Homage to Joseph Beuys

Back from the dead


To Matt’s Gallery to see the new Susan Hiller installation, Channels. I have always been a fan of Hiller’s work, for its curiosity, its humanity, its obsessive cataloguing of objects associated with the activity of living. At her Tate Britain retrospective several years ago, I became fascinated by her Homage to Joseph Beuys, a collection of bottles of holy water which Hiller patiently sourced from locations around the country, labelled and placed in a cabinet – like a medicine cabinet, but the ‘medicine’ contained in it was more about faith than pharmaceuticals. Hiller said of this piece: 

When I collect water from a holy well or sacred spring, I’m in the process of trying to turn banal tourism into a quest or pilgrimage. The waters supposedly produce powerful effects for believers, but what I treasure is the special mental space created by searching for them and thinking about them. These little bottles of waters are more than just souvenirs; they are containers of an idea about the potentials hidden in ordinary things and experiences. 


Yes. Isn’t that what a poem is too, a container for an idea that finds its source in ordinary things and events? I found myself imaging Hiller on her journey, carefully bottling those precious wells, in turn thinking about the people who come to them for solace.    

Hiller’s new piece is also about faith, or at least an examination of what happens to the human spirit when it faces the unknown. In a darkened room, a bank of analogue televisions form a tall wall. They are all tuned to nothing, and hiss their white noise into the silent gallery. From their flickering screens, a series of waving lines emerge, then disembodied voices that speak at once. One voice takes over, and begins a story of a near-death experience, the televisions registering the voice as a single green line that pulses with speech. Each voice introduces itself, and begins another tale. These experiences are remarkably similar – at the moment of death, the speakers would often hover over their dying bodies, or find themselves inexplicably in the company of strangers or long-dead family members, who are there to tell them it isn’t their time yet, before they regain consciousness. The voices tell their stories without emotion, but we find the emotion in ourselves, the listeners. Hiller’s act is to record them.


In my previous post, I talked about James Merrill’s epic poem, ‘The Changing Light at Sandover’. Merrill was the great chronicler of the other world, sensitive to our brief time here, our longer time beyond. I was put in mind of the other voices he ‘channelled’ sitting with the Susan Hiller piece, not just channels we watch, but also channels we follow – directions, paths, divergences.  

I will end with Merrill’s poem, ‘Lorelei’:

The stones of kin and friend
Stretch off into a trembling, sweatlike haze.

They many not after all be stepping-stones
But you have followed them. Each strands you, then

Does not. Not yet. Not here.
Is it a crossing? Is there no way back?

Soft gleams lap the base of the one behind you
On which a black girl sings and combs her hair.

It’s she who some day (when your stone is in place)
Will see that much further into the golden vagueness

Forever about to clear. Love with his chisel
Deepens the lines begun upon your face.