Friday, 17 May 2013

Telly as a prefiguration of death: on Susan Hiller

Susan Hiller
Matt’s Gallery, London

(on the basis of a review written for The Wire)

Apparently all of us project sometimes our own death, and the best art often makes us realise its inevitability as well as grasping its meaning, and maybe more importantly, the meaning of what precedes it. Contemporary culture is yet playing perfectly on something that Guy Debord in Society of the Spectacle described as Sex/Death conundrum: that is, what happens when capitalist visuality involving a multiplication of spectacular effects, at the same time serves our morbid exposure. Contemporary culture is morbid, surrounds us with macabre images of death everywhere, yet the last thing it does is prepare us for dying as such, suffocating in a cult of fitness and youth. The impressive new work of Susan Hiller, occupying a good part of the gallery room, is precisely addressing this paradox. Hiller is an increasingly canonised contemporary artist, with the recent retrospective in Tate Britain as only one of major events. Channels are a much more chamber event, which in turn makes one focus on one work only. Her works often require (and make at the same time possible) a total immersion within the mulitisensory experience. It's no different this time.

Basing Channels on numerous accounts of so called near-death experiences, she constructs a wall-sculpture of TV sets, blinking to us in uncoordinated series of colours, static and transmission signals, interrupted by the voice recordings sharing the clinical death experiences, their timbre indicated by the pulsating green line, like on a heart rate monitor. To increase the feeling of chaos the voices recorded are in different languages (apart from English, I detected Spanish, French and Chinese), augmenting the blurriness of the undelivered message, until we feel like we want to fall asleep, much like at an airport, surrounded by communiques in unknown languages.

Susan Hiller, Witness, 2000

 Screens do evoke better than anything our subconscious, or better yet - for the post-war man, they simply create it. Staring into the screens all day, maybe this is what we also see when closing our eyes, when dreaming, maybe also when dying (today computers or iPads would be more apt than TVs, perhaps). But it’s this seemingly old fashioned medium that in its function is the closest to hypnosis. And this way, like a patient etherized upon a table, despite the moving aspects of the stories told: concerning car crashes, suicidal attempts, cardiac attacks and other such stories, what we grasp from the installation is the overwhelming, calming noise of the machines. White noise fills the gaps between the otherworldly stories, pulsating, even scary. And despite the beauty of the blinking screens, forming a splendid De Stijl-esque pattern, it makes us close our eyes. Because it seems the real piece can be seen only after shutting your eyes and just listening to it, even asleep.

This way, Hiller gets to the core of the experience of her characters, not because but in spite of them. Deceitfully designed in a manner instantly recognizable for any 20th century art history aficionado, in the style of the “new media” movement of which Hiller, born in 1940 in New York, was a part, it almost nostalgically recalls the works of Fluxus, Woody and Steina Vasulka, Nam June Paik or Yoko Ono. Yet if their art served partly as a critique of the media manipulation and use of information, Hiller uses it in a much more intuitive way, as she demonstrated in her Dream Mapping, the light visual installation Belzhazzar’s Feast, to name only a few and in her lifelong interest in Freud. Commonality of watching TV can serve as some sort of prefiguration of death even; another thing that we definitely have in common. It is not like this work doesn’t have it’s limitations: we're still obviously not even close to feeling what it is like to be nearly dead and the multi-language audio resembles too much a special breed of twee "globalist" artworks telling us "how we are different and yet the same". We aren't and whereas I agree that life is a chaos, it's maybe a different kind of chaos, than can be viewed on telly. Still, Channels remains a bold work, a modern, Ballardian urban lullaby.