Susan Hiller, maker of conceptual art, dies at 78
Susan Hiller, a leading British conceptual artist whose video, audio, and photographic installations ingeniously explored extinct languages, alien abductions, young girls with psychic powers, and the Holocaust, died Monday in London. She was 78.
Her son, Gabriel Coxhead, said the cause was pancreatic cancer.
Ms. Hiller’s mysterious and dreamlike art, which often made use of marginalized and forgotten artifacts of modern culture, played at the precipice between reality and the subconscious and often explored the paranormal.
“I consider that definitions of reality are always provisional, that we are all involved collectively in creating our notions of the ‘real,’” she said in an interview for the catalog to an exhibition of her work at the Site Gallery in Sheffield, England, in 1999.
Born in the United States and educated as an anthropologist, Ms. Hiller was particularly adept at using video to look anew at reality. One vivid (and frightening) example of her ability to manipulate moving images is “An Entertainment” (1990), a video installation that uses traditional Punch-and-Judy puppet shows to expose the violence to which children are routinely exposed.
She and her son, Gabriel, traveled to England when he was still a teenager to film the puppet shows with a Super 8-millimeter camera. After intensifying its colors, magnifying its images, and slowing down the action, she projected the grainy footage onto four giant screens that surrounded viewers with the heightened brutality. The effect was to make those watching feel as if they were in a box.
“I went to many puppet shows when my son was growing up, and I’d hear the littlest children crying and wanting to leave, and their parents saying, ‘Oh, look at Mr. Punch, isn’t he funny?’ or ‘Don’t be silly, there’s nothing frightening here,’ ” Ms. Hiller said in an interview with Sculpture magazine in 2012. “I realized that denial is a ritual in our society — we’re training to deny our own experiences and laugh at our fears.”
In “The Last Silent Movie” (2007), she used a single screen to tell the story of dying languages through archived recordings of people speaking them and subtitles that translated their words.
In “Psi Girls” (1999), a color-drenched work about the breadth of female imagination, she edited, slowed, tinted, and enlarged scenes from five films (including “Firestarter,” “The Fury,” and “Matilda”) featuring girls with telekinetic or psychokinetic powers. She added rhythmic handclaps and nonverbal gospel singing, and projected the work simultaneously onto five large screens.
“Psychokinesis is subject matter,” she said in an interview in 2018 with The Quietus, a British digital music and pop culture magazine. “It’s not the content of the work. Everyone wants to know if I believe in ‘this stuff’ because it perplexes them; I provide them with something that they don’t want to think about, although it’s all actually just special effects.”
There were no screens — only voices — in “Witness,” an eerie 2000 work in which people’s encounters with aliens and UFOs (with text read by actors and taken from accounts Ms. Hiller had collected from newspapers and other media) are related through hundreds of tiny speakers that dangled from a ceiling in a darkened space. At one point, the jumble of voices narrows to a single one that comes from all the speakers.
The critic Richard Dorment of The Telegraph called the installation “breathtakingly beautiful” when it was exhibited at the Tate Britain museum in London in 2011. “Hiller’s true subject was the human need to tell stories,” he wrote, “to hold a listener spellbound and in so doing to join hands with Homer or the Brothers Grimm.”
Disembodied voices are heard in Ms. Hiller’s ghostly installation “Channels” (2013). They come from a wall of more than 100 analog television sets and tell their stories of near-death experiences, with the sound of each voice visualized in the electronic patterns created by an oscilloscope.
Susan Hiller was born on March 7, 1940, in Tallahassee, Fla., and grew up in Cleveland and Coral Gables, Fla. Her father, Paul, had pharmaceutical, construction, and insurance businesses. Her mother, Florence (Ehrich) Hiller, was a psychometric tester, a job that involved measuring people’s skills, personality traits, and knowledge.
“I always wanted to be an artist,” Ms. Hiller told The Guardian in 2015. “This was my fantasy as a child.”
A corner of her bedroom became her art studio, but she gradually became discouraged by the lack of respect given to female artists. While in high school, she read a pamphlet by Margaret Mead that inspired her to become an anthropologist.
After graduating from Smith College, she studied for her PhD in anthropology at Tulane University in New Orleans and did fieldwork in Central America. But during a lecture on African art at Tulane, she was overwhelmed by the images in a slideshow and decided to become an artist and not finish her doctorate.
“I felt art was, above all, irrational, mysterious, numinous: The images of African sculpture I was looking at stood as a sign for all this,” she wrote in the foreword to “The Myth of Primitivism: Perspectives on Art” (1991), which she compiled.
She and her husband, David Coxhead, a British writer she had married in 1962, traveled to Europe, Asia, and Africa before they settled in England in the early 1970s. There she began creating conceptual art that was less austere than what other conceptual artists were doing at the time.
In addition to her son and her husband, Ms. Hiller leaves a brother, Robert Hiller. She lived in London.