Susan Hiller, a leading British conceptual artist whose video, audio and photographic installations ingeniously explored extinct languages, alien abductions, young girls with psychic powers and the Holocaust, died on Monday in London. She was 78.
Her son, Gabriel Coxhead, said the cause was pancreatic cancer.
Hiller’s mysterious and dreamlike art, which often made use of marginalized and forgotten artifacts of modern culture, played at the precipice between reality and the subconscious and often explored the paranormal.
Born in the United States and educated as an anthropologist, Hiller was particularly adept at using video to look anew at reality. One vivid (and frightening) example of her ability to manipulate moving images is “An Entertainment” (1990), a video installation that uses Punch-and-Judy puppet shows to expose the violence to which children are routinely exposed.
In “The Last Silent Movie” (2007), she used a single screen to tell the story of dying languages through archived recordings of people speaking them and subtitles that translated their words.
In “Psi Girls” (1999), a color-drenched work about the breadth of female imagination, she edited, slowed, tinted and enlarged scenes from five films (including “Firestarter and “Matilda”) featuring girls with telekinetic or psychokinetic powers.
There were no screens — only voices — in “Witness,” an eerie 2000 work in which people’s encounters with aliens and UFOs (with text read by actors and taken from accounts Hiller had collected from newspapers and other media) are related through hundreds of tiny speakers that dangled from a ceiling in a darkened space. At one point, the jumble of voices narrows to a single one that comes from all the speakers.
The critic Richard Dorment of the Telegraph called the installation “breathtakingly beautiful” when it was exhibited at the Tate Britain museum in London in 2011.
Susan Hiller was born on March 7, 1940, in Tallahassee, Florida, and grew up in Cleveland and Coral Gables, Florida.
While in high school, she read a pamphlet by Margaret Mead that inspired her to become an anthropologist.
After graduating from Smith College, she studied for her Ph.D. in anthropology at Tulane University in New Orleans and did fieldwork in Central America. But during a lecture on African art at Tulane, she was overwhelmed by the images in a slideshow and decided to become an artist and not finish her doctorate.
“I felt art was, above all, irrational, mysterious, numinous: The images of African sculpture I was looking at stood as a sign for all this,” she wrote in the foreword to “The Myth of Primitivism: Perspectives on Art” (1991), which she compiled.
She and her husband, David Coxhead, a British writer she had married in 1962, traveled to Europe, Asia and Africa before they settled in England in the early 1970s. There she began creating conceptual art that was less austere than what other conceptual artists were doing at the time.