Fillip 11 — Spring 2004

The Storyteller of Negative Space
: Writing in the Work of Susan Hiller
David Berridge

It’s a familiar story. Artists give talks and interviews about their work. They offer insights into their process, outline important precursors and inspirations, share research into some repeating ideas and themes that arise throughout their practice. In this instance, artist Susan Hiller, who was previously an anthropologist, shows a familiarity with academic conventions, using and reversing them for her own purposes. Despite this familiarity, however, the artist often states that she is withholding explanation because “If talking and thinking were sufficient, and working with ideas was enough, why make art?”“1”:#note1

This story is a loose summary of the position the artist takes up in The Provisional Texture of Reality, a collection of talks and interviews by Hiller that took place between 1977 and 2007. It’s a book that claims to maintain a division between art works and non-art works. But, as I read through the collection, I began to wonder if that was not a distinction limiting the import of these texts, and if dissolving the critical-creative distinction was a continuation of the boundary-challenging trajectory of Hiller’s own career. I posited new taxonomies in Hiller’s oeuvre, seeing these texts belonging to many different categories, alongside films, installations, and photo works.

That lectures or talks by artists may be presented as art works in themselves is almost a commonplace after, for example, Mark Leckey’s Cinema-in-the-Round (2006–08) or the performance-lectures of Characters, Figures and Signs at Tate Modern in February 2009. One reason for this dissolving of the art-commentary boundary is suggested by Hiller’s own use of art-making—in a piece on Georgia O’Keefe—as a metaphor for (her own) critical method: In a way, this is a collection of detours around the subject, circling in on it. It’s like a drawing, where the negative space is as important as the marks, and where individual marks don’t mean much on their own. In the process, I’ve found my lines of thought converging or overlapping to define a tentative shape that may represent a sighting or wish for something that will emerge more clearly in the future.2

This essay, then, explores a reading where these conversations, statements, transcripts, notes, and written lectures are not separate from art production, becoming more than a supplementary, ontological preoccupation. One consequence of such a “detoured reading”“3”:#note3 is to become unsure of the spatial metaphors and language by which an artistic practice is understood. Texts acquire uncertain status, individually and as a whole. I suspect Hiller’s recurring preoccupations—including psychic phenomena and ethnography—may offer up different meanings and insights when the work she produces to explore them is not positioned on one side or the other of an art/not art divide.

Reframed, too, are questions of what legitimizes these texts. Of course, Hiller’s status as an established artist prompts the invitations in response to which most of these texts are produced. Yet Hiller’s way of responding often evokes different kinds of knowledge: the artist working with questions arising from her own practice alongside a scholarly focus on context and historiography. Does status accrued as the former legitimize reflections in the guise of the latter, or instigate a particular artist-scholar practice? Are we to gain reassurance from Hiller’s “former-anthropologist” status? If, as Hiller would seem to prefer, we foreground a particularly artist-led perspective, then what does that mean for texts that are denied a position in Hiller’s catalogue of art production?

An initial strategy for thinking through these questions might be to consider Hiller an oral storyteller. What links these texts—and differentiates them from the majority of her art production—is the direct physical presence and voice of Hiller herself, weaving variations on familiar themes, often ones—like the artist herself—known to their audience, with a meta-structure connecting (art) history with the individual (Hiller’s practice). Note, too, that Hiller rarely strays from a conventional, expository prose style, and there is an absence throughout the book of the process notes, fragments, doodles, as well as unconventional grammatical or structural devices, that often figure in “artists’ writings,” both those construed as art works—Sue Tompkins’ texts, for example—and those positioned as in proximity to rather than being the art work—a non-definite distinction but one evident in recent art-writing journals such as_ The Mock_ and other superstitions and Material.4

Another strategy highlights what attracts Hiller to the small group of artists discussed within The Provisional Texture of Reality. For example, in talks on Hélio Oiticica and Yves Klein, Hiller focusses on the difficulties of preserving an accurate and authentic picture of their work. What we can access of Oiticica’s work, Hiller observes, is “only a collapsed sign of the larger work he made available...relics of a dead past”.5 Klein, by contrast, “took death into account when he made it explicit in his practice of deliberately creating works that were already “only traces.” Hence, “his relics do not seem to convey more to those who knew the artist personally than to those who didn’t”.6

Approached as “relics,” the texts in The Provisional Texture of Reality offer, Oiticica-like, a strangely incomplete version of Hiller’s work. Rather than a catalogue raisonné of art production or an intellectual biography, there emerges a shifting, consciously limited perspective of ideas, experiences, resonances, and hauntings, shifting between self and world, body and idea, present and past, self-dependent and dependent, new and familiar. Hiller’s art works even become more resonant in this form as incomplete textual echoes that more accurately express their conditions of production, reception, and history.

Hiller’s reflections on the body illustrate this textual condition, rejecting any demand to be startlingly original, and instead working the familiar to find working definitions that resonate through her practice and her critical reflections upon it: The word “body” seems very now, very contempo-rary. The word “soul” sounds romantic and deeply unfashionable.

The word “body” makes me very cross when used in connection with contemporary exhibitions, art of the body, the body in art, body art, etc., etc. In my opinion, body can be evoked but not represented. Pictures of bodies I don’t think have much to do with “body”: Body is felt from the inside...body is empathy. Body is communi-
cated through touch and smell as much as sight. Body in art would be traces, stains, smears, sounds, not images. Body is blurry....Handwriting is body. Voice is body.7

Of course, this book is also the work of an editor, Alexandra Kokoli. Compare Kokoli’s approach with that of Barbara Einzig in an earlier volume, Thinking About Art: Conversations with Susan Hiller (1996).8 Einzig provides a whole apparatus of contextual notes and introductions. Apart from an introduction—extolling Hiller’s separate space for her talks and writings, and broadly supportive of it—Kokoli’s presence is more invisible, which is also a testimony to the context of JRP Ringier’s Positions series.

Edited by Lionel Bovier and Xavier Douroux, with previous volumes of collected writings by artists including Mike Kelley, Liam Gillick, Yvonne Rainer (in French), and Thomas Lawson—the series invokes a history—including Yvonne Rainer’s 1960’s scores, the essays and texts of Lawson’s Real Life magazine, and Gillick’s book works—shifting the written text towards (at the very least) the proximity of art production, either through texts themselves functioning as art works, or through a sense of the artist comfortable with various types of labour diversification and service provision. The series also treads a delicate balance—drawing on the renown of its contributors while also trying to give “artists’ writings” value and materiality as their own form of knowledge production.

Perhaps Hiller has made a political statement in delimiting the status of such production, and thus renders it monetarily almost worthless, shifting it to the substantial though harder to delineate realm of cultural capital. Perhaps, too, it is useful to explore what, for Hiller, despite similarities of method, distinguishes, say, the essay on O’Keefe from The Last Silent Movie.“9”:#note9 For Hiller differences appear to be about a kind and degree of spatialization as well as levels of obliqueness and attribution. It’s only in the artwork that ideas and subjects are allowed to structure the discourse, rather than (as in her talks and critical texts) being a subject of a discourse already formed (and not subject to disruption by force of the subject). This more immersive quality in the artwork also accounts for the removal of the author’s own voice and body, foregrounded in the language events comprising The Provisional Texture of Reality.

If Hiller’s art works involve multiple relations to diverse notions of “site,” then the writings here are more appropriately organized around nuanced senses of “occasion.” This may involve taking a position—one text here rewrites catalogue entries for the 1978 Hayward Gallery exhibition Sacred Circles: 2,000 Years of North American Art, in order to re-activate lost contexts and histories. But such political definiteness also has to take into account the tentative uncertainty that for Hiller characterizes any position. In the 1977 talk, “Women, Language, and Truth,” Hiller observes: “It is always a question of following a thought, first incoherent, later more expressible, through its process of emergence out of and during the inconsistencies of experience, into language”.“10”:#note10 Hiller offers the three following principles as a credo for a more expansive kind of art production: 1. all my ideas begin as part of the necessity for truth-telling in art practice; 2. not being entirely at home in the ordinary, dominant languages makes this less than simple. At the same time, it gives me a wide range of options; and 3. the greatest self-betrayal for an artist is not indulging in anarchic or careless opposition to rational politics, but in fashioning acceptable SEMBLANCES of truth.11

It’s a credo that fits well into our current economic uncertainty, demonstrating a use of language as both commentary and event. This book as a whole, prompts a rethinking of terms such as work, artist, object; what validates such work and how it is structured; and what it means for an artist to make new work out of constant areas of interest. That the contents of this book are produced in response to external invitation further prompts a consideration of practice in terms of the ethics and etiquette of invitation, occasion, perceived and actual audience, and imperative.

Perhaps an argument like this is very much a writer’s (my) response, remembering the automatic writings of Hiller’s Sisters of Menon (1972–79) project, then wanting to follow some unbroken trajectory from that text through to the present collection. Or, at least, read some of the oblique, uneasy, “illegible” materiality of such writing into the texts here, noting consequences, taking literally Hiller’s claim to “perspectives where figure-ground relationships can be allowed to shift” where “not editing-out and not forcing strange juxtapositions and unanswered questions to conform to theory is an aspect of my style, almost a signature”.12

If such a reading runs counter to Hiller’s and Kokoli’s own sense of what is going on in these texts, it follows their own trajectory, seeing writing/art-making as involved in the production of—to return to Hiller’s essay on O’Keefe—negative space. The qualities and possibilities of a practice of that negative space—and the nature of the storyteller-artist who gives it form and guides us through it—is what this stimulating collection of texts prescribes but does not look to define, or even accept.

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