Art

How Susan Hiller Has Foregrounded Empathy in Her Art

This exhibition of Susan Hiller’s 50 years of work, creates an environment that begs thinking about empathy and its role in making and viewing art.

Susan Hiller, “From India to the Planet Mars series” (1997 – 2017), unique photographic negatives in lightboxes, each panel: 67.5 x 52 x 12 cm (© Susan Hiller; courtesy Lisson Gallery, photo by Amy Romer, 2018)

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — “Scoffers cannot alter fate.” The barely legible handwritten line scrawls across one of the automatic drawings in Susan Hiller’s series From India to the Planet Mars (1997–2017). Scoffers cannot alter fate, I repeat to myself as I witness Hollywood representations of telekinetic acts and earnestly listen to descriptions of UFO encounters. Scoffers cannot alter fate, Hiller seemed to be saying in a public talk delivered at the exhibition opening, when she addressed the absurdity of having to repeatedly answer the question, “Do you believe?”

Susan Hiller, detail of “From India to the Planet Mars (29) series” (1997 – 2017), unique photographic negatives inlightboxes, each panel: 67.5 x 52 x 12 cm, (© Susan Hiller; courtesy Lisson Gallery, photo by Amy Romer, 2018)

Susan Hiller: Altered States is the first solo exhibition to be presented at North Vancouver’s newly transmogrified Polygon Gallery, previously known as Presentation House Gallery. The exhibition narrows the spectrum of the artist’s 50-year-long practice into a concise selection of works that address the potencies of altered states. For Hiller, whose work emerges out of the unexplained, the dismissed, the denied, or the ridiculed, the notion of belief or disbelief is misguided. From the paranormal to the occult, these phenomena and experiences already exist in cultural life as social facts. The more pressing question to be asked is: what are the implications?

In her talk, Hiller subtly, though repeatedly, stressed the significance of empathy. Referring to her training in the field of anthropology, she said, “in art, the viewer can be forced into a situation that creates empathy, which cannot be done in the social sciences.” Empathy, a feeling that increasingly haunts contemporary culture as an apparition of something gone missing, is the ability to vicariously experience the feelings or thoughts of another, even without those sentiments being communicated in a fully explicit manner. Empathy is both challenging and prosaic. A mode of making contact with the inexplicable, using imagination to inhabit a new position.

Susan Hiller, “Resounding (Infrared)” 2013), single projection video installation with sound (© Susan Hiller; courtesy Lisson Gallery, photo by Amy Romer, 2018)

The difficulty of translating the unequivocal into something that can be shared is apparent in the hypnotic sound and video installation “Resounding (Infrared)” (2013). A glowing, vibrating band of light spans the width of the screen, as though it were both a horizon and an undulating sound wave simultaneously. The gallery space is engulfed in cosmic noise. A sonic experience is composed out of audio transcriptions documenting the Big Bang, pulsar and plasma waves from the Earth’s radiation belt, dream experiments, and unexplained sightings of objects in the sky. As the title implies, the mysteries of the universe are both unmistakable and invisible to us, and our perception of these events require various audio-visual translations.

As “Resounding (Infrared)” progresses, we hear a lengthy compilation of UFO reports from the Witness Archive. As speakers try to recount their experiences, they struggle with language. Uniquely singular incidents begin to sound alike. Each speaker attempts to forge equivalencies for the listener: it was as bright as a car headlight; the size of a three-story building; it was as fast as the speed of light. The dialogue clings to exact dates and precise times of occurrences, as though temporal continuity were an anchor in the world we share and understand together, as we’re asked to consider otherworldly possibilities. Amidst the fumbling of words, Hiller carefully indicates the irreducible nature of these experiences. None of the spoken accounts are played in their entirety. The speakers are abruptly interrupted with the crackling frequency of white noise, a familiar sound that few people realize contains audible traces of cosmic background radiation from the Big Bang. We are wrapped back into the beginning sequence once again, where the mysterious is embedded in the banal. As translations dovetail with interruptions, empathy must fill the gaps.

Susan Hiller, “Psi Girls” (1999), five-screen video installation with sound (© Susan Hiller; courtesy Lisson Gallery, photo by Amy Romer, 2018)

The way in which one body can communicate with another body is explored in the work “PSI Girls” (1999), a five-screen video installation that projects footage from popular and cult films that depict the psychic power of young women. By way of movie magic, we are able to witness the protagonists’ telekinetic abilities. Pencils hover, playing cards orbit, and water glasses tremble from the intent and concentrated gaze of girls. The marked absence of touch in the videos is complicated by the musical track, taken from a field recording of the gospel choir at St. George’s Cathedral in North Carolina. The score is a clapping percussion that crescendos, generating a palpable suspense. The battery of this intense sound underscores the forcefulness of these remarkable acts, heightening the paradoxical experience of touch.

Each scene is overlaid with a spectral color, as though the installation itself has been dispersed through an optical prism, reducing the projections into their pure forms. In one scene, a young girl’s powers are tested in a laboratory setting. Scientists are careful to keep their own physical distance, working at a remove behind glass walls and foil suits, measuring her abilities through a complex scenario of electrical wiring. In moments like these, Hiller breaks down the purported distinctions between rational and irrational behavior, confronting us with the instabilities and double standards of these divisions.

Hiller frequently draws from popular culture, which can be seen in the context of her explorations into shared consciousness. “G – – STS” (2012) is an arrangement of photographs Hiller has taken from various Internet sources. The photographs are ordinary  domestic scenes, except for unusual ghostly emanations of light that obscure what was otherwise the subject of the photograph. The title, “G – – STS,” appears to playfully make reference to the popular game of Hangman, where you fill in what you know through a process of guessing, until you either solve the riddle or die. Playfully staging the missing letters and the blank spaces of the visual grid, Hiller has offered us clues to recognize the game we are playing together, while also suggesting the failure of words to capture these experiences.

Hiller’s radical propositions have often been framed through discussions of the bizarre or the spooky, little has been written about  the forces of empathy at play. Susan Hiller: Altered States encourages us to remember that empathy is one of the most quotidian ways to experience an altered state, perhaps even without being touched.

Susan Hiller: Altered States is on view at Polygon Gallery (101 Carrie Cates Court, North Vancouver, BC) through September 2.

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