As an editor who works on catalogues with the artists exhibiting at Tate, it’s fascinating to observe how each individual approaches the process of book-making - from those who present an A4 ringbinder suggesting How it Should Look, complete with choice of a favourite font, to those who approve presentations from our designers with just a key tweak or two.
With Susan Hiller, we worked collaboratively alongside the designer and curator, editing down a wealth of material (most of her artworks have myriad details and several installation shots) in order to crystallise her key works into a series of page spreads that would both make sense of complicated ideas and look striking. Across several sessions with Susan it was clear that we were searching for the moment when each spread ‘clicked’ for her, when she achieved a sense of the right balance being reached.
Later, when the exhibition was installed, I found myself in front of the vitrine forming From the Freud Museum with its rows of boxes - each titled, each containing neatly arranged objects, each with accompanying documentation - wondering why I found this work the most absorbing in the show. Initially, I thought it might be the pleasure of recognising in it something of the process of making the catalogue, in that it appeared to show what an editorial hand - selection, ordering, careful juxtaposition - can do.
But as I spent more time looking, the huge difference between making one of our publications and what Hiller does as an artist struck me. A catalogue (ideally) aims for clarity, an opening up of works through logical, coherent design. Despite the superficial similarities, the pleasure of this installation for me is that as you shuffle along and examine the clues each box offers up, you’re left to puzzle your way to an explanation, one you feel is absurdly partial and absolutely your own. The elements are mysteriously resonant, sometimes funny, often vaguely threatening. What they are not is psychologically neat and this is why they stay with you.
In one corner of the vitrine you encounter a box entitled Bride/Mariée.
It contains a commemorative Charles and Diana lollipop surrounded by a halo of toy Royal Mail vans and postboxes. Pasted above these is text by a disgruntled 1946 Marcel Duchamp, railing against the lack of spirit of revolt in the New York of the time, claiming that the pursuit of individual success in the glare of publicity was damaging to the artistic process and that fellow artists were just following staidly in the steps of their immediate predecessors. When I first reached this box, I wondered what on earth these British knick-knacks had to do with Duchamp, so I tried for a few minutes to get clever - I thought, ‘Ah … Duchamp made a work called the The Bride Stripped Bare - is there a link with Princess Diana and the glare of publicity there?
And then I thought, ‘Or perhaps the Duchamp statement underlines the lack of spirit of revolt in the UK, with its strange affection for the monarchy.’ And then, ‘Or perhaps we’re supposed to think of Duchamp’s urinal and the Di and Charles wedding lolly as similarly totemic.’
But then I kind of released myself from that - gave up on answers and settled for feeling - a weird blend of nostalgia and rebelliousness. As I moved along before the glass, each box prompted a similar, ambivalent mix.
In the past the use of ‘found objects’ in artworks has been controversial - ‘Surely this is just the editing of other people’s stuff’. But I think this work by Susan Hiller, her composing of elements for an uneasy effect that denies the satisfaction of answers, shows where editing ends and art-making takes over.