Delicated to the Unknown Artists(Susan Hiller)—Tate Britain tour notes

Susan Hiller studied film & photography in college, then she went on doing anthropology in uni which has a great impact on her work later; but she became uncomfortable with the academic anthropology’s claim to objectivity so went on to be an artist. Well, she wrote that she did not wish her research to be part of anthropology’s “objectification of the contrariness of lived events”.

She makes variety of works from painting to installation, writing to sound piece, film to photography.


Other works:

Monument 1980–1 marks a continuation of Hiller’s interest in lost or forgotten identities. The work was prompted by her discovery of a neglected Victorian monument to civilian heroes in a little-known park in the City of London. The artist photographed and enlarged the park’s memorial plaques and arranged a selection corresponding to each year of her own life. She situated a park bench in front of the photographs, inviting viewers to become an element in the work while listening to its soundtrack.
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.








10 Months During her pregnancy in 1976–7, Hiller took photographs of her body and kept a journal to record both the external and internal changes she experienced. In the resulting work, 10 Months 1977–9 groups of photographs of her pregnant belly correspond to lunar months. The images are accompanied by journal excerpts from the same period. Arranged within a symmetrical organising structure, the starkness of the imagery and typewritten texts is in contrast to the sentimentality associated with the subject and the explicit allusions to fertility and the landscape. The artist herself is at once a participant and an observer.









Delicated to the Unknown Artists 

From 1972 to 1976, she collected 305 postcards, sea charts and map to make this huge piece of work called Delicate to the Unknown Artists. The story began with her trip to Brighton in 1972 where she found the first rough sea postcard (no.77). Then she found another one in weston super mare in the same year, Hiller became aware of the existence of this popular set of pictorial formats designated by a precise phrase, and this set appear to have continuity for over 70 years,

These postcards are presented as a visual display of the cards themselves, as Hiller believes the work speak for themselves with no claim to Objectivity. Because of her background as an artist includes anthropological training, she used systematic grid structure researching, classifying and indexing.

So she basically made the system according to linguistic side and visual side. Under linguistic fact, she divides classified location, caption, legend and commentary on the postcard, you may find sentimental comments at the back like ‘we went on a holiday and this is what it was like every day.” On the other hand, under visual fact, she divided them according to medium, format, colour, presentation, signature and type. The interesting one to mention is the column of Type, Hiller defined the pictorial constituents that occur in the same constructional pattern, like sea and coast, sea and ship, sea and pier or jetty, sea and building and sea and promenade, their relationships define the convention of each type.

The first reason I like about this work is the relationship between linguistic description and visual depiction. For example, “rough sea” sometimes does not describe the sea as shown which may not appear to be particularly rough. No. 217 is a good example; or, one of the postcards has a fake wave which was airbrushed in, because the caption, the words rough sea overrides the image. This remind me of the artist talk we had last week from Neil Cannings, the archive collection and bicentenary video he made for V&A, I am not judging which one is better, but I am more fund of this piece because it has got vision, and there is conflict between language and vision that would make you stand there and think it over.

The title Delicate to the Unknown Artists identifies the work as a tribute to the forgotten artists who painted, photographed or hand-tinted the images. Hiller draws attention to this unrecognised labour, here, her role is not only an artist but also a curator who collected these cultural materials, typical British weather postcards, and collaborated with these artists to present this exhibition. I think it’s a sensitive, mystic way of memorizing these artists and the view, while also arising to a cultural level cos it’s a typical British scene.

This is the second reason I chose this work, because of my own background of living in Brighton for two years, as I have seen the similar huge wave, the same pier, I was immediately drawn to this piece, so it’s a very personal reason. And I am very keen on how the experience of different people makes a difference in looking at the same thing.

The third I like about the piece is lack of difference between photography and painting. Some paintings are in fact photographic reproductions, produced mechanically in great quantity/ the pictorial elements on these paintings are almost identical, suggests that these works are not so much result of subjective rendering of special impression, but part of the artist’s convention who ‘crafted’ it.

On the other hand, many of the monochrome photographs have been painted, which means hand-coloured or tinted. In the text, Hiller discussed the individualized choice and creative effort from different people. Some of rough sea set are framed, this emphasizes one way that a photograph entitled rough sea can be art, in the sense of being seen as the precise equivalent of a painting. Interestingly, there is only one framed painting in the set, while all the other framed examples are photos.

So this ambiguous relationship between painting and photography, linguistic and visual, cultural experience, along with the romantic content of rough sea, makes this piece so interesting to me.










1.Susan Hiller, The Provisional Texture of Reality, 160 pps, 20 illus b/w, ed. & intro by Alexandra Kokoli. JRP Ringier, Zurich.
In ‘Positions’ series.

2.THE REVENANTS OF TIME, Jean Fisher (65 pp. cat. of Susan Hiller’s time-based works; illus. colour) Matt’s Gallery London with Mappin Gallery Sheffield and Third Eye Centre Glasgow

3.Rough Sea (The book was produced in conjunction with the exhibition in 1976)

4.Notes of “Delicated to the Unknown Artists”



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