Belshazzar’s Feast, the Writing on Your Wall is a multimedia installation that combines video, colour photography, drawing, sound and interior furnishings. The arrangement and size of the installation may vary according to the size and shape of the exhibition space, but a television monitor, which plays repeating recorded footage of a bonfire, is always placed at the centre of the work, in front of a sofa, recalling the traditional hearth of a domestic living room. This lounge setting is often enhanced by the addition of house plants, rugs and wallpaper. The footage of flames was recorded by Hiller at a bonfire for Guy Fawkes Night on Super 8mm film, a popular format for amateur ‘home’ movies. The repetitious film is accompanied by a soundtrack featuring improvisational singing, the voice of Hiller’s young son, who attempts to describe Rembrandt’s painting Belshazzar’s Feast 1636–8 (National Gallery, London) from memory, and whispered stories about supernatural images appearing on televisions, selected by Hiller from newspapers. She quotes from an article telling the story of a woman who fell asleep in front of her television, woke up after the end of scheduled programming to what she imagined were visions of faces and contacted the BBC to notify them. According to Hiller, this woman was ‘using television in the way that people used to use their fires. They would sit around, tell stories, sing, get ideas, see shapes, because staring into the flames stimulated visualisation, imagination, creativity, even prophecy ... So I’ve made a tape that engages viewers in that way’ (Hiller and Lacey 1985, p.9). In 1986 the film was broadcast nationally on Channel 4 at midnight, after broadcasting had ended.
The title of the work refers to the Biblical tale of the Babylonian King Belshazzar, whose punishment for blasphemously serving wine in the vessels of the enslaved Israelites was proclaimed by ‘the writing on the wall’, a message from God written in a language that only the prophet Daniel could decipher. In the installation, the monitor is placed in front of twelve collages, composed of enlarged and cropped portions of photographs of Hiller taken in an automatic photo-booth, and improvised drawings executed on sheets of acetate. When displayed at the Tate Gallery in 1985, these were layered on top of each other, placed inside panels of perspex and divided into quarters to suggest windows. Both practices make use of automatic modes of representation and employ the technique of free association. This freedom of association is central to the theme of the work as a whole. References to the story of Belshazzar and experiences of the supernatural allude to the indecipherability of Hiller’s installation. In an interview with curator Catherine Lacey in 1985 Hiller emphasised that the work’s meaning ‘as a whole is up to the viewer to discover’ (Hiller and Lacey 1985, p.15). Hiller’s installation suggests that the replacement of the traditional domestic hearth with the television is an opportunity for collective engagement in fantasy, rather than a source of disconnection, and she encouraged viewers to view ‘the TV set [that] exists in everybody’s living room as a potential vehicle of reverie’ (Hiller and Lacey 1985, p.15). While Hiller had employed automatic writing and popular cultural materials, such as postcards, in her earlier work, this installation marked the beginning of her use of video and film. She felt that video was an ‘appropriate’ medium for this work because of its relationship to television. Belshazzar’s Feast, the Writing on Your Wall was the first video installation to be acquired by Tate and was displayed initially in the Duveen Galleries.
Susan Hiller and Catherine Lacey, Susan Hiller, Belshazzar’s Feast, exhibition leaflet, Tate Gallery, London 1985.
Ann Gallagher (ed.), Susan Hiller, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2011, pp.78–9, 146–7.