Tate Britain 1 February to 15 May 2011
Lost and Found in E17 has ventured into some very dark spaces recently all in the name of field research with a psychological bent. Ever willing to seek and receive guidance and inspiration I have visited elder and eminent artists who have conducted field research with exemplary creativity. Susan Hiller’s retrospective at Tate Britain provides willing field students with many opportunities to study radical and innovative explorations and accounts of the often overlooked and ignored aspects of our culture.
The exhibition is all most a maze of installations, in and between which it was easy to become disorientated or lost. I entered the spaces or chambers via short dimly lit passageways or thresholds. Some of the installations were unnervingly dark spatially and metaphorically; the darkness paradoxically came and went with the ephemeral glimmers, rays and beams of the constituent slide and video projections. Once inside and immersed it was sometimes difficult to tell if, while betwixt and between projections, others (Hiller acolytes) were there. Indeed, fellow visitors entered and exited so quietly and respectfully they might have been supernatural. Was I alone in this perception or imagination of an art experience which was so purposefully designed?
What powers were being played out in these chambers of ‘paraconceptualism’? ‘PSI Girls’, a 5 screen video installation, each featuring colour filtered clips from movies in which girls were (viewed) exerting telekinetic powers, relayed the potencies of some childhood female/feminine minds. Objects were moved, and materials transformed, by thought alone. Accompanying this concerted and directed telekinesis was an intense soundtrack consisting of ecstatic drumming and clapping. The clips shuffled between screens and colours in a series of different permutations - each cycle repeatedly reaching an abrupt climax of white noise and visual static. Here was a collective consciousness in flux but to what effect or consequence? The contrasts and juxtapositions of assorted phenomena, alarm, innocent playfulness, sinister experimentation, terror and disbelief were intriguing, and might have been more immediately perplexing had I been able to shift from a sense of security, in which I believed I was just watching harmless celluloid bunkum.
In response I imagined I would recall, falsely, having been a subject of an infantile fantasy of another’s omnipotence. As a diligent field student I attempted to make notes, trying to maintain a cool anthropological observer status, and to resist the mass eroticism of pleasure being enacted. As I began to write ‘PSI’ my writing hand was taken by a telekinetic power. I could only scribble frantically or, to use a para-technical term, write automatically. After many cycles, I detected a whiff of gas on my breath, and fearing one of the PSI Girls was turning my bodily fluids to petroleum - and especially as another PSI Girl had demonstrated a power of remotely igniting baths of water into flames - I exited tout de suite. No matter how much I enjoyed this fantasy I was not going to spontaneously combust for the pleasure and privilege of it. Later I wondered if my automatically created memento could have been the result of a connection with just one of the PSI Girls.
Concerned about my literal and para borborygmic state I headed for some of the less enclosed spaces of the exhibition. Finding refuge on the bench which formed part of the work, Monument, I reflected on how vapid my responses to the installations were; symptomatic of a super ego resisting the potentially enlightening draw of a mercurial and troubled feminine collective unconscious. In the book to accompany the exhibition, Jorg Heiser writes,
‘Questions such as ‘Do you believe in ghosts?’ or ‘Do you believe telekinesis exists?’ are somewhat beside the point for someone versed in these fields: collecting stories of the mysterious is not primarily about ascertaining the existence of supernatural phenomena, but about exploring them as manifestations of the individual or collective imagination (not excluding, crucially, the imagination of the person who is doing the inquiring).
In this respect there is a case for an anthropological survey and creative taxonomy of disbelief and mocking scepticism. My self-indulgent joking aside I acknowledged, privately or inwardly, a great deal more imagination and sophistication had gone into the creation of the exhibition than that which I brought and I could try harder to empathise with the real situations and imaginative constructs to which it referred. There in is the issue of a viewer’s willingness or reluctance to relinquish a safe distance and get into the mind of the artist and those the artist is trying to communicate with and about. My facileness with the installations may be indicative of an emotional vacuum and artlessness I brought to the works or plain callousness given the tragic circumstances of those who are memorialised in Monument. On the bench accompanying the memorial plaques of Monument, there was a cassette player with headphones through which the artist talked about the work. Hiller (I assumed) commented,
‘Safe art ignores death and ageing, the limits of our understanding, fear, the existence of evil, despair, rage ..... the enormous pressure created by the vacuum of the virtual absence of these elements obliterates all strong feeling including joy...’
One of the photo-plaques making up the whole assemblage of Monument is that for a,
Henry James Bristow
Aged 8 at Walthamstow
On December 30 1890 - saved his little sister’s life
By tearing off her flaming clothes
But caught fire himself
And died of burns and shock
And so I wondered at the turmoil of joy and despair this dedication evokes while also failing to reconcile the foolishness of my mock irrational fears at, or in, the mind of an out of control PSI Girl. Much of the charm and appeal of the retrospective is its capacity to play on ambivalence within the discrete fields of each exhibit as well as in the spaces between them. Carrying a joke (a self indulgent entertainment for example) from one site to another did eventually have disturbing consequences and together with a little more thought (of some sort) each encounter became less neat and self assured.
For field students of 'An Entertainment', there is an opportunity to witness a mass outing of Mr Punches in early May