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Voices from the sky

Lost languages, dreams of UFOs, dead prime ministers – Susan Hiller's work is haunted by transmissions from other worlds. Adrian Searle tunes in at her new Tate exhibition

The art of the 20th century was littered with all sorts of nonsensical ideas – from theosophy to the fifth dimension, from skewed modernist ideas of progress and universality to quasi-religious calls to faith in the artist's shamanistic and magical powers. "The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths," wrote Bruce Nauman, in a 1967 neon sign.

Nauman himself never believed in any such thing about mystic truths, but one thing we can be sure of is that the wish to believe persists. We think that art can change us and change the world. That it has secrets, that it is an oracle.

Artists themselves are not immune to bunk. Sometimes it helps them. The things they do are something else. But think of the hushed reverence one encounters in the Rothko room at the Tate, or the simpering new age ceremonies that take place in his chapel in Houston. At least, unlike the movie world, there aren't too many high-profile artists who admit to being Scientologists.

Susan Hiller's work often deals with strange phenomena, misplaced belief, arcane rituals, mistaken ideas, collective and individual hallucinations. This in part accounts for her work's appeal. Even if we are not all suckers under the skin, the power of the irrational is a big draw. For all her decades as an artist, Hiller's curiosity in the world remains that of the anthropologist she once trained as.

Her fascination with UFO encounters, with the presence of ghosts on the TV screen, with the voices of the dead in the radio ether, with levitations, automatic writing and other phenomena is more than academic. One must, I think, have to see it all as metaphor, as material. All this would be fun were it not for the fact that Hiller's work has, at certain moments, achieved something much richer. When in the 1970s, she got her friends to sleep inside fairy rings in fields and record their dreams, the results were as uninteresting as any dream left uninterpreted. One of her subjects records a dream in which he tries to hide his stash of hash when the police raid his house. Spooky, or stoned, or what? And you can't be responsible for the banality of other people's dreams. Hiller was just – one might say – channelling her time, as well as the old folklore about these naturally occurring circles of funghi.

Her cabinet of bottled holy water, from the Ganges and Greece, Willesden and Wales, is collected in old glass medicine bottles reclaimed from canalside middens and river mud. These little bottles might themselves have once have contained laudanum, poison, or snake-oil potions that promised a cure for all your ills. Dedicated to Joseph Beuys, who professed to believe in the healing powers of such everyday and abject substances as fat, felt and beeswax, Hiller points up the ridiculous idea that some water is inherently precious. But hers is not an entirely materialistic view. What interests her is that we put our faith in, and that includes art itself. Any art worth the name reflects on its own condition, as well as on the world itself, and Hiller's work at its best does just this. When she cut up and incinerated her early paintings, she gave them a fetishistic, relic-like quality. There's nothing there but ash and canvas. If there was a radical spirit to her gesture, it has evaporated with the years, and that becomes metaphoric, too.

Roni Horn's columns of melted glacier water in her Library of Water in Iceland, Shirin Neshat's photographs of women with Persian calligraphy written on their faces and hands, Jane and Louise Wilson's early films all seem to owe a debt to Hiller, just as Hiller has paid homage to Beuys, Yves Klein, Duchamp and others. Art, it has been said, is always a homage and critique to what came before. If it's any good, it also leads to what comes later, wittingly or not. In this way, the artist (and it's true of writers and composers, too) is a medium, and one who is always haunted.

There are ways in which Hiller's work is a consideration, and even an acting out, of male ideas about "the feminine". Her installation Psi-Girls takes footage of commercial films dealing with girls with terrifying psychokinetic powers – causing model trains to crash, tumblers to move, inanimate objects to fly and things to burst into flames. These movies, and Hiller's art, play on the potent male stereotype of the feminine dark continent, and women as being in touch with intuition, as superstitious, as somehow, even, evil.

Her well-known video installation An Entertainment from 1990 has scenes from Punch and Judy shows roaring round the walls: garish colour, the awful voice of Mr Punch, the terrible violence, the hurdy-gurdy music, all shot and projected in smeary low-resolution video that would be almost unthinkable now. The images erupt and decay around us in a granular fizz of winking dots of colour, as if some ectoplasmic substance were being hurled on the walls. The whole thing feels like some sort of summoning of violence.

Another well-known work uses the recordings made by the Latvian psychologist Konstantin Raudive, who in the 1960s discovered what he thought were the voices of Winston Churchill, the poet Mayakovsky and James Joyce, which he claimed he had recorded on a tape recorder left running in a soundproofed room. These fuzzy, disquieting fragments of voices, buried in the electrostatic boom and sizzle, with their original, plummy-voiced English commentary, are replayed beside a slideshow of constantly shifting and overlapping discs of coloured light, demonstrating the properties of colour. What we see and hear bear no direct relation to one another. But the optical effects swim in our eyes, persist on our retina, and make us see things that aren't there, just as we hear voices of the long dead that also aren't present. Or are they? What's out there and what's in the mind? Witness, meanwhile, is a room full of clamouring voices emitted from dangling little speakers that look like flying saucers. The voices recount lights in the sky, the alien ships above. What we are really listening to are wishes and projections, fears and dreams.

The best comes last, as we hope it might. In The Last Silent Movie, we watch a black screen. Text is the only image, the translation of recordings of speakers of vanishing (and some now extinct) languages from all over the world. This is overwhelmingly sad, to hear these last speakers of Manx, Ngarrindjeri, Potawatomi, K'ora and Xokleng. Voices disappearing, words failing.

Words fail again, watching Hiller's 2002-5 J Street Project, which I wrote about in the Guardian five years ago. Hiller travelled Germany, photographing and filming every street sign and location still prefixed by the word Juden (Jew). 303 Judenstrasses and Judengrasses, back alleys and country lanes, city streets and unmade paths. Birds sing, cars go by. It rains, and there's a gorgeous sunset. The camera is unwavering.

Nothing happens in the film. It has already happened, in bucolic villages and city side-streets. The film lasts a long time. It dwells on the past's persistence in the present. Headscarfed Muslim women fold away some washing. A bloke stumbles on the roadside verge to avoid a passing truck. Prosaic scenes of everyday modern Germany, in which the unseen is palpable, witnessed to cumulative, crushing effect. Haunted is the only word.

Susan Hiller is at Tate Britain, London until May 15. To get two tickets for the price of one, click here. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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