Art & Photography

Susan Hiller: Channels

The American-born artist explores nostalgia and the familiar theme of the paranormal in her exhibition at Matt’s Gallery, London

Susan Hiller, Channels (2013). Photograph and copyright © 2013 Bernard G Mills
Susan Hiller, Channels (2013). Photograph and copyright © 2013 Bernard G Mills

Human beings have a strange relationship to technologies of visual representation. Cameras can steal your soul, Buddhas have to be machine-gunned because somebody might stumble on them and worship them, icon paintings of religious figures have to be effaced, well, for some reason. And, as anybody who’s seen Poltergeist knows, televisions can abduct your children. Apparently the same thing happens with young urban professionals and Apple products. Despite knowing all this, we invent new versions of these technologies and fetishise the ones which have just become obsolete. There’s a strangely direct nostalgia to the work Channels by Susan Hiller currently showing at Matt’s Gallery.

The work consists of a wall of more or less obsolete televisions stacked on top of each other. The televisions periodically fuzz to life showing blue screens, white noise, and, on some channels, the vocal signals from interviews with people who have undergone near-death-experiences. Hiller’s taste for the bodily resurrection of technologies past is well known: she’s dangled radio speakers from ceilings, created archives of pottery shards, and, of course, installed retro televisions in past exhibitions, but the televisual wall in Channels feels as much about nostalgia for the future as the vanishing past. Think back to a futuristic 80s movie of your choice in which some character is meant to represent the apex of technological power at a given moment. Chances are that character is sitting in a room full of televisions. It didn’t really turn out that way, but even seeing those films now, the message is clear: this is the world of tomorrow. The combination of this outmoded signifier of futuristicalness and the subject of the near-death-experience is apposite. The sculptural presence of the physical structure is as much a reference to speculation about what’s to come in the same way all of us, the future dead, are listening to that rare group of people for whom death is partially a memory, discussing what might (or might not) be waiting on the other side of the white light (or lack of it), can only theorise what we consider true, false, and other in the narratives the interviews construct.

Hiller isn’t an artist who likes resolution, and the good thing about the paranormal is it doesn’t offer much in that department. Belief is a curious beast –  the more you corner it, the less visible it becomes. By making the voices both sonic and visual objects, the stories the voices tell take on an almost documentary character however implausible or contradictory they may be. It’s not a show that’s meant to change anyone’s mind about near death experiences any more than it’s a commentary on the efficacy of building TVs with VCRs attached, but hearing the stories, even a sceptical soul like myself can get carried along for the ride, at least until the next story springs to life (or death). And so the work becomes more about our belief in stories, some you can prove, some you can disprove, some you can hardly say anything about. It’s Hiller’s skill in realising that all are valuable.

Susan Hiller: Channels  runs until 14 April at Matt’s Gallery, 42-44 Copperfield Road, London E3 4RR