The other side of Susan Hiller at Tate Britain

By Mark Sheerin | 04 February 2011
A photo of a young woman with thin blonde hair wearing a black top standing in a neon blue installation of strands of light
Witness (2000) (Tate Britain Installation shot). Audio-sculpture, dimensions variable. Original commission Artangel© Susan Hiller, Tate Photography/Sam Drake
Exhibition: Susan Hiller, Tate Britain, London, until May 15 2011

Ghosts, aliens and psychokinesis are among the supernatural themes explored throughout the 40-year career of Susan Hiller. These are matters usually ignored by mainstream culture. Now they take pride of place at Tate Britain.

The ghosts manifest themselves during slide projection piece Magic Lantern. This deals with sound recordings which may or may not be from the afterlife, known as Electronic Voice Phenomena. As visitors listen to these unexplained tapes, coloured discs fade in and out on the screen. These leave an after-image – so why, the piece appears to ask, shouldn't the human voice?

Aliens crop up in two works, Balshazzar's Feast and Witness. The former recreates a living room to augment a video piece which explores reports from the 1980s in which people saw aliens on their TV sets after closedown. The second piece, a technical tour de force, has installed a darkened space with a jungle of hanging speakers. These relay a babel of eye witness accounts of UFO sightings.

Meanwhile, psychokinesis makes a bold appearance on a multi channel video installation called Psi Girls. Clips from five Hollywood movies run alongside one another to the soundtrack of drumming. Each one shows a young woman with the power to move objects with her mind. As the footage and the music reach a crescendo, both are interrupted with a burst of static, like some psychic sabotage has taken place.

By focussing on marginal experience and beliefs, Hiller creates a problem for her audience. There is no suggestion of what we should do with these subcultural presentations. There is an ambivalence about the work which will surely frustrate skeptics and believers alike. Although one clear take out is that believers – in levitation, holy water, the spiritual side of automatic writing – cannot really be ignored.

The results are more satisfying when Hiller tackles everyday realities. The most powerful piece in her show may be a treatment of the entirely observable phenomenon of Punch and Judy. These characters surround you in a darkened room and beat one another to a soundtrack of warped field recordings. The camera work is akin to a stylised true crime documentary. You may be horrified by what these children's entertainers get up to.

Tate Britain have pulled out all the stops with a plush, technically ambitious retrospective for a multimedia pioneer. The recreated living room, for example, is a bit too cosy – I notice one visitor asleep – but nevertheless the show brings home plenty which usually gets pushed to one side.
  • Open 10am-6pm. Admission £10/£8.50.
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