Susan Hiller

Belshazzar’s Feast, the Writing on Your Wall


Not on display

Susan Hiller 1940–2019
Sofa, armchairs, tables, pillows, lamps, artificial plants, rug, 12 works on paper, wallpaper and video
Overall display dimensions variable
duration: 21min, 52sec
Purchased 1984


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 looped 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, and as it plays its imagery is progressively modified, moving from realistic to semi-abstract. The 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 television screens after programmes ended at night, selected by Hiller from newspaper reports. She cites the story of a woman who fell asleep in front of her television and 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, as an addition to the scheduled programme.

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. The automatic booth produced sets of four pictures divided by a white margin in the shape of a cross, which the artist hand-coloured, making the negatives positive, and overlaid with transparent sheets featuring automatic writing. Such 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, and 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.

Further reading
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.

Fiona Anderson
September 2013

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Display caption

This work was prompted by reports of apparitions appearing on television screens after broadcasting ended, before 24-hour transmission. According to Hiller, the people who experienced this were ‘using television in the way that people used to use their fires’ to ’get ideas, see shapes’ and stimulate ‘imagination, creativity, even prophecy’. The title refers to the biblical account of mysterious signs appearing on a wall.

Gallery label, May 2019

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Catalogue entry

Susan Hiller born 1940

T03923 Belshazzar's Feast, The Writing on Your Wall 1983-4

U-matic colour videotape, PAL, 20 min; 12 C-type photographs cut out and mounted under perspex, over 12 gouache drawings on acetate sheets, mounted on wallpaper; overall dimensions variable, each mounted photograph 509 x 409 (20 X 16 1/4)
Not inscribed
Purchased from Gimpel Fils (Grant-in-Aid) 1984
Exh: Susan Hiller, Gimpel Fils, March-April 1984 (earlier version, no cat.)
Lit: Lynne Cooke, ‘Susan Hiller', Art Monthly, no. 75, April 1984, p.11; Stuart Morgan, ‘London, Susan Hiller, Gimpel Fils...' Artforum, vol.22, June 1984, p.100; Susan Hiller and Catherine Lacey, Susan Hiller, Belshazzar's Feast, Tate New Art, The Artist's View, 1985, repr. cover, pp.4, 8, 11 (details), p.15; Desa Philippi, ‘The Writing on Your Wall', The Media Education Journal, no.5, 1986, pp.44-6, repr. p.45; Lucy Lippard, ‘Out of Bounds' and artist's statement in Susan Hiller, exh. cat., ICA, 1986, [pp.14-16 and p.31], repr.[p.32] in col., and [p.24] (detail); Sandy Nairne, ‘Imagination Creativity and Work', State of the Art, Ideas and Images in the 1980's, 1987, pp.123, 126, fig. 95 (detail of copy of videotape).

This is one of a series of major mixed-media installations produced by Hiller since 1973. These include ‘Enquiries/ Inquiries' (1973/1983, two slide sequences of 80 slides each), ‘Monument' (1980-81, three versions, photography and audio tape) and ‘Elan' (1982, photography, automatic scripts and audio tape. All these works are illustrated in the ICA catalogue, listed). Another more recent related work is ‘Magic Lantern' 1987, a tape-slide, specially commissioned by the Whitechapel Art Gallery, where it was first shown May - June 1987.

T03923, which consists of a video tape (screened continuously on a monitor), surrounded by cut-up photographs of the artist which are laid over loose calligraphic drawings and mounted on a pink wallpapered ground, has only ever been exhibited at the Tate in the configuration illustrated. When originally exhibited at Gimpel Fils, the video monitor (not a part of the work but the central focus of the installation) was free standing, the twelve arrangements of cut out coloured photographs were fixed directly to the wall, and ink and pencil scripts were drawn on the wall behind the monitor.

The title of T03923 is taken from the Old Testament account of the appearance of mysterious signs or writings on the wall of the banqueting house during the great feast given by Belshazzar, the King of Babylon (Daniel ch.5, AV). In an interview, (Hiller and Lacey 1985) Hiller refers to the biblical inference that the prophet Daniel was called in to interpret the signs on the wall rather that to read them as writing: ‘I am intrigued by the distinction between literally reading and understanding signs or marks and interpreting them' (p.6). This interest stems from what Lucy Lippard has described as Hiller's search for ‘a new language to oppose or expand that of the dominant culture, a language that will be generous enough to include the desires of the "outsiders" - all culturally disenfranchised groups and especially women' (Lippard 1986, p.8).

‘Belshazzar's Feast...' brings together a number of themes that are central to Hiller's work. It has links with her works of the early seventies which explored, for example, collective identity and telepathy and also reflects her interest in psychic or irrational influences (exemplified in the automatic writing experiments and the numerous script based works combining various media from photography to paint laid on sheets of wallpaper that she has made since 1972). Hiller has also worked consistently on a revised notion of self-portraiture since the early seventies, making numerous works based on automatic booth photography, generally using her own image, unmediated by the conventions of portraiture. As in the photographs in T03923, which show only cut-up parts of her body (arms, back and hands,) and never her face, her presence in these works is usually very fragmentary and elusive and frequently partly obliterated by calligraphy. In T03923, these ‘portraits' are arranged around the peripheries of a ‘hearth - television', which is, in turn, ‘domesticated' by its wall-paper surround.

Shortly after it was acquired, Hiller discussed T03923 in detail with the cataloguer. This interview was published in the series Tate New Art, The Artist's View and provides numerous references for and details about the installation. Hiller wrote the following preface:

Nowadays we watch television, fall asleep and dream in front of the set as people used to by their fireside. In this video piece, I'm considering the TV set as a substitute for the ancient hearth and the TV screen as a potential vehicle of reverie replacing the flames.

Some modern television reveries are collective. Some are experienced as intrusions, disturbances, messages, even warnings, just as in an old tale like ‘Belshazzar's Feast', which tells how a society's transgression of divine law was punished; advance warning of this came in the form of mysterious signs appearing on the wall.

My version quotes newspaper reports of ghost images appearing on television, reports that invariably locate the source of such images outside the subjects who experience them. These projections thus become ‘transmissions', messages that might appear on television in our own living rooms.

Like the language of the flames (‘tongues of fire') and the automatic scripts (‘writing on your wall'), these incoherent insights at the margins of society and at the end of consciousness stand as signs of what cannot be repressed or alienated, signs of that which is always and already destroying the kingdom of law (p.5).

The video tape's soundtrack opens with the artist singing an improvised chant (see Hiller and Lacey 1985). This is intercut with the voice of the artist's son describing the Rembrandt painting ‘Belshazzar's Feast' from a reproduction (National Gallery, after 1635, repr. Michael Levey The National Gallery Collection, 1987, p.175 in col.) This painting shows Belshazzar rising and turning from the feast to see God's hand writing on the wall and the artist's son combines an empirical description of the painting with his own memory of the Bible story. The visual images on the video tape are confined to the leaping flames of the bonfire which, seen in slow motion, suggest ectoplasmic shapes in the fire, and increasingly take on the appearance of ghostly forms. Towards the middle of the tape, Hiller introduces readings from newspaper reports (in, for example, Evening Standard, 14 May 1983), giving details of reports by television viewers in Kent of mysterious interventions whereby images were transmitted or messages received (in contemporary versions of Belshazzar's ‘writing on the wall') after the television station's transmitter had apparently closed down.

The video section of the work, which was completed first, was made with the technical assistance of the film-maker and critic, Mick Hartney. It was originally filmed by Hiller on super 8 and a loop was made of the footage. This was projected in slow motion and re-filmed on video. The original of the fire which is the chief image on the videotape, was a Guy Fawkes bonfire burning on 5th November. In order to create the effect of flames building up to a crescendo and then slowly dying down over the twenty minute duration of the tape, Hiller used a chroma-key and was able to cut out parts of the flame using a black that matched the background of night sky, which was also a deep black. The videotape's soundtrack consists of four layered and intercut tapes: the artist's improvised chanting, the artist's son reading and describing a painting, the artist reading in a whisper from press cuttings, and a BBC sound archive recording of burning wood. According to Hiller, there are no substantial surviving drawings for the installation, although she has in her possession various notes, including original press cuttings, a script and her notes for editing. Discussing the videotape section of the work, Desa Philippi writes:

The video was made from 8mm film and its existence as a video is significant in two ways. First, video allows for specific visual effects but, more importantly, as part of television technology it offers the possibility of establishing a critical circle in which an argument about television can in turn become part of television. It thereby provides the means of setting up critical difference within the system of communication whose function it analyses. In the video, fragments of light eventually cohere to the flickering image of a fire. Twice, the rectangle of a television screen appears for a few seconds as a coloured shape, superimposed onto the flames. Toward the end of the twenty minutes of tape, the image fades out in the same way in which it was produced in the beginning. The ‘totality' of the fire disintegrates into ever smaller fragments until the black areas between the light ‘blobs' take over completely (Philippi 1986, p.44).

On 19 March 1985, the artist supervised and assisted in the work's first installation at the Tate, with the technical assistance of two gallery technicians. On this occasion, the monitor was installed in a specially constructed deep recess about 120 cm from the floor, built into the false wall of Gallery 27. The recess was painted black to minimise glare and to suggest a domestic fireplace, and pink patterned wallpaper, selected by Hiller, was hung in an informal arrangement on a section of the surrounding wall, radiating out in strips from the central aperture. The wallpaper is handpainted and the Gallery retains a supply. When this is exhausted, the artist has authorized the use of any similarly patterned paper. She specifies a domestic looking paper with a small pattern. On this wallpaper background, Hiller then arranged the twelve collages in an asymmetric display. The collages consist of enlarged cut-out sections of photographs Hiller took herself in an automatic photo-booth in London. The originals were hand-coloured and re-photographed and, following acquisition by the Tate, the results were mounted under twelve clear perspex sheets. When displayed, each perspex panel is laid over a separate sheet of acetate on which Hiller has executed a free calligraphic drawing. For this particular installation, Hiller responded to the gallery space allocated and she has confirmed that future installations may be slightly adjusted to suit different spaces (Hiller and Lacey 1985, p.15).

Since the acquisition of T03923 copies of the video tape have occasionally been screened separately, with the permission of the Gallery's Trustees; for example, on television on Channel Four on 29 January 1986 at 11.45 pm, and at the ICA in November 1986 during Hiller's retrospective exhibition, when four red monitors were arranged in a circle in a gallery. An excerpt from the tape was seen in programme three of the six part television series, ‘The State of the Art' (Channel Four, London/WDR, Cologne 1987). It was shown being screened on a television set in a cosy domestic interior (the interior, with videotape, is reproduced in the book accompanying the series, listed above). A similar environment was made by the artist for a screening of the work during her exhibition in May 1988 at the University Museum, California State University. On this occasion a large curved screen, of the sort sometimes seen in American houses, replaced the video monitors used previously.

According to the artist (in conversation with the compiler, 19 January 1988), T03923 took approximately two years to make. When T03923 was first installed at the Tate Gallery, Hiller remarked that it is her preference that it be exhibited in conjunction with other works of art, for example paintings or sculpture, rather than in an enclosed space.

This entry has been approved by the artist.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions Including Supplement to Catalogue of Acquisitions 1982-84, Tate Gallery, London 1988, pp.175-7

Film and audio

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