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December 14 2011

Readers' cultural review of 2011: What, no Katy B?

Last week our critics picked their highlights of 2011. Did they get it right? Readers respond with their own highs (and lows)


One Man, Two Guvnors was the most fun I've had in a theatre for years – easily the best play of 2011, and James Corden best performer. The National theatre largely misfired for me: A Woman Killed with Kindness, Cherry Orchard, 13, The Kitchen, Frankenstein and Greenland were all largely disappointing.

The RSC's Homecoming was the best revival. Rupert Goold's Merchant of Venice was great fun, even if the inconsistency in Portia's characterisation (from ditzy blond Glee fan to brilliant prosecutor, hm) took the edge off it.

Tom Brooke was my favourite actor of the year – in The Kitchen, and I Am the Wind.


Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid are still two of my least-admired starchitects. However, credit where it's due. I had the pleasure of wandering Toronto's AGO (Art Gallery of Ontario), redesigned by Gehry [a few years ago], and apart from his usual frivolous facade, the interior had been quite brilliantly done. So restrained and sophisticated: words I never never thought I'd use for the old showboater.


Katy B owned pop in 2011, or temporarily leased the lower sections of the charts from Adele at least. Seven singles off one album and a successful B-side, bridging the gap between cool, intriguing dance and charming, relatable 2000s-style British pop-star writing. Loved it.


The programme of the year has been Mark Cousins' superb history of the cinema, The Story of Film: An Odyssey, on More4. Incredibly wide-ranging, informative and inspiring, with extremely intelligent analysis of how film developed and how the great directors innovated.


Artist Christian Marclay's awesome 24-hour film-montage The Clock, shown as part of the British Art Show in Plymouth. Mesmeric, fascinating, witty editing and marvellous film-buffery content.


The Inbetweeners Movie. The snobs may scoff but this film says more about Britain and its youth than 20 Ken Loach films ever could.


Two of the greatest musical evenings were the appearances of the Budapest Festival Orchestra and Ivan Fischer in Mahler's First symphony, and the zany late-night Prom with audience requests including Bartók, Kodály and Stravinsky. A month before that, the magic combination of Andris Nelsons and the CBSO in Richard Strauss and Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky.

At the Royal Opera, the three most memorable performances were Madama Butterfly with Kristine Opolais in the title role and her husband Andris Nelsons in the pit; Werther with Sophie Koch and Rolando Villazón doing his best (still short of what Jonas Kaufmann can do); and the recent revival of Faust, with Vittorio Grigolo, René Pape, Angela Gheorghiu and Dmitri Hvorostovsky.


The release by the BFI on DVD and Blu-Ray of Barney Platts-Mills's 1971 film Private Road, starring Bruce Robinson (who later wrote Withnail and I). I first saw this in about 1987 on TV and I've been wanting to see it again ever since. Even better than I thought.


Gruff Rhys's Hotel Shampoo was my favourite album of the year; Cashier No 9 was not given the recognition it deserved. Enjoyed Kate Bush, Tinie Tempah, Noel Gallagher and Will Young's offerings, but very disappointed with Coldplay. Adele: lovely voice but too many songs sound the same on her album.

Still, it wasn't all bad: the end of Westlife and hopefully the beginning of the end for X Factor.


Right Here Right Now; Format international photography festival in Derby. Thousands of photographers took part from all over the world, including Joel Meyerowitz and Bruce Gilden. An exciting and eclectic mix showing the best in street photography.


Best resurrection: Rab C Nesbitt. Comedy of the year for me. Now that the Tories are back in, he seems to have found his mojo again.


Leonardo da Vinci at the National Gallery. I think the major problem with this absurdly hyped show is that, apart from the two versions of the Virgin of the Rocks and the unfinished St Jerome, the other six "Leonardo" paintings on display are either too unattractively gauche, stiff and mannered to be considered good or significant. Or they're too implausibly naturalistic to be an autograph work (La Belle Ferronière is too lifelike to be by Leonardo). Or just too plain weird and damaged to take seriously (step forward, the newly discovered Salvator Mundi).

Thank you, Adrian Searle, for having the integrity to give your honest opinion about this insanely promoted but hugely disappointing show.


The High Country, an album by Portland band Richmond Fontaine, demands your attention from first song to last. It's one of the only albums that will give you the same sense of satisfaction that finishing a novel does.


Bridesmaids was a great and genuinely funny film. Comedies (and female comedians) are too frequently dismissed, especially by the Oscars board.


British Art Show 7: In the Days of the Comet in Plymouth. It was good to see [Christian Marclay's] The Clock and Sarah Lucas's work up close and personal. At least there is an emphasis on craft skills in video art: good focus, framing and timing are back in fashion.


Nicola Roberts, the good one from Girls Aloud. In her album Cinderella's Eyes she lays out her inner demons and anguish on a platter of sumptuous dance pop hooks and beats. The album is so simple that my two-year-old can sing along, and layered enough that we slightly elder statesmen can appreciate it as well.


In no particular order: Sufjan Stevens live at Southbank: ambitious, experimental, joyous, exciting, sad. Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle: the sixth episode, Democracy, was quite simply awesome. Senna is my film pick: made in 2010, but didn't get released on these shores until 2011. Wonderfully moving.


Propeller's Comedy of Errors was riotous. I mean, how often does a naked grown man run past you with a sparkler wedged into his buttocks?


Archipelago is the worst film I have ever seen in 50-odd years of cinema-going. How Peter Bradshaw and Philip French can find a single redeeming quality in this dreadful two-hour river of bathetic, emotionless, drama-free drivel baffles me.


I loved Attack the Block. I got mugged the week before it was released and actually found watching it quite cathartic. I was rooting for the little shits by the end. That's good screenwriting.


A really disappointing year for British TV, which has been on a downward slide. Doctor Who was probably still the best thing domestically. The Crimson Petal and the White and The Hour were underwhelming misfires; The Shadow Line was about the only really promising new kid on the block.

The basic problem is that there's just not enough TV drama being produced. We need more one-offs, more Plays for Today to allow TV to find new voices and take more chances. Everything seems to be market-researched and focus-grouped into mediocrity.


We went to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park this summer and were blown away by the incredible Jaume Plensa exhibition; the alabaster heads took my breath away. Beautiful, mesmerising and enchanting.


Memorable plays: Flare Path, Frankenstein (Jonny Lee Miller as the Creature was brilliant), and Much Ado at the Globe (Eve Best and Charles Edwards were good enough to almost match my memories of Janet McTeer and Mark Rylance as Beatrice and Benedick).

Damper squibs were Chicken Soup with Barley (far too long). Conor Macpherson's The Veil at the National started brilliantly but didn't deliver the beautiful, haunting, elegiac power of The Weir – a great shame.


There were aspects of Grayson Perry's Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman that drove me round the bend. But he wrote well about his theme and chose some absolutely lovely objects from the British Museum's collection.


85A collective from Glasgow's brilliant mechanical opera Idimov and the Dancing Girl at the Secret Garden Party. Spooky, funny, ingenious.


The Tree of Life: a vast expansive film with multiple interpretations, and little in the way of film convention for the casual viewer to latch on to. Viewers fall into two camps I think: those who want simply to be entertained and led, and those who want to explore and participate. Tree of Life is about participation.


I just couldn't get The Tree of Life. I tried. I wanted to like it. Admittedly I was on a Singapore Airlines flight, which is not the ideal way to appreciate its cinematic beauty.


The Tree of Life is quite possibly the most overrated movie of all time. The sheer brilliance of every single actor isn't in dispute, nor is the superb cinematography. The movie itself is the problem, because it's a real clunker. It's also one of the few films I've seen at the cinema where people were either (vociferously) walking out in disgust or staying behind just to boo.


The [designs for the] new US Embassy in London. I realise these buildings have to be more fortresses than offices, but really. I'm disappointed that such an important new commission isn't going to be more iconic. Especially since I live opposite the site.


Possibly the biggest disappointment was the final track on Bon Iver's second album: it never fails to surprise me with just how cheesy and plain bad it is.


Some of my favourite moments have been in otherwise unremarkable shows. I was slowly won over by Susan Hiller at Tate Modern, and Nancy Spero's works Azur and Hours of the Night II [at the Serpentine] were so incredible I forgot all the meh stuff that surrounded them. The only exhibition I have been unreservedly knocked over by was Mike Nelson's Coral Reef at Tate Britain – an old piece so I'm not sure it counts. Not a superlative year; let's hope 2012 is better and isn't overwhelmed by a spurious Cultural Olympiad. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

February 06 2011

Susan Hiller – review

Tate Britain, London

Twilight at Stonehenge and a human figure hovers in the sky above the stones, spectral as a ghost. In suburbia, a mother and daughter levitate above the garden path. An elderly gentleman at a Victorian seance rises several feet above his seat, to his neighbour's amazement – for there is no visible explanation.

That we can fly is one of our dearest dreams and, like a dream, partakes of both faith and fantasy. Children imagine they can fly, mystics really believe it. For the rest of us, the sensation occurs briefly in our sleep, ancient and common as mankind.

Such thoughts are occasioned by Susan Hiller's wonderful Homage to Yves Klein: Levitations (2008), an immense array of photographs that record (or purport to record) instances of unaided human flight: figures leaping, floating, levitating, cross-legged in mid-air, people defying gravity – all of it presumably impossible.

Presumably. What is so curious about these images is that they defy disbelief, suppressing the immediate question of truth. In the interval of looking, it seems as if there is no down to this up, no weight to these bodies, no artifice keeping them forever aloft. And this is not just a trick of Photoshop and shutter speed, but somehow inherent in the mass spectacle itself, in the exhilarating uplift of seeing all these visions together. Scepticism coexists with wonder.

This is Hiller's achievement: to hold belief and disbelief in equal tension; and it is also her method. Ever since she came to Britain in 1969, this American-born artist has been collecting evidence of strange phenomena, of near-death experiences, visitations, voices from beyond the grave, automatic writing, hallucinations, and presenting it in such striking forms as to bewilder and beguile while simultaneously stifling prejudice.

About her own beliefs, nothing is revealed (although the reference to Klein and the famous montage of himself "flying" must be at least telling) but my sense is that Hiller is a committed agnostic. Who can disprove, after all, what someone else claims to have seen, heard or experienced? What stands against their testimony other than our own incredulity, our own opposing conviction? Belief is more interesting than disbelief, the irrational more fascinating than the simply explained.

Hiller's Tate Britain show is pure human fascination, very nearly, from first to last: a record wave at Scarborough, water from the Lethe, telekinetic teenagers, a graveyard of unsung heroes, a language entirely composed of whistling sounds, the voice of the dead Churchill supposedly picked up live by a recording machine in a soundproofed room.

The show has many classics, including From the Freud Museum, with its captivating boxes full of "found" objects (a tile from the underworld, a corsage from Soviet-occupied Germany, a praying mantis in a coffin) paired with "records" of customs and rites, which makes a spry game of the Freudian drive to collate and classify the random and unclassifiable, while unleashing its own force of wild ideas and stories.

Here is the son et lumière Magic Lantern (1987), in which discs of primary colours are projected on screen, overlapping, merging, separating and fading in a continuous flow of images and afterimages that mesmerise the eye, ranging from dark suns and blue moons to blinding whiteouts. On headphones the voices of the dead, supposedly captured by the Latvian psychologist Konstantin Raudive, mumble and drawl in harsh gutturals, barely audible in the ocean of interference.

You look and listen but do not learn, unable to yoke the sound to the vision, or to make sense of either, the horror of the one being as baffling as the beauty of the other. Perhaps what is isolated here is the mysterious operation of positive afterimages, but I am uncertain of anything about this installation except the perplexity of the whole experience.

Which is precisely the strength of the work, after all: it creates an experience analogous to the original phenomena. And this is Hiller's forte. Over the decades – she is 70 – she has found many highly original ways to transform her dark materials into something that will remain resonant and powerful in the gallery.

You see, or hear, that in particular in the ever popular Witness (2000), with its hanging garden of little speakers on silver wires transmitting first-hand accounts of UFOs. Everyone has a different experience of this work, with its ethereal blue light. Indeed, 10 years ago it seemed to me thronged with voices like a beehive, but this time only one speaker was audible – murmuring everywhere, yet also talking more directly whichever speaker I approached, as if vouchsafing something secret just to me, rather like the interplanetary message the speaker claimed to have received.

I don't doubt his claims. On what basis could objections be raised? He might be an actor, this might be a fiction, and even if not, there are no available witnesses to counter his version. What strengthens Witness is the anonymity of the voices, everyman and everywoman, with their universal tales. What weakens Hiller's work is too much focus on individual experience.

Specifically, her own. This show overplays her early career as a conceptual artist: the dreams transcribed in exercise books after sleeping outdoors, the automatic writings she claims to have made in a trance, and so on, all of them classically boring. It seems from this show that Hiller doesn't find form until her 40s – but when she does, what form.

An Entertainment, from 1990, remains piercingly new with its violently abrupt clips of Mr Punch magnified on four vast screens that enclose the viewer in a devastating cycle of assault and battery, with Punch's demonic repetitions "Nasty baby! Nasty baby!" distorting on the soundtrack. Caught in the middle, images exploding out of the darkness, you are returned to the bewildering fears of childhood.

And what disturbs most is least predictable: the bizarre accent of the male voice, the bright pixelations of the low-resolution video blazing and fading as if the whole thing were taking place in some paranormal realm. It is the strangest combination of primitive and sophisticated, overpowering yet extremely cool.

The last takes you outside the main galleries and turns you into a witness yourself. In The J Street Project (2002-2005), Hiller begins with the signpost in Berlin's Judenstrasse – Jews' Street – and gradually films more and more streets named after their sometime inhabitants. Judendorf, Judenhof, Judenweg, so close to where the Jews were murdered in Mannheim or Passau, yet boats drift through, people cycle past and nobody seems to notice. The film is haunted by these signs, literally, of people who are no longer there. You want to point them out to these oblivious crowds, as if you were suddenly able to see ghosts.

Ticket offer: until 28 Feb, members of the Observer and Guardian's "Extra" membership scheme can buy two admission tickets for the price one (a saving of £10). © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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January 31 2011

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

January 30 2011

Susan Hiller: 'I've had just the right amount of attention'

On the eve of a major Tate survey, veteran radical artist Susan Hiller talks about her uncompromising journey from anthropology to art

In London, the radical artist Susan Hiller is represented by the super-smart – you might even call it Sloaney – Timothy Taylor Gallery in Mayfair, a place I find mildly intimidating. You need an extremely fat wallet to shop here, and even to look, you need a certain kind of chutzpah – or at the very least, a good handbag. Its gallery spaces, merrily waving two fingers at rents in the area, are vast, white and cool; its basement offices are populated with glamorous young women whose desks are designer-messy, stacks of shiny catalogues always threatening to topple onto cups of green tea, but never doing so. Cross its threshold, and you feel like a blob: a poor blob, in a bad coat.

Oh, well. If it's an odd hangout for me, it's an even stranger place to find Hiller, a bracingly earnest and intellectual artist who, although garlanded with critical acclaim in a career that has so far lasted four decades – Nicholas Serota called her a "hugely influential figure for a younger generation of British artists" – is neither a household name, nor a fashionable one. Hiller's big problem, trend-wise, is that she does not turn out the kind of work that looks good in a flashy loft. Nor is she willing to court publicity by means of cheap autobiography ("I may have had as many abortions as any other female artist," she once said. "But I'm not going to make that part of my CV"). Her installations and sound pieces, photo-montages and combines, are complex and uncategorisable, and tend to work best in a gallery, where they demand thought, as well as a keen pair of eyes. As for the artist herself, she looks like Simone de Beauvoir, sounds like Susan Sontag, and when you ask a question, there is a moment of silence before she answers. This is not disdain; she's thinking. Still, it's quite scary.

We are meeting at Timothy Taylor because her major new show at Tate Britain is not yet hung, and her studio is unhelpfully crowded with a substantial work in progress, Homage to Gertrude Stein. This piece, one of a series of homages to artists (others are to Yves Klein, Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Beuys) consists of a curvy art deco desk adorned with books about automatic writing – an interest of Stein's until she became a famous modernist writer, at which point she furiously distanced herself from it. "She always denied that her work had anything to do with automatic writing," says Hiller. "But of course she learned things from it, and my piece is a succinct statement of something I feel about that, which is that I don't think it denigrates an artist to reveal her sources." Homage to Gertrude Stein will be shown here, in Mayfair, but some of the other homages will be in the Tate show, notably the largest of her 10 tributes to Beuys, which consist of wooden boxes filled with bottles of sacred water collected by Hiller over many years. What's the connection between Beuys and water?

"It's to do with the way he sacramentalised – if that's a word – materials: felt and fat and wood. He was retrieving the ancient idea of the artist as a shaman. It's a celebration of him, but also a critique, because collecting sacred water is a very common practice. It's a domestic ritual. I've always been interested in the connection between the artist who is considered special, and celebrated as a genius, and ordinary people."

Is she also nodding in the direction of those who find Beuys's work highly suspect? It occurs to me that most so-called sacred water is anything but (the owner of the souvenir shop simply fills his bottles from the tap). She smiles. "Yes. But you've put your finger on something that is at the root of all art: is this artist serious, or is he pulling my leg? That's the continual enchantment of this project for me. I'm not debunking Beuys, but nor am I saying he's a shaman." For Hiller, all water is holy, in a way, just as all collections are art, at least for the person who assembles them.

Hiller is now 70. Does she feel the Tate show is overdue? She bristles, just a little. "No. It's just that everyone is so London-centric. I've had several other big shows. I think I've had just the right amount of attention: enough that I didn't live in a state of total despair, but not so much that every piece would go straight into someone's collection, [thus] forcing me into constant repetition, which is what has happened to almost all the successful artists of my generation. Go to their retrospectives, and you'll see that all the interesting work is at the beginning [of their career], and that the bulk of it is just more of the same. It's a terrible trap: when art becomes an identifiable commodity. It's one of the ways our society kills art. It's actually rather hard to encapsulate me in a show. It's hard for people to form an opinion about me at all unless they think very carefully."

The Tate show promises to be rather exciting. Among its highlights will be Witness, in which a cloud of dangling audio speakers offers the visitor the sound of people describing encounters with extra-terrestrials; From the Freud Museum, 50 archaeological storage boxes filled with mementoes, personal relics and talismans; The J Street Project (2002-5) a video piece documenting the 320 streets that record the Jewish presence in Germany (Judenstrasse, Judengasse, and so on); and, my favourite, Dedicated to the Unknown Artists (1972-76), an arrangement of old tinted postcards of heavy seas at British resorts.

"I don't make singularities," she says, as we contemplate a silently running video – one of the glamorous gallerists has put it on for us – in which no less than three curators can be seen worrying about how to hang From the Freud Museum. "I work in series. It's a political commitment. There's a non-hierarchical principle of organisation in the work." She pauses. "I combine a minimalist aesthetic with a surrealist sensibility, and that's consistent through everything."

Hiller has lived in London for more than 40 years, and carries a British passport, but she was born in Florida; she grew up in Tallahassee, a steamy, segregated, small-minded town, where her father ran a construction company (when her grandmother sold her house to a black family, the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross on her front lawn). A corner of her bedroom was devoted to drawing and painting and, aged eight, she won an art prize which led to her appearing on the local equivalent of Blue Peter, a "wonderful" moment. As she grew older, however, she began to have doubts about art.

"It was a gender issue. Every time I discovered a woman artist, people would say: 'She's so second-rate', or 'Oh, she married so-and-so'. It was very discouraging. But then I saw a pamphlet in the school careers office called: 'Anthropology as a Career for Women'. It was by Margaret Mead. I was so excited by that: to think that this exotic profession could be addressing me.

"Margaret Mead was very famous in those days, and her generation of anthropologists were almost all women. They were advising the government, they were on television, their books were everywhere. Mead was talking to Americans about their puritanism, and that was fabulous as far as I was concerned." She duly decided to become an anthropologist.

A degree and graduate work followed, but then disillusion set in. "The Vietnam war showed me that anthropology was not an innocent practice. The information was being fed back to the government. Also, the information came only from men in other cultures. The women weren't interviewed. We were a radical generation, and this was impossible for me. One day, in a lecture on African art, I started drawing images, instead of writing, and that was it. I felt that art was value-free in a way that anthropology wasn't."

She began taking art classes, and followed this with both a year in New York, where she studied drawing and photography, and a year in Paris, where she studied print-making. Thereafter, she wandered Europe, visiting museums until, finally, in 1967, she settled in London, where she married an Englishman (the writer, David Coxhead; they have a son, Gabriel). "We were lucky to get here at such a wonderful time. You could call anything art, and a great burden was lifted. That's why we stayed." She toyed with the idea of studying for an MA at the Royal College, but her interview was conducted by several "lecherous old men". "So I had a series of jobs – I worked in a Skoda car factory as a secretary – all of which I thought were fantastic and fascinating, and meanwhile, I worked as an artist; I committed to it." She had her first proper exhibition in 1973.

Her first London review compared her work to the contents of a handbag. Was it tough in the beginning? She thinks so, and not only for reasons to do with money. "I was one of the first generation of feminists in the art world, and I was told it would ruin my career. I had a profile as an interesting conceptual artist, and then after feminism, my position upset a lot of opinion-makers. They weren't helpful." Has her feminism influenced her work? "Definitely. I wouldn't have developed such a core of persistence if I hadn't come to realise through feminism that I wasn't the only person with all these doubts and ambiguities and conflicts. There were reasons I had been constructed in a certain way, and I needed to think about that. Once you could see these things clearly, then you could forget about them. It wasn't an aggressive attack on men, it was a question of working on yourself."

She has come to believe that an artist's best work is often – as the writer Dorothy Richardson once pointed out – that which is most disliked by the critics. This is why success in the art world is not only to do with talent. "Having nurtured many artists who have become quite well known, I can tell you that success is purely a matter of luck. As well as talent, you need persistence, and the kind of personality that can deal with the whole thing."

It frustrates her that such importance is still attached to her background in anthropology – "lots of artists did other things first! [Anselm] Kiefer was a lawyer, and [Antony] Gormley also started out as an anthropologist" – but I think that its influence is very clear, and regard it as a wholly good thing (one piece, The Last Silent Movie, is explicitly anthropological, consisting of the sound of extinct and dying languages); most conceptual art is so lacking in intellectual content, it's embarrassing. She considers the point for moment, and finds she cannot disagree.

"There is a lot of neo-dada around, and a whole tendency to talk about art that doesn't mean anything, as though this were a good thing. I personally find it rather frightening, because it reflects something in society as a whole." She sighs. She seems slightly exasperated – not with me, I hope, but the world outside. "Artists have a function. Otherwise we wouldn't be here. We're part of a conversation. It's our job to represent and mirror back the values of the culture in a way that people haven't seen before." She flashes me a droll look. "I don't necessarily aim for my work to be comforting to people who are already very comfortable with themselves." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

January 29 2011

Brian Dillon on John Stezaker at the Whitechapel Gallery

John Stezaker's collages using black-and-white film photos and old postcards are nostalgic but also uncanny and absurd. As a career-spanning exhibition of his work opens at the Whitechapel Gallery, Brian Dillon pays tribute to a sly romantic

The English artist John Stezaker, whose uncanny collages are the subject of a career-spanning exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery, tells a revelatory tale about the origins of his luminous art. Stezaker was born in Worcester in 1949; when he was 13 his family moved to London, and around this time his parents supplanted their crackling old snapshot albums with a new slide projector. The teenager was fascinated by the apparatus, and especially by the single demonstration slide that came with it: a wide-angle photograph of two men overlooking the Thames, with the Palace of Westminster and a lurid sunset behind them. Stezaker swiftly grasped that the projected image might be used to make art, thus obviating the tedium of freehand drawing. But when he took the machine to his bedroom, he found all he could squeeze on to a sheet of paper was a corner of the picture: Big Ben, a few turrets and a stretch of red sky. He tried painting over it in his best approximation of an "expressionist-psychedelic" style, but when he turned off the projector the result was "horrific".

In light of the artist's subsequent romance with the found photograph, this anecdote is almost too apt to be true. By the time he enrolled at the Slade in the late 60s, his main influences were Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke: painters whose use of photographs overlapped with and trumped, in expressive terms, the pop art of a few years earlier. But Stezaker was a student too at a time when a wholesale critique of the pop-cultural image was being launched by such thinkers as Guy Debord; the Situtationists' scurrilous repurposing of media imagery became an exemplary strategy for him, alongside his abiding, and then unfashionable, interest in surrealism. (He recalls being shown Max Ernst's Une semaine de bonté, based on the illustrations to earlier novels, by William Coldstream on his first day at the Slade.) Schooled also on the recently translated writings of Walter Benjamin, for whom the conjunction of photograph and caption had altered forever how we looked at images, Stezaker began making work with text and pictures, intent on exposing the mystique of the visual.

It was a move that was very much of its time – London-based artists such as Victor Burgin and Susan Hiller (whose own Tate Britain show opens on Tuesday) were doing parallel things in very different registers – but for Stezaker it was a dead end. He suspected that his territory was the collective fascination with image itself rather than the conceptual urge to undermine that fascination. At this point, in the mid-70s, that sliver of sunset from his adolescence unexpectedly returned. He had since learned that the complete photograph was also a hugely popular postcard, but it was still the skewed portion in the corner that obsessed him. And he began to realise, with a mixture of conceptual insight and lingering emotional attachment, that it required little or no artistic intervention beyond his first excision of the haunting fragment. (The resulting work, The End, is in the Whitechapel show.) The image itself was the work of art and, although the various painstaking subtleties of his style remained to be worked out, the mature Stezaker aesthetic was coming into focus.

He was not, of course, the first artist to deploy the found photograph, or combine such photographs, without comment. It was a favoured trick of his surrealist precursors, from Ernst to the pages of Georges Bataille's late-20s journal Documents. But it's important to gauge his careful distance from the tradition of photomontage – a term he avoids, in favour of "collage". As Stezaker sees it, the great monteurs such as John Heartfield and George Grosz always worked at some remove from the image itself – indeed, this was often the critical or satirical point of their work: to conjure radical ideas out of pictures that otherwise allured the everyday viewer. With his residual romanticism and often frank embrace of 20th-century glamour, Stezaker is perhaps closer to an artist such as Hannah Höch, whose Album of 1933 juxtaposes press imagery with ravishing fashion illustrations and fragments of a sublime or disturbing nature. In Stezaker's collages as in Höch's, images sidle up to and seduce one another, shying from overarching arguments or narratives.

That's not to say that there isn't a degree of knowing distance – and a strain of disturbing violence – in Stezaker's work. It is first of all a historical distance. Early on, he began to work with actors' portraits (mostly black-and-white) and film stills from the middle of the 20th century – images he culled from defunct cinemas and picture agencies that were then going out of business. (Stezaker once bought the entire contents of one such establishment, although the prints are now so precious and rare that he cannot bring himself to make work out of them.) The film stills are especially peculiar artefacts: posed publicity shots taken during production rather than frames reproduced from the finished film. Like the colourful, scenic postcards with which Stezaker often overlays them, they hold the same kind of attraction that Victorian engravings held for the surrealists. The distance – inflected with nostalgia and absurdism – is essential, because one of the things Stezaker is engaged in is a daring rescue of images from the memory dump of the recent past.

It's hard to say precisely what the artist does with such images. In a sense, practically speaking, it's ludicrously simple: he places one picture on top of another. Consider Negotiable Space I, from 1978. The larger, "background" image shows a psychoanalyst at his desk, his analysand stretched on a couch, a medicine cabinet in the corner and a photograph of Freud on the wall. In the centre of the image, and seeming to threaten the foreground of the scene, is a colour postcard showing a train emerging from a tunnel – its edge obscuring the face of the patient. The inference seems clear at first: this is a comically "Freudian" emanation from the unconscious of the figure on the couch – except that this initial schematic response won't exhaust the collage. The crude intrusion of the postcard makes us notice oddities about the film still – a lattice of shadows around the Freud portrait, the surprising expanse of empty floor at the bottom of the picture – as well as curious details by which the two images rhyme: railway tracks aligning with the desk so that it, too, looks about to charge out of the frame.

There are many other works of this type. In the Trial series classical ruins, a picturesque waterfall and the Bridge of Sighs at St John's College, Cambridge, all erupt among the anxious monochrome attitudes of a cinematic courtroom scene. In an untitled collage from 2008, a crowd of Hollywood bathing beauties is framed and almost overwhelmed by a sideways-on photograph showing the complicated sculptural entanglement of St George with his dragon. But the signature Stezaker gesture is more frequently the cut and splice of two or more images, doing suggestive violence to both. Here is a young Lauren Bacall, her face diagonally bisected by roiling floodwaters or – the series is entitled Film Portrait (Disaster) – obliterated by an image of torn-up trees. Here, in a series titled Third Person, are lesser stars whose faces are half-hidden by anonymous silhouettes, from the depths of which a third image obtrudes: a garish landscape or an eerie flight of birds. And in recent works the background picture may also explode through the centre of the interposed image, in a cartoon flash worthy of Roy Lichtenstein.

The mystery of Stezaker's art may be said to reside in these precise and shocking cuts. He has spoken of the moment when he takes a blade to the sleek surface of an old bromide print as one of heightened anxiety and tension – having handled and gazed at these images for months or even years, he likes to get the incision over and done with as swiftly as possible. Unfinished works in his London studio have the look of gaping wounds, something like the suddenly opened slit, product of a slip of the thumb in the kitchen, described by Sylvia Plath's poem "Cut": "a sort of hinge / Of skin, / A flap like a hat, / Dead white." They remind us that historically photographs have been as much things to be touched as looked at, that our fascination with them is at once visual and tactile, almost grisly.

This impression of keen-eyed assault is strongest (and frequently funniest) in Stezaker's cutting and suturing of close-up portraits. Everywhere in his work there are faces made monstrous, comical or weirdly attractive by their carving up and careful wedding with others. In fact one series is called Marriages, and shows pairs of men and women – mostly, it seems, they are actors' studio portraits – incongruously conjoined to suggest new faces. A mustachioed man in a pullover meets a wavy-haired blonde to produce a figure with an oddly raffish cavalier look; a middle-aged woman with a complex hairdo acquires the aquiline nose of the actor she obscures. For all their strangeness, however, the faces are also exquisitely aligned, the arc of an eyebrow or the thrust of a jaw running on from one image to another, so that the whole is bizarrely credible as a glamorous or grotesque new being. One's eye moves tirelessly, entranced, between the two faces and their Frankenstein offspring.

What is less endearing, and more alarming, about these "married" faces is the extent to which their own eyes have frequently been attacked by Stezaker's scalpel. (There's a reminder here of the founding image of surrealist oculism: the slitting open of a woman's eye – replaced at the last edited moment by that of a cow – in Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí's 1929 film Un chien andalou.)

More generally in his work, it's often through the eye that the incision passes: whether vertically (as in the splicing of two faces) or horizontally, as in a series titled Love, where a narrow strip of the same image is inserted along the eye line, so that the subject stares out at us with expanded, blurred and alien orbs. The result is that the people in Stezaker's collages seem to suffer a variety of austerely rendered optical afflictions, from a squint or strabismus to full enucleation: in the series Blind, the eyeballs have been razored out along a straight line and the edges of the photograph brought together again.

Such images are part of Stezaker's continued investigation of the intimate strangeness of the photographed human face, the way it exposes and veils at the same time the feeling, thinking creature within. This fascination finds its fullest expression in his Masks series. Here there are no cuts, just the judicious placing of colour postcards over monochrome portraits. They're among Stezaker's slyest and most unsettling works, because what they intrude into the portraits is a series of gaping holes: chasms and waterfalls that cleave faces in two, yawning caves and sunlit sea arches that tunnel into unknowable interiors. These collages are the more ghastly and comical for once again being perfectly aligned: clumps of rock become noses, the arches of a stone bridge a pair of gawping eyes.

The Masks return us to another, less nostalgic, story that Stezaker tells us about his development as an artist. As a student, he happened on a photograph in an old medical textbook that showed a woman's face half eaten away by a rodent ulcer – inside and outside had become horribly confused. Stezaker closed that book with the thought that he must never look at it again, but in other ways he has not stopped looking since.

John Stezaker is at the Whitechapel Gallery, London, until 18 March 2011. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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