A Jungian Susan Hiller: Witness as an invitation to experience the archetype of the Self

Ana Iribas Rudín

Universidad Complutense de Madrid


Fictions are attractive because, for a limited time, we experience them as reality, albeit knowing that they are aesthetic works. When we witness them, we become participants in an alternative or possible reality, and our experience is all the more intense when we let ourselves be carried away. The question is not if the subject of the fiction is real: the unquestionable reality is the experience it provokes. If the work strikes an intimate chord, the return to the everyday bears the pervasive scent of the fiction.

Against this backdrop, the artistic focus of this work falls on the American-British conceptual artist Susan Hiller (1940-2019). Her production invites the onlooker –often participant– to take a fresh look onto things and confronts us with the bizarreness within the commonplace, to make us question our perception of things, opening cracks in the apparent security in the given reality and showing that experience is a creation of consciousness. Among the subject matters that Hiller has treated in her career –taking no sides, letting herself be seduced while maintaining a sceptical distance– are anomalous experiences (e.g. of the oneiric, hallucinatory or visionary realms).

This contribution deals with a specific piece by Hiller: the participatory installation Witness (2000), a dimly lit bluish space with small speakers hanging at various heights which, when brought to the ear, relate in a plethora of languages, first-hand experiences of UFO encounters, which range from the sublime, quasi-religious, to the deepest dread. It is one of her most mature, forceful and well-known of Hiller’s works. It is worth considering which could be the cause of the fascination this piece awakens, which goes beyond purely visual criteria.

In an attempt to account for the psychic impact of Witness on the wider public, Witness is put in a Jungian context. The collective unconscious, for Jung, is not originated in the individual biography but belongs to the human species as a whole. It explains, for example, the persistence of mythical forms in different cultures and the similarity of dream contents and deliria with these myths. The collective unconscious is composed of archetypes, a sort of formal matrixes that manifest in myths and symbols. The archetypes are laden with a powerful instinctual energy, numinous, which renders them fascinating and mysterious. The anomalous experiences of UFO encounters are, for Jung, manifestations of a fundamental archetype: the Self, the psychic unity that harmonises opposites, a sort of divinity and a source of inner wisdom. Symbols of this archetype are the mandalas, symmetrical structures such as those frequently found in UFO visions, but also in religious schemes of many cultures and equally in the art installation under study.

What makes Witness attractive is the aesthetic constellation of real, lived experiences which, when we immerse ourselves in them, confront us with the numinous and allow us to taste the archetype of psychic unity.

Palabras clave

Installation art Jung Mandala Susan Hiller UFO

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Ana Iribas Rudín

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