Conceptual artist

Born: 1940;

Died: January 28, 2019

SUSAN Hiller, who has died in London aged 78, was a pioneering conceptual artist whose interest in near-death experiences, alien abductions and other aspects of the paranormal became the basis for compelling, innovative art.

Born in Tallahassee in Florida in 1940, Hiller’s original interest was in anthropology. But her involvement in American student politics led her to question the foundations of the social science and she turned to art.

She left America in the mid-sixties and eventually settled in Britain where she would remain for the rest of her life. Hiller spent spells in Cornwall, Wiltshire and Wales but most of her time was spent in London.

“It was an astonishing place in the late sixties and seventies,” she once said of the arts scene she found in the city. “It was the most open situation for all the arts. Different worlds were more interconnected. People came from all over because it was cheaper. It’s hard to believe now.”

At the same time, she also found an arts culture that struggled with the very idea of women artists and was actively hostile to those with the temerity to call themselves feminists.

“Thirty or 40 years ago there were virtually no prominent women artists,” she told the art critic Sarah Lowndes in 2011. “In the art world, no women wanted to be involved in feminism unless they felt they had nothing to lose.”

After working in typing and secretarial jobs – including working as a receptionist for Skoda – while pursuing her art, she had her first proper exhibition in 1973. But her breakthrough was Monument at the start of the 1980s, a work consisting of 41 photographs of memorial plaques in Postman’s Park near St Paul’s Cathedral.

In the years that followed she created video installations and used multimedia technology to investigate experiences dismissed by mainstream culture. Witness, made in 2000, consisted of a web of some 400 audio speakers dangling from the ceiling transmitting accounts of people’s encounters with extra-terrestrials. Her 2013 work Channels was a multi-channel video installation in which people related their near-death experiences.

Hiller’s work was introduced to a wider audience in 1986 when Channel 4 broadcast Belshazzar’s Feast. An image of flickering flames was accompanied by a voiceover telling the story of a woman waking up with the television still on after programmes had ended for the night and hearing voices and seeing faces coming from the set.

Other work was more straightforwardly political. The J Street Project (2002-2005) was a video piece which documented the 320 streets that record the Jewish presence in Germany.

Hiller’s much lauded Tate Britain retrospective in 2011 was a reminder of the scope and range of her art over the previous three decades. "People used to say to me, and it was a criticism, “Oh, you do so many different things.” Artists were trained to do the same thing over and over again and it was thought to be a lack of consistency if you didn’t do that,” she told the Observer’s Rachel Cooke that same year.

“But I would say that I am very consistent. Possibly even more consistent than I’d like to be. I can’t help it. You can try and make every piece of work different but they’re always the same. The medium is often different. Or the formal approach is different. But we only have a limited amount of obsessions.”

Hiller was married to the writer David Coxhead. They have one son, Gabriel.