Only in dreams: Susan Hiller at the Tate Britain

A peek at what lies beneath the surface of everyday life excites Sue Hubbard.

For four decades, Susan Hiller has investigated the spaces between dream and reality. Her main theme is how we absorb cultural and personal memories. Juxtaposing knowledge derived from her studies as an anthropologist with psychoanalysis and other scientific disciplines, she melds psychological, intellectual and visual concerns. And by investigating what is repressed, forgotten or pushed to the margins of society, her art confers legitimacy on that which lies beyond the bounds of conventional experience.

Hiller was born in Florida in 1940 but, since the early 1970s, she has lived and worked in Britain as an artist. Her extensive body of work, now the subject of a major survey at Tate Britain, has taken many forms, from installations of humdrum objects, placed like talismans in archaeological archive boxes at the Freud Museum, to multi-screen videos such as Psi Girls (1999), in which adolescent girls perform telekinetic feats that offer subversive ideas about the potency of female desire and pubescent sexuality.

Ritual and the power of the human imagi­nation are subjects that Hiller has returned to frequently in works such as her 1970s "group investigation" Dream Mapping, in which participants met to discuss their dreams, and Sisters of Menon (1972-79), created while she was engaged in another group experiment that explored telepathy. Here, mindless scribbles turn into a stream of words in a handwriting that is not the artist's own; it is an investigation into individual identity within the collective.

The Tate exhibition, which focuses on her major works, is a powerful argument for Hiller's status as one of the leading artists in Britain. At the heart of the exhibition is Belshazzar's Feast, the Writing on Your Wall (1983-84). In a mock-up living room, a fire glows on a tele­vision screen like a homely hearth, accompanied by a strange soundtrack. Issues of belief and faith are also explored in Witness (2000), a forest of dangling speakers, which, when put

to the ear, play out individual witness accounts of UFO sightings from around the world in a range of languages. In Hiller's work, something elusive and uncanny lurks beneath the surface of what may, at first, seem familiar or easy to understand.

Her background in feminist politics has informed her work but, first and foremost, she is a visual artist whose practice was influenced by the tenets of minimalism and conceptualism, at a time when such thinking provided an alternative discourse to the grand, gestural statements of (mainly) male painters. Her debt to art history is acknowledged in her Homages, a series of tributes to the 20th-century artists Marcel Broodthaers, Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Beuys and Yves Klein.

Among her most potent works is The J Street Project (2005), which charts every street sign in Germany bearing the prefix Juden (Jew). It speaks eloquently about the absence of a people who have been erased from the places that carry their name.

Another is her installation Monument (1980-81), based on George Frederic Watt's Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice in Postman's Park, London - a tribute to ordinary people who died saving the lives of others. Hiller's version, made from a collage of photographs, supplies a park bench on which the viewer can sit and listen to a recording of the artist as she delivers a series of thoughts on death, heroism and the power of memory. The Last Silent Movie (2007) gives voice to the last speakers of extinct or endangered languages, using recordings from sound archives. Accompanied only by a black screen and white subtitles in which the languages are transcribed, this moving work brings together Hiller's explorations of language, memory and identity.

Runs until 15 May. Details:

This article first appeared in the 21 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The offshore City

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The Bloody Mary is dead: all hail the Bloody Caesar

This Canadian version of an old standard is a good substitute for dinner.

It is not anti-Catholic bias that makes me dislike the Bloody Mary, that lumpish combination of tomato juice and vodka named after a 16th-century English queen who, despite the immense reach of her royal powers, found burning Protestants alive the most effective display of majesty.

My prejudice is against its contents: the pulverised tomatoes that look like run-off from a Tudor torture chamber. A whole tomato is a source of joy and, occasionally, wonder (I remember learning that the Farsi for tomato is gojeh farangi, which translates literally as “foreign plum”) – and I am as fond of pizza as anyone. Most accessories to the Bloody Mary are fine with me: Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, celery, black pepper, even sherry or oysters. But generally I share the curmudgeon Bernard DeVoto’s mistrust of fruit juice in my spirits: “all pestilential, all gangrenous, all vile” was the great man’s verdict. His main objection was sweetness but I will include the admittedly savoury tomato in my ban. At the cocktail hour, I have been known to crave all kinds of odd concoctions but none has included pulp.

To many, the whole point of a Bloody Mary is that you don’t wait until the cocktail hour. This seems to entail a certain shying away from unpleasant realities. I know perfectly well the reaction I would get if I were to ask for a grilled tomato and a chilled Martini at brunch: my friends would start likening me to F Scott Fitzgerald and they wouldn’t be referring to my writing talent. Despite its remarkably similar contents, a Bloody Mary is a perfectly acceptable midday, middle-class beverage. If the original Mary were here to witness such hypocrisy, she would surely tut and reach for her firelighters.

Yet, like the good Catholic I certainly am not, I must confess, for I have seen the error of my ways. In July, on Vancouver Island, I tried a Bloody Caesar – Canada’s spirited response to England’s favourite breakfast tipple (“I’ll see your Tudor queen, you bunch of retrograde royalists, and raise you a Roman emperor”). The main difference is a weird yet oddly palatable concoction called Clamato: tomato juice thinned and refined by clam juice. Replace your standard slop with this stuff, which has all the tang of tomato yet flows like a veritable Niagara, and you will have a drink far stranger yet more delicious than the traditional version.

Apparently, the Caesar was invented by an Italian restaurateur in Calgary, Alberta, who wanted a liquid version of his favourite dish from the old country: spaghetti alle vongole in rosso (clam and tomato spaghetti). He got it – and, more importantly, the rest of us got something we can drink not at breakfast but instead of dinner. Find a really interesting garnish – pickled bull kelp or spicy pickled celery, say – and you can even claim to have eaten your greens.

I’m sure that dedicated fans of the Bloody Mary will consider this entire column heretical, which seems appropriate: that’s the side I was born on, being Jewish, and I like to hope I wouldn’t switch even under extreme forms of persuasion. But this cocktail is in any case a broad church: few cocktails come in so many different incarnations.

The original was invented, according to him, by Fernand Petiot, who was a French barman in New York during Prohibition (and so must have known a thing or two about hypocrisy). It includes lemon juice and a “layer” of Worcestershire sauce and the tomato juice is strained; it may also actually have been named after a barmaid.

All of which proves only that dogma has no place at the bar. Variety is the spice of life, which makes it ironic that the world’s spiciest cocktail bestows a frivolous immortality on a woman who believed all choice to be the work of the devil.

Next week John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis