed messages: specifically, archival recordings of last or late speakers of two dozen languages worldwide. These messages are represented by an audio track, a video of white-on-black subtitles translating the recordings into English and naming the languages, and framed oscilloscope traces of the recordings, accompanied by striking phrases translated into English. (You can see and hear samples here.)

Perhaps the most striking phrase is an unbearably sad annotation that appears in the subtitles and on the oscilloscope reading for Kulkhasi, a language no longer spoken in South Africa.
Her language is extinct and her song cannot be translated.
The film offers up an inverse Rosetta stone, a record of languages eradicated by colonialism and globalisation even as we apparently enter a golden age of communication technology. The recordings are at once amazing and salvific and, made by Euro-Western anthropologists and at academic conferences, a trail of destruction, of information without understanding. Hiller is an anthropologist by training, which sharpens the installation's critique, the despairing EuroWestern fantasies of both erasure and recovery at the white man's hand balanced by a respectful sorrow towards necessary strategies of silence:
We learned to hide our language and our secrets
states the oscilloscope from Jiwarli, a language from Western Australia.

It is these oscilloscopes that most closely fulfil Hiller's declaration 30 years' previously in month seven of '10 Months' that 'There is no distinction between "reading" images and reading texts.' This is the third in the month's list of 'Knots and Knows, Some NOT's and NO's about art.' For Hiller, the k/not of signification is negative insofar as it is fixed, positive insofar as it is always available to be undone and rebraided. The first large work in the exhibition, the remains of a performance called 'Work in Progress' (1980) make this plain: over the course of a weekend, Hiller unwove the canvas of one of her abstract paintings into its constituent threads, which she wound into a ball, strung across the wall (in homage to Duchamp's Witch's Cradle, or Deren's deeply uncanny film thereof?), and plaited into a thick braid which is attached to the wall at the Tate with silver nails.

Witchlocked, the tail of a night mare, a fetish, a Victorian love charm, a female craft (the only female invention, according to Freud), a model of human interconnection, a quipu, a Surrealist crucifixion: the braid knots together the sources of Hiller's work across myth, occult, antiquity, anthropology, craft, modernism, deconstruction, and embodiment. In its simplicity and its visual arrest, it sums up my reaction to her work: a frayed.