Early this year, visitors to Bloomberg Space, situated on the ground floor of the London Mithraeum in Walbrook, were no doubt surprised to find a vintage jukebox. It played several well-known pop songs, much to the delight of curious listeners.
Upon closer inspection though, they found that the jukebox merely acted as a vessel for the late artist, Susan Hiller, to serve as a unique audio installation that highlighted the important role London has played in relation to popular songs over the past several decades.
West End Girls by The Pet Shop Boys, Warwick Avenue by Duffy and London Calling by the Clash were some of the tunes incorporated into this one-of-a-kind audio sculpture.
Hiller reportedly spent ten years compiling the selection of pop and folk songs that made the cut. She began in 2008 and eventually completed her audio installation in 2018. It would mark the last major work from the artist before her passing in 2019.
The presentation of Hiller’s London Jukebox at Bloomberg Space (running until July 11) was made possible through a collaboration with the Susan Hiller Estate, the Lisson Gallery and an anonymous private collector.
In 2018, Hiller donated the London Jukebox to Artangel, a London-based non-profit art organisation, for its Artists For Artangel fundraising initiative. The jukebox was sold at auction for an undisclosed sum alongside other contribution from artists to help fund future art projects by the organisation.
“The London Jukebox is essentially a history of London presented through the medium of popular song,” explained Artangel co-director James Lingwood.
“The 70 songs that Susan Hiller has selected were all made by a wide range of brilliant musicians, all of whom who took London as a theme. And all of them brought together in one unique work.”
The curated song list by Hiller is both impressive and insightful as it does not merely serve as a playlist about the city. The songs selected by the artist shares a common similarity in which they were able to trigger memories and associations about London.
It is even more interesting to note that the UK capital served as the adoptive city for Hiller, having moved there in the 1960s from her hometown of Tallahassee, Florida.
In one of her last recorded statements, Hiller intimately described the idea behind her audio sculpture.
“Popular music threads its way into all our lives, evoking personal memories and shared histories,” said the artist. “London has inspired enduring pop music – songs that reciprocally affect as well as reflect our cultural landscape. The capital casts a spell over songwriters’ imaginations rivalled – perhaps – only by New York.”
Curating the song list however only served as part of the puzzle to Hiller’s audio sculpture. In order to project her installation in visual form, the artist relied on a customised vintage 1970s “White Royale Liquid Bubbler” jukebox.
The music-playing device is arguably a fitting and familiar choice for Hiller, considering her penchant for innovatively utilising audio and visual technology in her works over the course of her career.
A Musical Guide Of London History
For many, Hiller’s London Jukebox ranks highly among the ground-breaking installations, multi-screen videos and audio works she has created for the better part of 50 years.
Most importantly it also fits well with the narrative of the London Mithraeum's Bloomberg Space in showcasing the best in contemporary art while bringing fresh perspectives to this historical and highly-unique archaeological site.
In essence, Susan Hiller’s London Jukebox can also be considered and appreciated as its own form of archaeology with the songs themselves serving as actual cultural artefacts that help establish the evolution of the city, along with its ever-shifting musical layers.
Outfitted with benches and headphones, the installation at Bloomberg Space invited visitors to either choose a song which resonates with them, or enjoy the selections made by others.
The sound experience was accompanied by excerpts from the songs’ lyrics, which fill the surrounding walls of the space along with a map of London that plots the geography of Hiller’s playlist.
The songs selected by Hiller spread across time as well as genres, with one of the earliest examples being Vera Lynn’s A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square from 1940, shared alongside Ghosts Of Grenfell by Lowkey and Mai Khalil from 2017.
The Kinks’ Waterloo Sunset, Donovan’s Sunny Goodge Street, Cock Sparrer’s East End Girl, The Pogues’ A Rainy Night In Soho were among the many classic London songs also occupying space on Hiller’s playlist.
Sifting through Hiller’s carefully curated selection, one can visualise the intent of the artist to highlight the richly-diverse narratives that have weaved through much of the city’s neighbourhoods.
Across different eras, genres, classes and communities, the artist’s personal anthology speaks to the enduring capacity of popular song to not just serve as reminder but to also reflect specific political and cultural moments that were synonymous with London at the time.
As with some of her previous work, Hiller was particularly interested in how people react and interact with the power of voices and in the possibility of generating a collective space for historical awareness.
Her last major art work, in the form of a juke box certainly embodies that notion, allowing visitors to relive part of her life – and more importantly, of London’s with just a push of a button.
Cover Image: London Mithraeum
Writer | Richard Augustin
Two decades in journalism but Richard believes he has barely scraped the surface in the field. He loves the scent of a good story and the art of storytelling, two elements that constantly fuel his passion for writing.