Being the cultural man about town that I am, I went to the Susan Hiller exhibition at Tate Britain yesterday. Actually, it was my wife’s suggestion otherwise I would have just gone to the pub. I’m glad I went though as some bits were awesome.
The exhibition was £11 or £9.50 with concessions. For some reason I was charged £15.50 for the two of us. Work that out.
The first thing we saw was called Recycled Work, which was essentially some bits of cloth made into a book. I’m sure it had a brilliant meaning or something else I missed, but I wasn’t that impressed. Then there were some books where people had written down their dreams. I discovered that not everyone dreams of zombie apocalypse, alien invasion, and lots of naked ladies every night like I do. Which is a shame as it would have been more interesting.
Dedicated to Unknown Artists
Then there was a bit called Dedicated to Unknown Artists. This was pretty interesting. It was a load of postcards from all over Britain featuring rough seas at various points along the coast. Some of the pictures were pretty cool but I was always under the impression that postcards were a kind of advert for the area. These had full on storms in some of them. It was a good idea though and had an accompanying map.
There were a few other things that were ok, but not great. A series of photos of Hiller’s belly when she was pregnant looked quite interesting due to the way it was presented. There was also a collection of items, literally just random stuff, where I must have missed the point. We then watched a video called Magic Lantern which consisted of a series of coloured circles and some audio recordings of people saying random things.
The rest of the art was pretty cool though.
At some point, Hiller found a forgotten monument in London that mentioned lots of people dying in heroic ways. She took photos of these and displayed them on a wall. Most of them were pretty sad. Things like a ten year old boy who died saving his eight year old brother from drowning, or a guy who saved lots of people from a burning building but then never came out again. It was genuinely quite moving and there is an audio tape too.
In one section there was a mock up of a living room with a TV that showed a picture of fire. Accompanying the fire was a whispered voice that told how in the old days before 24 hour TV (ITV not included – who watches nightscreen??) people heard voices and saw apparitions in the fuzzy picture left after broadcast stopped. Things like John Lennon saying that everything will be ok. Even though the sort of person who stays up watching ‘noise’ is probably prone to hallucinations and bouts of madness anyway, it was still pretty creepy.
Next up was a big room with five screens in it showing clips of psychic chicks from movies like Firestarter and Stalker. As the girls start to levitate things and burn things the soundtrack of drums builds to a crescendo. It was really effective and interesting and made me want to watch Firestarter again.
Scary Punch and Judy
Another room was pretty creepy. It was dark but had videos playing in two corners – two screens in each corner. The visuals were a repeated and edited video of Punch and Judy, which sounds pretty innocuous. The videos were reddish in hue and the shots were of Punch or Judy beating each other repeatedly with clubs. This was accompanied by screams and aggressive music. It somehow seemed really violent and impressively shocking. Give someone some LSD and they would go mental in about 10 minutes.
Then there were my favorite two rooms.
The first was called The Last Silent Movie. Cunningly, it was almost the opposite of a silent movie. It had audio and subtitles but no video. It was the subject matter that was fascinating though. It was a series of recordings of languages that were either extinct or close to it. They were varied enough to be interesting. Sometimes it was a song, other times a fable or personal story. It was quite sad hearing the last people speak a language. Especially when a caption then appeared saying it was the last speaker and they died 50 years ago. While doing my English degree I studied how languages arise and become formalised and it was moving to think that these were the last utterances and that an entire language was dying.
Then there was the best room of all. It was called Witness. You enter a large blue-lit room that seems to have a load of string or wire hanging down, with some kind of disc attached to the end. In fact, it looked exactly like this:
Witness by Susan Hiller
When you get closer you start to hear a weird whispering noise. A bit like a theatre audience just before a performance as heard from the stage. The discs at the bottom are actually speakers and each one has a recording of someone recounting a UFO encounter. They are in all languages so you soon find yourself wandering among the strands and speakers listening for English (presuming you are an English speaker obviously). There are quite a lot of English ones and the stories are really interesting and I speak as one who believes in alien life but doesn’t think they fly around and probe us. One of the best things though, is the strange sensation of wandering among the voices. You feel like Professor Xavier when he is doing that search thing among humans and you hear lots of snatches of conversation from hundreds of different people. Or that chubby cop guy in Heroes, who can hear people’s thoughts. I’m trying to think of a non geeky example but I can’t. It’s a really cool and fascinating experience.
So, to some up: there are some hits and some misses. Even the misses aren’t too bad and they could just be misses because I am an uncultured oik who missed the point. The majority of the exhibition is really good and thoroughly interesting. I highly recommend it.
The Susan Hiller exhibition is at Tate Britain (nearest tube is Pimlico) and runs until May 15th. It’s worth the money. Whatever they charge.