Lisson Gallery

Lynne Tillman in conversation with Susan Hiller

Lynne Tillman in conversation with Susan Hiller


Susan Hiller: Rough Seas

By Lynne Tillman, 2019

Modernism and photography developed alongside, and in relation to, each other. But at its mid-nineteenth-century start, the field of photography split, one side documenting so-called reality, courting humanism, emphasizing the centrality of human beings, the other courting spirits. Spirit photographers documented women whose recently dead husbands’ faces “emerged” from their bodies. Ironically, the same chemicals that produced logical results also produced ghosts.

The imagery of Susan Hiller’s Rough Seas (1982-2018) originally came from vintage postcards. Hiller discovered them in seaside shops all over the United Kingdom, and began collecting them in 1972. In 1976, she exhibited the postcards, at the Gardner Arts Centre, in Brighton, as part of Dedicated to the Unknown Artists (1972-76).

Hiller wondered at people’s fascination with the imagery in its many iterations. Wondered at the commonality of the images, their significance and the spirit animating them. Destruction threatens, horrifies, but with that comes excitement and beauty, the very definition of the sublime.

Rough Seas could be spirit photographs.

The images are dreamy, and encourage dreams and embolden ghosts of time past. With them, Hiller asserted the commonality of dreams and dreaming. Dreams connected people. “In dreams,” Delmore Schwartz wrote, “begin responsibilities.”

Hiller once did a performance-based event, Dream Mapping (1974), not for an audience but with and for the participants. They were asked to sleep near each other and, upon awakening, to draw and map their dreams. Hiller was curious if, during sleep and with proximity, the participants might transmit messages, or find that their dreams interacted with another’s, that their unconscious spirits might find each other.

Hiller engaged the unconscious in unique ways. Rough Seas beckons to it, to unwanted thoughts and un-acted desires, hidden below consciousness. The relentlessness of waves also mimics the restlessness and pulsing of sexual desire. The rising and cresting of the waves imitate the body arching toward orgasm.

A great wave threatens at the end of a pier. It rises, higher and higher, widens as several waves unite with it and crest, white foam spitting and sputtering. Unfurling, the massive wave is about to destroy the pier and drown anyone in its wake. In a grid of nine, the seas vibrate in lurid, fantastic purples, electric reds, and deep-sea greens, ready to destroy anything nearby, and to overwhelm the grid itself.

Versions of Rough Seas abide within a grid, whose history represents adherence to logic and order, but these images implicitly question or disenfranchise it. Great, harsh waves will erase boundaries, and these images represent the uncontainable. The darkness and mystery of rough seas, or emotions or sexuality, were not so welcome within the modernist canon, which promulgated light, open and clean spaces.

Through their infinite stasis, absolute stillness, the images speak to the permanence of the irrational and of Nature’s uncontrollable forces.

There are no people in these photographs, but one can conjure them, waiting with terror for the crash, the end. Invisible as people, invisible as the deep, are the unwritten stories that accompany these pictures. They might produce associations to childhoods and provoke long-buried angers and sorrows. They might make viewers feel small, when nature’s will, beyond human control, drowns this species’ narcissism.

Rough Seas represent the inevitability, also, of random occurrences at their most extreme: waves may hypnotize with calm and steady movements, but suddenly they turn into monsters. The sea, awakened and aroused, is transformed and attacks mercilessly. Its own hidden world is as unknowable as the unconscious.

Rough Seas is Eros, but also Thanatos, and, in these images, love and death fuse, but Thanatos’s

deadly mission is checked, fate denied but not obliterated.

Hiller, who died on January 28, 2019, focused her exceptional, beautiful mind and mind’s eye on the undocumentable, unknowable, unbelievable, incredible, unfamiliar — uncanny only begins to describe her unique body of great art. She doubted the ways in which people were trained to think and see, the categories by which people understood and interpreted their world. She let the implausible surface and believed in the truths of others’ visions.

What might not be actual or visible might still be true.

Over and against certainty and category, Hiller recognized and advocated for the power of the imagination. She believed in the spirit of people and in their imaginations that reside in Rough Seas.

Lynne Tillman, August 12, 2019

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