The Spirit of the Experiment
Proposals and Demonstrations – Susan Hiller – Timothy Taylor Gallery 30th October 20th December 2008
Review by Nancy Roth
The exhibition steers visitors along a kind of border between conscious and unconscious communication. It focuses on Hiller’s very recent work in video and photography. But a careful selection of earlier work related to the theme extends the context, not only framing such borderlands of consciousness as one of Hiller’s longest, strongest interests, but also to let us see how a particular artist has used various media, over time, in connection with a specific concept. The earliest work here relies primarily on drawing and writing, the most recent on video. But photography, because it appears in both, offers as a point of reference, a way of thinking through what has and has not changed in Hiller’s thinking and consequently in her way of engaging us.
The exhibition proposes, broadly, that people communicate with one another unconsciously, that we share hopes or dreams that exceed our physical limitations (levitation being an especially photogenic example), that communication technologies are capable of mediating messages beyond the conventionally recognised boundaries of time and space. Hiller’s work has never overtly promoted or defended these proposals, and so has never fallen into a sterile polarity between believers and sceptics or the related one between science and art. It approaches from other angles, avoiding sharp edges and polemics. And it is in these changing angles that her changes in position – or perhaps changes of heart – appear.
Most of the work in this exhibition presents evidence. We viewers are left to evaluate its significance. The earliest work on view, for example, Dream Mapping from 1974, consists of artefacts – pages of writing and drawing, arranged in open books and displayed in acrylic boxes. These are records of a three-day camping trip with friends, in which all participants recorded their dreams. The project was designed to examine the effect of physical proximity on the symbolic or narrative diversity of dreams. We don’t know the results.
Surely it would take a long time and someone other than a gallery-goer to sift through the evidence, set up a framework for evaluation, draw the conclusions – we have access only to the open pages, and no way of touching or turning the pages. For us the value must rest on our willingness to credit writing and drawing as effective containers and purveyors of dreams, and perhaps an attraction to the idea of such a study, our capacity to imaginatively enter into the spirit of such an experiment. A later work From India to Planet Mars (1997-2004), a study of automatic writing, similarly presents archival material as evidence, although this time photographically reproduced, enlarged and screen-printed. What is lost in transition – the weight and texture of paper, the quality of the lines, thickness of ink, scale – are the things that cannot be reproduced photographically, and that would seem crucial to achieving the sense of wonder that anyone believing herself in the presence of automatic writing must feel.
The same issue might seem to arise with two 2008 photographic works. Homage to Marcel Duchamp is a large grid of portrait-like photographs ostensibly registering the subjects’ auras, Homage to Yves Klein a collection of photographic evidence of levitation. They, too, depend at one level on reproduced evidence for a ‘truth effect’ that could only ever be achieved with the genuine, archival article. But the marvellous is different here. These works no longer insist, ‘This happened.’ Instead, they assemble a diversity of evidence converging on an intractable hope; a ‘will to levitate’ that seems unbounded by geography or time, inspiring a luxuriant mix of photographic ‘evidence.’
The new video work takes a markedly different approach. No longer presenting evidence of any kind, it engages, or manipulates, the visitor’s consciousness in real time, proposing almost in passing that such manipulation is a simple, common practice. Magic Lantern 1987, introduces this new address as if by way of preparing the audience for the archival evidence. It combines slow, hypnotic – although ultimately very simple – movements of coloured light with reproductions of sound recordings made between 1965 and 1974 by Dr. Konstantin Raudive, ostensibly registering voices of the dead. By 2008, in the short series of four video works, From Here to Eternity the focus has shifted away from evidence and towards an idea, the ancient idea of a labyrinth, and the potential of video to convey such an idea, rich in historical resonance, to a contemporary audience in a real gallery space now.
Perhaps it is not coincidental that the work I found the most provocative, Triptych, 2001/2008, spans the gap between early and late. It consists of three vertical strips of wall-mounted lights, each with a slide – 2½ x 2½" photographic transparencies – mounted in front of it. The strips are about human scale, five or six feet long and run from a few feet above eye level to a few feet below, all recalling the formal features of a tripartite altarpiece. The slide images immediately register as those of Tarot cards, but the recognizably ancient ones – such as the ‘death’ skeleton with scythe – are interspersed with an elegant gentleman, perhaps from the 1940s, a lobster, a watermelon, images that compromise one’s faith in their ancientness, that propose a contemporary viewer’s capacity to recall, or better, to assign meaning to such signs in the present.Triptych engages concepts of regularity within a context of randomness and chance, the rules of a game. It proposes ancient structures of sensibility as active, accessible in the present. But perhaps most significantly, it projects still photographs on to us who are moving before them in the present. It presents photography, that is, not as a technology for generating evidence of the past, but as projection, a means of harnessing, shaping light – energy – to take effect in the present and future.