The Pick - Susan Hiller

February 10, 2011

Credit: Tate Photography/Sam Drake

Susan Hiller

Tate Britain, London, until 15 May

Susan Hiller was born in the US in 1940 and started life as an anthropologist. From the Freud Museum (1991-96), one of the most striking works in her major new exhibition, presents some of the strange objects she has assembled over the years in 50 open archaeological collection boxes.

Here are the china creamers in the shape of cows, the small boat with mother-of-pearl sails, the Made in England soap bars and the transparent purses containing seashell toothpicks that have, for whatever reason, caught her eye. If these aren't bizarre enough, the inside lids of the boxes feature texts or images that often seem to have little or no connection with the objects they accompany. What on earth has a praying mantis in a miniature glass coffin got to do with a debate on UFOs in the House of Lords?

Such enigmas are a constant element in the career of an artist fascinated by dreams and paranormal phenomena. Witness (2000) is like a cave of thin silvery stalactites that turn out to be wires with miniature speakers attached, where one can listen to testimonies of encounters with UFOs. Psi Girls (1999) juxtaposes scenes from five films, tinted in different colours, about girls with telekinetic powers. One stares balefully at a glass to coax it to slide across a table. Another gets a pencil to stand on end as a horrified classmate looks on. A third sends a milk carton flying across the room.

Elsewhere, Hiller takes things familiar and often overlooked - Punch and Judy shows, postcards of storms at sea, bottles of holy water, changes to her own pregnant body - and makes them seem startling and uncanny. Even sober reference books become surreal in her hands. Enquiries/Inquiries (1973-75) displays constantly changing pages from real British and American encyclopedias, where the questions seem to get more and more deranged: "How does a pole cat differ from a skunk?" "Why is rope shortened in length when it is wetted?" "From what part of England do the tallest men come?" "Should a live rabbit be lifted by the ears?"

The most obviously poignant piece in the exhibition is The J. Street Project (2002-05), where Hiller charts the 303 streets in Germany that bear the prefix Juden (Jew). This led to a photographic exhibition and a book, as well as a 67-minute film, to be seen at Tate Britain, which consists entirely of static footage from a handheld camera.

There are atmospheric little alleyways, signs almost overgrown in leafy suburbs, busy city-centre thoroughfares, even Judenpfads (paths skirting the towns that Jews were not allowed to enter).

Occasional moments, such as a glimpse of barbed wire, feel like allusions to the Holocaust, but mostly we just see ordinary bustling or empty streets seemingly haunted by the ghosts of the past.

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