Susan Hiller’s exhibition at Tate Britain feels like a chronological retrospective rather than a curated show. The gallery space has been designed to lead the viewer on a set route around the exhibition. The viewer is herded from one aspect of Hiller’s career to the next. I think this sort of spoon fed approach to visitors undermines their intelligence and ability to understand.
The show open on Hiller’s Rough Seas series, a collection of postcards from Britain’s coast depicting rough waves crashing on beaches, usually with a caption featuring the phrase ‘Rough Sea’. The collection has taken a number of years to form and includes black-and-white and colour images. The postcards are mounted in frames below their annotations. The frames above the postcards hold information as to the location of the rough sea, the date it was sent, the recipient’s name and address, and the message overleaf. The overall effect is impressive; the postcards together form an also typographical language. As a viewer, you begin to make connections by linking repeated images, colours and locations.
The work feels like an impersonal collection: it does not feel a significant subject for Hiller, more of an obsession. Her obsessive nature runs through the exhibition consistently. One piece records the appearance of her stomach during pregnancy through daily photographs. The shifts in shape appear as patterns initially, but with titling, the viewer needs to re-examine the image. The image takes on new meaning and significance from being a series of related photographs to a document of a journey through pregnancy. With this piece in mind, this show feels overtly feminine. It is a show about Hiller, not Hiller’s work, but a record of Hiller through her work.
In this exhibition, Hiller tackles substantial and quite difficult subject matter: pregnancy, death, and myth. Monument [1980-1] is a memorial for those who died to save others. This is a poignant piece paired with a contemplative bench. This piece feels like a mediation of the media, she has presented the viewer with facts, narratives about bravery and courage, and presented them with sensitivity and in honour of the deceased.
The highlight of the exhibition for me was Witness, a sound installation of personal accounts from individuals from a wide range of cultural backgrounds. Hiller is not offering an opinion as to the validity of these accounts, but offers them as facts about society. Hiller presents to us an archive of information. An archive of accumulated information, facts, records, documents and collections, which build a portrait of the artist Susan Hiller.