At the time of Susan Hiller’s death earlier this year, she was working on a new show for Matt’s Gallery, the tiny Bermondsey gallery with which she had a decades-long working relationship. The resulting show has come about in collaboration with Hiller’s son, Gabriel Coxhead.
With three pieces on display, it’s an extremely tight manifestation of these ideas. The focal point of the exhibition is ‘Running on Empty’ (2017), a film which documents the attempted revival of a nearly-defunct TV set discovered years earlier for a massive multimedia installation, ‘Channels’ (2013), also at Matt’s Gallery.
The film shows Hiller and Matt’s director Robin Klassnik, or rather, we see the TV set and their voices originate somewhere off-screen. They are trying to make something re-appear. Hiller’s warm North America accent and Klassnik’s British RP rub up against each other in a way that feels appealingly cinematic. They tap through channels, smack the side of the box – trying to make an unexplained on-screen message reappear – the clunkiness a reminder of the tactility of analogue communications.
Every incidental statement takes on extra significance through the lenses of time. Hiller and Klassnik talk about “the phenomenon” and “the TV at the end of its life”. Finally, when the deadening of chatter signals that the two speakers have left the room, the message finally appears on-screen. “Who wants to live forever”. It is genuinely eerie, in the way that found-footage horror films can be. In the way that, through the acts of preserving and re-broadcasting the footage, we as viewers know there’s something worth watching for.
Other pieces on display are a hand-carved ghost puppet ‘Untitled’ (2000-2010) and a canvas of three hand prints ‘Red Proofs’ (1969). The prints, like the TV footage, deteriorate in quality as they are repeated. The hand-made puppet, something of a personal talisman for Hiller, might again be about accrued or accumulated meaning in the face of some personal deterioration.
Some of this is detailed in a new essay, commissioned by the gallery to accompany the show, written by Coxhead. It is tightly written and generous without being sentimental. The show is operating in a similar way, gesturing towards what is lost – but also what is preserved – across the distances of memory, of time and of death.