Art

From Aura Photos to Automatic Writing, an Artist Plumbs the Abyss Between Belief and Disbelief

Susan Hiller’s exhibition at Lisson Gallery approaches the weird and the unusual with illuminating, liberating aplomb.

Susan Hiller: Paraconceptual, installation view (all photos by Jack Helms, © Susan Hiller, courtesy Lisson Gallery, unless noted)

Is Susan Hiller a ghost-believing, holy water–packing, aura-gathering, ESP adherent?

No. But she does get asked that a lot. Call it belief by association. And Hiller is regularly associated with a whole host of supernatural phenomena: UFO abductions and encounters, automatism, levitation, near-death experiences. Over the past four decades, the inimitable conceptual artist has often made these uncanny experiences the subjects of a bracingly astute and acutely catholic practice, an approach she calls “paraconceptual.” Presenting a chewy slice of her work in this left field, Susan Hiller: Paraconceptual, Lisson Gallery helpfully offers a definition for the unacquainted, describing Hiller’s work as “just sideways of conceptualism and neighboring the paranormal.” In other words, paraconceptual has both nothing and very much to do with the paranormal.

To be clear, paraconceptual is not a portmanteau of “paranormal” and “conceptual”; at the same time, let the record affirm that, in the paranormal, Hiller has chosen a similar sounding and felicitous accomplice. Interested in what goes unseen and unheard — what is there in our ordinary, normal lives, but ignored and scorned — Hiller approaches the weird and the unusual with illuminating, liberating aplomb. In her hands, the paranormal is a commonplace, readymade, fantastic abyss to gaze into. But like Duchamp’s “Fountain,” her paranormal works hum with questions and contradictions, though her art tends to be more serious than the Frenchman’s puckish provocations. “I consider that definitions of reality are always provisional … anything which is ‘super’ or ‘extra’ is just a way of throwing up a debate around the kind of experiences that people have all the time,” she has said. For her, either side of the Mulder/Scully, irrational/rational paradigm is a dead end, a trap. Far more interesting is the liminal space between.

The works on display in Paraconceptual are a balancing act of charged curiosity and engineered uncertainty. Hiller tweaks her chosen images, throwing a question mark on them, turning them from objects of ridicule, suspicion, or simple fascination into something more conditional, open, and shadowy.

Susan Hiller: Paraconceptual, installation view

Take, for example, automatism. Writing without conscious thought (what a lovely idea!), automatism or auto-writing has long been one of Hiller’s interests. “Get William” and “So Don’t Let It Frighten,” both from the ’70s, show Hiller trying her hand at this task. The pieces are positioned almost shyly, above eye level, so you’ll have to crane a little to get a good look at them. Much more bold and remarkable is “From India to Planet Mars” (1997–2017). Shining out from a series of lightboxes, these striking black negative photographs, culled from examples of automatic writing and drawing from around the world, look like ghostly messages appearing from the dark. There’s an eeriness to their childlike, sinuous script. Some messages cascade down the page, flowing unbroken in a looping line from left to right, down a space, continuing on from right to left, on and on, dropping down the page until the stream of thought ends.

Typed translations are provided for all the auto-writing pieces (especially helpful for the lightbox that features a text written in the “language of light,” but not so much for the unknown “moon language”). But these notes will likely stir more uncertainty. One image from “From India to Planet Mars” provoked a question in me: Is unrestrained communication actually possible?

Susan Hiller, “From India to Planet Mars” (1997–2017) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Marianne
……[unintelligible writing] help
……….
………[unintelligible writing]
I CANNOT UNDERSTAND
TELL ME MORE

Even in the paranormal, even without thinking, we can’t seem to escape ourselves and our limits.

For those seeking further reading on automatism, “Homage to Gertrude Stein: Lucidity & Intuition” (2011), a squat little bookshelf stuffed with texts on the subject, offers a sly reference library–cum–defensive beachhead on the subject. (Stein studied automatism in her college years, but she later distanced herself from the practice for fear of being labeled and dismissed as an oddball.)

Showing Hiller in a more colorful light is the series After Duchamp (2016–17) and three other large photographs in this vein,  “Homage to Marcel Duchamp: Aura (Blue Woman)” (2017) among them.

Inspired by a painting by Duchamp, this series makes use of a vivid collection of aura photos the artist sourced from the internet. Alleging to show one’s spirit, these photos radiate with voluptuous reds and blues, saturated purples and greens, the aura a cotton-candy wig, a technicolor haze, outside our brains. In some, the sitter’s face is obliterated by color — the spirit overtaking the body, if you will. Grouped in a grid of 50 pictures, After Duchamp shifts the way these fringe-y photos are viewed. In such an arrangement, they’re not isolated activities but seemingly more of a commonplace endeavor to locate the true self, endearing it with the selfies of today. In a similar way, “First Aid: Homage to Joseph Beuys” (1969–2017) turns the tables on art and alchemy. Mounted on the wall are a set of wooden first-aid kits that Hiller has stocked full of holy water she collected from sites around the water — e.g., Lourdes and “Sacred Spring Chimayo” at El Santuario de Chimayo, New Mexico. The piece is an edged tribute to Beuys’s status as an artist-shaman, someone famed for transforming the mundane into treasure objects. But with so many bottles of water from so many difference places, a question seems to be whether Beuys is alone in this alchemical ability.

Susan Hiller,First Aid: Homage to Joseph Beuys” (1969–2017)

Also included in the exhibit is Hiller’s terrific “Psi Girls” (1999), a five-channel video installation shuffling through clips of cinema’s obsession with young girls with psychic abilities. Edited by Hiller into scenes of identical length and tinted in five different colors (red, yellow, green, purple, and blue), girls from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker to Danny DeVito’s Matilda make very concentrated expressions (ESP face) as they will things to move and cause others things to burst into flames. (Certainly something is being said here about men’s fear of women’s burgeoning sexuality and independence.) At the end of each two-minute-or-so cycle, the scenes are interrupted by the hiss of white noise, and then the series repeats itself in a different color on a different part of the wall.

Closure and certainty are just not Hiller’s thing. Either with interruptions (as in “Psi Girls”), voids (as in “From India to Planet Mars” or “GH-TS,” 2012, a 4-by-4 grid of ghost photographs that leaves two of its frames empty), or multiplicity (nearly all her pieces), Hiller does not allow a simple reading of the subjects in her works. She’s a quiet disruptor, making viewers find their own way in.

For some, this will be a bother. Since when did ghosts and colorful auras require heavy thinking — or any thinking at all? But this incompleteness, this permeability, works wonders, opening up the impasse between belief and disbelief, rationality and non-rationality; all these binaries and conventions gumming up a different thought. In a mode that is very much her own, Hiller’s work in the paranormal and the paraconceptual transforms through frustration, her art wrapped up in riddle. Question: What can you put in a bucket to make it lighter? Answer: a hole. The devil is not in the details; it’s in the gaps. 

Susan Hiller: Paraconceptual continues at Lisson Gallery (504 West 24th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through June 10.

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