Susan Hiller’s installation Monument incorporates forty-one photographs of memorial plaques the artist came across in Postman’s Park, near St Paul’s Cathedral, London. There is one photograph for each year of the artist’s life (at the time the work was made). Each plaque commemorates an ordinary man, woman or child who died while performing an act of heroism. One memorial reads, for example: ‘Elizabeth Boxall/Aged 17 of Bethnal Green/ Who Died of Injuries Received/In Trying to Save/ A Child/From a Runaway Horse/June 20 1888’. The photographs are arranged in a diamond shape on the gallery wall, in front of which is set a park bench. The bench faces away from the wall and a cassette player and headphones rest on its seat. Hiller’s own voice plays through the headphones and her flowing and associative commentary addresses the nature of heroism as well as the themes of death, memory and representation.
Hiller’s work often takes what she terms ‘cultural artefacts’ as a starting point. These artefacts take many forms but Hiller consistently focuses on ideas, events or objects that have been ignored or forgotten. In the case of Monument, Hiller noticed that the very tiles that were meant to have a commemorative function were themselves being overlooked. When she returned to photograph the tiles she found that:
Hiller’s work is collaborative, often involving the direct participation of the audience in some form. In Monument, as in much of Hiller’s work, there is an emphasis on the frontier between public and private experience. The title of the work refers to a very public and official form of art and the visual elements of the work are viewed in a public and collective way by the audience. Hiller’s voice, however, can only be heard by the individual wearing the headphones, setting up a one-on-one relationship between the artist and her listener. Moreover, the individual listening to her monologue sits with his or her back to the photographs, facing the audience for the work and momentarily becoming a part of it. As Hiller has explained:
(Interview with Stuart Morgan, Susan Hiller, p.38.)
Monument poses questions about the relationships between heroism and death, memory and representation. For Hiller, there is a significant distinction to be made between two modes of existence for each of the individuals commemorated in the plaques. In the audio tape, the artist reads a list of the individuals’ names distinguishing between the duration of their existence in the body (the number of years they lived) and the duration of their existence as a representation (as a commemorative text on a plaque.) She elaborates: ‘We could exist forever, inscribed, portrayed, as inscriptions, portraits, representations. I’m representing myself to myself... and for you, to you. This is my voice.’ (Monument, 1981, p.6.)
Monument, exhibition catalogue, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham 1981.
Susan Hiller, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery Liverpool 1996, pp.77-80, reproduced, pp.78-80.
Barbara Einzig, ed., Thinking About Art: Conversations with Susan Hiller, Manchester 1996, pp.182-192, reproduced, pp.188-9.