Susan Hiller, Homage to Marcel Duchamp (detail), 2008. Six from a series of 25 digital photographs. Each: 12 x 12 in. /30.4 x 30.4 cm. Overall: 60 x 60 in. /152.4 x 152.4 cm. Copyright Susan Hiller. Courtesy Timothy Taylor Gallery, London
According to a belief originating in ancient times, the aura is radiance from energy fields emanating from and surrounding each living thing, as individualised as a fingerprint and detectable only by clairvoyance.
Walter Benjamin described loss of aura as symptomatic of the artwork in modern times. He knew that the word ʻauraʼ would be widely understood, either as a visible reality described by mediums and clairvoyants and researched by certain scientists, or as an imaginative paradigm familiar from images of halos in traditional religious paintings. The concept has also become closely linked to radical developments in the visual arts.
In Marcel Duchampʼs 1910 portrait of his friend Dr. Dumouchel, vibrating colours follow the contours of the doctorʼs body and a luminous white band radiates from his healing hands. I think this painting can be understood quite literally as an aura study in the clairvoyant tradition. For Duchamp and other artists, the anatomy of the visible was to be the starting point of a new art and a new function for art.
Alongside numerous ʻsubjectiveʼ representations of human auras by painters and psychics, as far back as the 1890s there were attempts to document the phenomenon by the ʻobjectiveʼ means of photography. Today there are various cameras that produce images of auras, apparently demonstrating the existence of what the eye canʼt see.
This work is my collection of photographic portraits of people surrounded by amorphous, shifting clouds of coloured light. The radiant emanations or auras are created by liquid crystal arrays triggered by electrical frequencies measured from the subjectʼs hands and translated into colour equivalents by a computer attached to a special camera.
Presented to us as visible traces of the phantasmal, [these photographs] are the most recent manifestation of a desire to experience, record, and classify spectral phenomena, a desire that coincides with the history of science as well as the history of art, and has complicated connections to both.
In these images the camera becomes the equivalent of a clairvoyantʼs specialised vision, and the subject of the portrait dissolves in a cloud of electronically produced coloured light.
The full sequence of images can be seen as part of Susan Hiller, Proposals and Demonstrations, at Timothy Taylor Gallery, 15 Carlos Place, London W1K 2EX. 30 Oct– 20 Dec 2008.