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Susan Hiller

Susan Hiller is known for her innovative and influential, multi-media
practice, exploring themes such as automatism, parapsychology,
minimalism, collaboration and feminism. With an openness and
sensitivity to artistic media, her œuvre has taken the form of writing,
painting, performance, photography, video, projections and found
objects. Born in Florida in 1942, Hiller was educated at Smith College
in Northampton, Massachusetts, and Tulane University, New Orleans,
where she received an ma in Anthropology. Following her studies,
she completed fieldwork in Mexico, Guatemala and Belize and
travelled extensively throughout Europe, North Africa, and Asia,
finally settling in London in the early ’70s. Facing ideological
differences with anthropology, Hiller turned to art to continue
her exploration into humanity from a less distanced approach.
Her work has been described as an investigation into the cultural
‘unconscious’ because of its focus on the ‘in-between’, the over-
looked and the unexplored. Recognised in major exhibitions world-
wide, Hiller has had retrospectives at Tate Liverpool, Baltic,
Museu Serralves and Kunsthalle Basel.

Who are you? And what do you do for a living?
My name is Susan Hiller. I am an artist

Why do you do what you do?
I came back to art after a long detour into other
fascinating kinds of work, but for me there isn’t any
other way to be who I am. When my work goes well
there’s a deep and peaceful sense of having spent
time on something worthwhile.

Do you trust yourself?
If I can dig deep enough yes, otherwise, no

What have you done since you woke up
this morning?

I got up late because it’s Sunday, had 4 cups of tea
and then began an excited email exchange with my a/v
[audio visual] assistant in Berlin about a new project
I want to finish later this month when I go there to
work. Then I realised I had a lot of other unanswered
emails and what I call ‘admin’ to deal with, so plunged
into it. I have a show opening soon in Montreal and
I hate the proposed invitation design, so I began to
redesign it. Then I browsed a couple of art magazines
I received this week, read an interesting article about
the Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry in
Miami, my home town, which I left decades ago and
now want to catch up with since I’m showing work
there in December, got upset by some other articles
because they distorted the past, thought of writing
witty retorts but decided not to, read the entire
monograph on Lee Lonzano I was given last Tuesday
in Basle (brilliant, sad), paid some bills online, took
a short lunch break of delicious duck and bean soup
David made, then carried on with emails etc, etc.
I’m going out to dinner with friends later on. A nice
quiet day

What is your earliest memory?
I remember incredible colours a prism cast on the floor
on sunny days and how I wanted to sit inside them.
I remember playing behind the sofa, noticing the brocade
pattern, how the texture made pictures and discussing
this with my imaginary friends Sawby and Giffy. I have
another memory which could be earlier, lying in bed and
chewing on the leather tongue of my favourite bear;
the flavour was intense and wonderful and I can still
almost taste it

Do you believe in life after death?
When I was a child I was convinced death was something
to look forward to, but I learned this upset people so kept
quiet about it. Now that I’m getting older I don’t have the
same sense of happy anticipation, more of an anxiety that
I might find out all about it sooner than I want to. I hope
I die in a lucid state, so that I can at least experience the
transition to — whatever — annihilation or bliss or some
kind of cosmic classroom to learn where I went wrong

Which historical figure would you like to take out,
and what would you like to show them?

Well I always wished I could sing, so maybe I could show
Bessie Smith how things have got better for many black
musicians and what a huge influence black music has had.
I don’t know where we’d go out to, maybe for pizza

Do you scare easy?
I worry about sharks every time I swim in the sea

If you could make any one thing free for all what
would it be?


If you could have put a stop to any one thing
in the last 50 years what would it have been?

The combination of modern technology with cruel

Which public space do you like best?
I always feel good when I walk into the entrance of
Tate Turbine Hall

Which private space do you like best?
My tiny workspace in Berlin

Do you subscribe to a particular belief?
Yes, different ones on different days. I guess I think
something like ‘instinct’ or ‘temprement’ underlies all
my beliefs and gives them a kind of consistency

What one thing would improve the quality of
your existence?

Living in a world where things were getting better
not worse; politically, economically, environmentally

Who was the first cultural figure to influence you?
I remember my father showing me a reproduction of
Diego Rivera’s The Flower Carrier and telling me about
the Mexican Revolution and that although the flowers
in the painting were very beautiful, what the artist
wanted us to feel was the heavy weight of the enormous
basket being loaded onto the seller’s back. He used
to show me pictures in a big book of reproductions,
and there was always the idea there was more to see
than just a beautiful image. Two pictures I distinctly
remember were Bellini’s Doge Leonardo Loredon,
and Watt’s Hope. My father also admired Norman
Rockwell and subscribed to the Saturday Evening
Post just to see the covers he painted for the magazine,
which I came to know well. But on my own I came
across a reproduction of a moody, mysterious blue and
violet pastel of flowers by Odillon Redon which seemed
to me to exist on an entirely different level

What was the first thing you produced/participated
in that you are particularly proud of?

I still remember proudly an early painting that won
a prize when I was eight. It was round; a view
through a Chinese ‘moon window’ like one I’d seen
in a museum

What is your number one priority?
To try to finish what I started

Why do you do what you do?
I came back to art after a long detour into other
fascinating kinds of work, but for me there isn’t any
other way to be who I am. When my work goes well
there’s a deep and peaceful sense of having spent
time on something worthwhile

Who do you most like to talk shop with?
People in my head

What is your principal defect?
Periodic discouragement leading to laziness

What is your most marked characteristic?
Intensity, or so people tell me

What would you like to be better at?
Dancing and singing

What quality do you most like in men?
Humour, generosity of spirit and intelligence

What is sexy?
In art, I would say, sharing secrets

What is your favourite sound?
My son’s voice and David’s voice — almost
indistinguishable from each other

In a parallel universe, what are you doing
right now?

I’m a prima ballerina

Do you collect anything? If so what?
I was born a collector; pencils, baseball cards,
dolls, etc, etc, etc, which turned into other kinds
of collections later on and became important in
my work. Now I limit myself to a compact
collection of green buttons, although even as
I say that I realise it’s wishful thinking because
of course I am still collecting other things, small-
scale African polychrome sculpture, religious
talismans, but more slowly

What do you predict for America?
I made a small piece about this recently,
combining the last scene in the original version
of Planet of the Apes with a soundtrack of
Hendrick’s Star Spangled Banner

What is humanity’s biggest failing?
Religious bigotry

What is the best bit of advice you can give to
someone who wants to succeed?

Never follow advice, make it up for yourself as
you go along

What piece of music would you like played at
your funeral?

I can’t just have one piece! I’d like to have Bessie
Smith singing Gimme a Pigfoot and A Bottle of Gin,
Je Vous Connais Milord by Edith Piaf, The Queen of
the Night’s Aria sung by Joan Sutherland, something
from Light on the Desert by Um Kulthum, a traditional
setting of Blake’s Jerusalem, and a boy treble singing
Mendolsohn’s Wings of a Dove — from the abject to
the sublime in songs that always make me shiver as
though a threshold has been crossed…

Is life serious?
Are you kidding?

Tell us a joke?
I just did

If you were to ask any two questions of any two
living people, whose work/life you admire, what
would they be and whom would you ask?

I’d like to ask artist Tom Phillips, whom I’ve never met —
What’s the best piece of work you’ve ever made? Is it
also your favourite piece? What’s your favourite work
by anyone else? And a musician friend, Tom Verlaine,
the same


Q&A index