Susan Hiller, Tate Britain, London

It has taken decades for this American artist to grow out of her wordy cleverness – and the terrifying results have been more than worth the wait

In the week that the art critic Tom Lubbock was buried, endings were everywhere; which made a visit to Susan Hiller's retrospective at Tate Britain apposite, if poignant. I don't know if Tom admired Hiller's work – one of the joys of him was that you never knew what he'd like – but you feel Hiller would have recognised his disappearance, the puzzlement of his readers and friends.

Seeing her show just now, it struck me that Hiller, 70, has always dealt with one, big question: what happens after? When nobody speaks a language any more, is it still a language? When the Jews of Germany are annihilated, are they in any sense still there? Where does the image go when a television is switched off, what happens to a painting if you unravel its canvas? This has been her inquiry for 40 years now, in too many mediums to name: among them film and cloth, installation, drawing, painting; in sound, concept, video, weaving. One of the values of being able to weigh up a life's work, especially work as disparate as Hiller's, is that you can follow its paths, see where it's been going. In Hiller's case, what hits you is how consistent her questioning has been, in terms both of what she asks and, by and large, of how brilliantly she asks it.

If you had only seen a couple of Hiller's pieces from the past 40 years, it would be easy to come away with the wrong idea of her. In the 1980s, she seemed too interested in a literal paranormal, and too busy. Monument (1981) consists of a cross-shaped wall-piece made up of 41 blown-up photographs of memorial tablets to civic heroes. Thus Henry James Bristow, aged eight, who "saved his little sister's life by tearing off her flaming clothes but caught fire himself", and others who exposed themselves to death by diptheria, drowning, scalding by steam or molten sugar, runaway trains, poison gas.

In front of this, Hiller placed a wooden bench with a metal plaque saying 1980-81, Monument, Susan Hiller, so that her work encompasses both its own death and its maker's. On this bench again is an old-fashioned cassette recorder which plays a tape of the artist's voice discussing the afterlife. In bringing together sound and image – the Turner Prize hadn't been invented yet, remember – Monument was groundbreaking. But it was also too much too clever, made up of too many things; a flaw of which Hiller has rid herself since.

Already there in Monument was a sense that artworks and artists die too, that mortality begins at home. Hiller's interest in disappearance is intrinsic rather than academic, applies to her as much as the next man. Her work can be very, very frightening, but you feel that Hiller is scared by it as well. She is at her strongest when she is least wordy, when she confines herself to one medium, a single terror.

An Entertainment is the synchronised, four-channel video of a Punch and Judy show, shot in grainy, saturated close-up. The work, its soundtrack swozzled and bellowing, is almost unwatchably frightening, like a snuff movie by Disney. The question it asks is the classic Freudian one: what remains of the terrors of childhood, what do they become? By contrast, The Last Silent Movie is in black and white and consists of subtitles only. A voice speaks, the subtitles translate: "Long ago, everyone spoke Comanche [...] Now we are going to speak Comanche again. We will speak Comanche forever." It isn't true: only a handful of people now use the language, all of them old. Hiller's film is like the voice of a ghost, speaking a dialect of the dead.

Even when Hiller's interest in The Other is annoying, her work is saved by her formal imagination. Witness is a room filled with small speakers dangling from the ceiling by wires, so that you have a sense of being underground, brushing through the buried roots of trees. Each speaker plays the testimony of a witness to a UFO sighting, retailed in dozens of languages: you can listen to what are presumably the words "little green men" in Portuguese, Latvian, etc. This quest into the paranormal bothers me. To my mind, it detracts from the other areas of the unknown – the various afters, the numerous deaths – that Hiller explores so movingly elsewhere. But Witness is brilliant even so, because she has a fantastic eye for the unseen, an ear for the unheard. The film of her J Street Project, in which the camera rests silently on German street signs that still include the word Juden – Jew – is Hiller at her best. Words fail her, sometimes, as they do us all.

To 15 May (020-7887 8888)

Next Week:

Charles Darwent goes bowling with Cory Arcangel at the Barbican

Art Choice

The Museum of Everything, tucked away in Primrose Hill, London, has extended its Exhibition #3 – you have until Friday to see Sir Peter Blake's creepy collectibles. Bridget Riley's 80th birthday is being marked with a National Gallery retrospective. Works by the doyenne of abstract art hang alongside the old masters that inspired her (to 22 May).

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn