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?

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About the Author

David Berridge lives in London and makes language works for exhibition, performance, print, and online publication.

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