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The Tao of Water: Homage to Joseph Beuys (1969-2010) ©Susan Hiller Photo: Tate Photography/Sam Drake

Paraconceptual Collecting

Edited by Ann Gallagher, this book was published to accompany Susan Hiller’s major solo exhibition at Tate earlier this year. A thorough study of this remarkable American artist has been long overdue.

Text: Michaela Freeman | Images: Various

Ed. Ann Gallagher - Paraconceptual Collecting

Ed. Ann Gallagher
Susan Hiller
Tate Publishing 2011
PB 192pp 200 Col Ill
ISBN: 13: 978-1-85437-888-0


SUSAN HILLER was born in Florida in 1940. Originally trained as an anthropologist, it was a slide lecture on African art in 1965 that would change her direction: ‘I felt art was, above all, irrational, mysterious, numinous’. She went on to live and paint in Cornwall, Paris and Morocco, before finally settling down in London.

Initially, Hiller experimented with recycling her own paintings – cutting them up into squares for a book, unravelling them into threads, and burning them to ash stored and displayed in glass jars. She admits being inspired by Joseph Beuys, his collecting and use of everyday objects, and also the relationship between the popular and the unique. Additionally, her work includes less obvious aspects of our culture (dreams, automated writing and accounts of encounters with UFO) – ‘paraconceptual’ (conceptual + paranormal) art, as she calls it.

Hiller started collecting various items early on in her career, often without any specific plan. Some of them would later turn up in her epic works – like the intently organised postcards of the ‘rough sea’, Dedicated to the Unknown artists (1972-76), and The Tao of Water: Homage to Joseph Beuys (1969-2010) – a cabinet full of bottles containing water from holy wells. From the Freud Museum (1991-6) is a set of boxes filled with objects connected as if by some free association, visual or contextual. She usually keeps collecting and adding to her works but was forbidden to do so with this piece when the Tate acquired it.

More recently, she’s created The J.S. Project (2002-5) – a film, a book and over 300 photos of streets in Germany that have Jude in the title. In 2007, she’d delved into audio archives, emerging with The Last Silent Movie. The piece is anything but silent – a dark screen with a soundtrack edited from sound bites in extinct or nearly extinct languages. Again, both meticulously presented sets, and where Hiller’s anthropologist background perhaps comes through. But she denies aiming for some sort of scientific taxonomy: ‘When I started making art, it occurred to me that I could work with rational structures, but be mischievous and at the same time serious. I don’t analyse the objects in any academic way.’

The visual part of the book has been prepared with a lot of care and allows readers to gain a real insight into the artist’s creative process. Several double pages are dedicated to each of Hiller’s key works from 1970-2010, with valuable additional material, such as photos and catalogue texts from the original installations, documentation and transcripts. Another profound artist's monograph from Tate Publishing, going far beyond an exhibition catalogue format.

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