Susan Hiller: Channels
13 February - 14 April 2013
Review by Beverley Knowles
The words that Susan Hiller’s website quotes when explaining her work are from an essay by art historian Dr Alexandra Kokoli:
‘Hiller’s work unearths the repressed permeability ... of ... unstable yet prized constructs, such as rationality and consciousness, aesthetic value and artistic canons. Hiller refers to this precarious positioning of her oeuvre as ‘paraconceptual,’ just sideways of conceptualism and neighbouring the paranormal, a devalued site of culture where women and the feminine have been conversely privileged. Most interestingly, in the hybrid field of ‘paraconceptualism,’ neither conceptualism nor the paranormal are left intact ... as ... the prefix ‘para’ -symbolizes the force of contamination through a proximity so great that it threatens the soundness of all boundaries.”
Susan Hiller’s latest exhibition at Matt’s Gallery, takes as its ostensible subject the phenomenon of the near-death experience and seems to be questioning the soundness of the boundaries between the states of life and death.
‘Channels’ consists of a bank of television sets, each fitting snugly into one unit of a modular shelving system that reaches from floor to ceiling and across almost the full length of the gallery. Some of the sets have flickering grey screens, others blue, or what might be called ultraviolet, the colour of wave frequencies that are invisible to the human eye and the colour that symbolises the spirit world in certain eastern traditions. Some of the televisions are set up as if electrocardiograms - the machine used to measure the electrical activity of the heart over a period of time - green lines flickering up and down. Some of the sets stand on their sides, others upright, each one seeming to imply a unique, individual human life.
The audio component of the work is an amalgam of accounts, in a number of different languages, from people who have experienced death and then returned to life, people whose experiences of life and death would seem to suggest that our impression of those states as stable and clearly boundaried may be an over-simplified one. Whilst life and death are certainly highly prized as states separate from one another, Hiller seems to be suggesting that that separateness may be more constructed than actual.
Viewers are invited to sit on a long bench opposite the sculptural installation. It is as though we are being offered the opportunity to witness this collection of experiences of the liminal in a liminal space of our own. The viewer is inside the darkened womblike or potentially cosmic space of the gallery, but is not a part of this collective of beings who have direct experience of the liminal space of the near death experience. We are witnesses to the tales being told and as such we are guardians of a potential shift in perception away from fixed and towards flux.
With characteristic poeticism Hiller has loosened the tight grip of our fists around the absolute when it comes to notions of life and death, but she has not presented us with an alternative. She has left us, as it were, constructless.