An Entertainment is a video and sound installation composed of four synchronised recordings of scenes from traditional English ‘Punch and Judy’ puppet shows. These are projected onto four enclosed gallery walls and are accompanied by a four-channel soundtrack of the performances. The work was commissioned by Matt’s Gallery, London, in 1990. The full projection runs for just under twenty-six minutes.
The puppet show performances were filmed by Hiller in Super 8mm film, which, when enlarged for projection, appears grainy. This ‘low tech’ effect is intentional and mirrors the basic sets and simplified designs of the puppet theatres featured in the recording. After filming, Hiller reworked the footage extensively, intensifying the colours and magnifying cropped portions of the miniature theatre. The expanded size of the projected footage exaggerates the characters’ clichéd bickering and simultaneously exposes the violence of the theatrical pairing of husband and wife. In contrast to the quick action of the original puppet performances, in Hiller’s reworking Punch and Judy often move towards each other in slow motion, an effect that transforms the comic scene into a menacing one. The protracted length of the film amplifies the ensuing violence unexpectedly, turning the familiar scene of the seaside puppet theatre into a macabre exposition of domestic abuse, masquerading as children’s entertainment. The vivid colour and amplified sound also work to disorientate the viewer. The soundtrack captures both the aggressive dialogue of the performers and the amused responses of the audience. As the violence becomes more exaggerated, the laughter seems more disconnected and inappropriate.
Hiller has lived and worked in London since the early 1970s, but was born and grew up in the United States. Her manipulation of the Punch and Judy imagery reflects her own unfamiliarity with this culturally iconic motif. Art critic Alexandra Kokoli argues that An Entertainment is not a ‘polemical critique of the popular spectacle but, strangely, an almost sympathetic and certainly respectful exploration of its potential for collective contemplation and lucid reverie’ (Gallagher 2011, p.147). In this way, An Entertainment reflects Hiller’s longstanding interest in the power of popular and often banal imagery to invoke collective memories, evident in the use of television in works such as Belshazzar's Feast, The Writing on Your Wall 1983–4 (Tate T03923).
Ann Gallagher (ed.), Susan Hiller, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2011, pp.21–2, 82–3, 147.