Interview with Susan Hiller: Her new work Clinic and the human quest for a visionary, mystical experience

American artist’s most recent piece is based on three years of research on the internet


Susan Hiller has used her art for over 30 years to explore what she has described as “unstable zones”, where the irrational holds sway and things cannot be easily explained. From the 1970s, when she and her friends slept inside fairy circles of mushrooms and compared their resulting dreams, to her most recent pieces based on accounts of near-death experiences, this American-born, London- and Berlin-based artist has been dedicated to presenting the marginal and the irrational in rich and varied forms.

The Art Newspaper: Tell me about your new piece, “Clinic”, that is being unveiled alongside key earlier works at the Baltic.

Susan Hiller: For years I’ve been working with what you might call “in-between” areas such as dreams and visions and supposedly extraordinary powers, for instance ESP. What I’m most interested in is the way people construct their reality. I’m fascinated by the way they put a shape and form to an experience which changes as you talk about it, like when you tell a dream and turn it into a narrative.

This piece [Clinic] developed out of “Witness”, the commission that I did for Artangel in 2000. I did a lot of research for that piece on the internet and that’s when I realised that the internet is a giant confessional where people broadcast secrets they wouldn’t tell their best friends. When I was gathering accounts of UFO and alien encounters for “Witness”, I discovered that there were even more stories about visionary and near-death experiences. I’ve been collecting them for about three years.

TAN: How do you find this information? Do you Google “near death”?

SH: Yes. One of the things that interests me the most about this, as with the UFO stories, is that it’s a global phenomenon. It exists in Buddhist countries, India, Samoa and Africa. It isn’t something that’s been discovered in the past 10 years and is tied into New Age ideas; it’s been going on for a very long time.

TAN: Do these experiences share common characteristics?

SH: No, and this is where it gets really distorted in the media. There’s a huge range of individual experiences, it’s totally unpredictable. Quite a few people have extraordinarily positive visionary experiences and they come back and say it’s shaped their life.

TAN: So they are infinitely various?

SH: Exactly. Whatever the experience is, it’s immensely important to them. Now that religion doesn’t mean anything to most people, we are making it up again! It’s a form of secular metaphysics; it’s a human need to have something transcending the everyday.

TAN: So how do you frame this as a work of art? Have you ever used a similar format to “Witness” with its amazing forest of dangling circular speakers?

SH: No, I think people may find it very austere. It will occupy Baltic’s enormous and very difficult top floor. My commission was for a site-specific work and I took that seriously, using all three levels of the building. Because many of the works are videos, they are going to be in dark or murky spaces. I thought it would be interesting to ascend to a sort of white, heavenly emptiness at the top which will probably dazzle everyone when they’ve been in the dark.

“Clinic” is a sound work, and I can’t tell you more than that, because I don’t want to. It has interactive elements and basically it’s an exercise for everyone’s imagination.

TAN: Which is a neat summation of pretty much everything you’ve made to date!

SH: Yes.

TAN: So what was it that attracted you to these “unstable zones”? Especially because such ideas were so unfashionable in the early 70s when you were starting out as an artist ?

SH: Surrealism was like a dirty word then, it was seen as a terrible influence on art. Everyone was following Ad Reinhart, who had rejected notions of the unconscious, and then he was followed by the Minimalists and they were followed by the first-generation conceptualists.

TAN: And it was all reason, reason, reason.

SH: It was really quite puritanical and, of course, I reacted against that. We always make art in relation to and as a reaction against older artists. I tried to preserve the critical intelligence of conceptualism while not being tied to its type of subject matter. And why was I interested in these areas? Well, what can I say? Sex, drugs and rock n’roll! I’m of that generation of the 60s-70s and totally influenced by a quest for visionary, mystical experience.

TAN: The formal presentation of your work is always very carefully considered. The most unruly, irrational subjects are presented with the utmost precision and rigour. How do you combine these considerations of content and form?

SH: When I was a student, which is quite a long time ago, people used to go on about “truth to materials” and I have always thought that I had a materials-based practice in the sense that I never disguise or alter the material I work with. It remains in its original form in some way. It is my starting point. I then try to make a shape for it, that is true to something about it. In “Witness” the stories came through those little loudspeakers which in fact have a cross-in-a-circle design which is not only the way people often describe a UFO, but it’s also this archetypal religious symbol of unity: a kind of mandala shape. The whole piece was also a cross in a circle because there’s a cross-shaped pathway that you could walk through to get to the centre, and the rest was a circle. So in some quite literal ways I just carry out something that I find in the material, and I have always thought of it as truth to materials.

TAN: Do you see this piece “Clinic” as part of a process of refining your work?

SH: I hope so. I tend to throw out extraneous elements as I go along and try to get down to the pure form. People may find the “Clinic” difficult because it doesn’t have any visual seduction and you really are on your own. But, hey, once in a while you can do something hard! I hope that what I’m doing with the sound will be sensuous and seductive enough to trigger people’s capacity to engage.


Born: 1940, Tallahassee, Florida Education: 1961-65 Smith College, Massachusetts Currently showing: “Recall, a selection of works, 1969 – 2004”, Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead (until 18 July). The show travels to: Museu Serralves, Porto, Portugal; Kunsthalle Basel, Switzerland. Selected solo shows: 2001 “Psi girls”, Gagosian Gallery, New York; 2000 “Witness”, Artangel commission at The Chapel, London, UK; 1999 Delfina Gallery, London, UK; 1996 “Susan Hiller”, Tate Gallery, Liverpool, UK

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'A quest for a visionary, mystical experience'