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Image/Object, Video/Text: Gary Hill at the Guggenheim

Bill Horn

Printed in MFJ No. 29 (Fall 1996) Video Installation

From June through August of last summer the Guggenheim Museum devoted the entire second floor of its Soho gallery to a retrospective of video installation work by Gary Hill. That Hill should receive such a show is not surprising: his vitae is long and broad, beginning with work in sculpture and experimental television during the early 1970s and continuing to include an impressive number of exhibitions (175 listed in the catalogue alone) in the US and abroad, particularly since the late 1980s as both video and installation work have gained wider appeal.

The works included in this show represent the more recent developments in Hill's installation work, though many of the ideas were first explored in his single channel pieces. It was through these single channel works that I first became acquainted with Hill. Pieces such as URA ARU (The Backside Exists) (1985-86) and Why Do Things Get In Such A Muddle (Come On Petunia) (1984) are still among my favorites in the medium. And although I had read about a number of Hill's installations, including some of those in the exhibition, this was my first opportunity to personally experience any of them.

What follows are notes based on several visits to the exhibition over the course of the summer. It is not an attempt to definitively describe the exhibition, nor to place the work in historical context. Rather it is a collection of personal observations about the impact of the work.

Around one of the first corners in the loosely proscribed flow of the exhibition is Hill's installation of I Believe It Is an Image in Light of the Other (1991-92). Groups of books are strewn across the floor of the dark and almost silent gallery. The arrangement has the carefully controlled feel of contrived randomness. The small piles are made visible only by the bluish light of the video projections which play across their open pages. Black, pendulous cylinders hang low over the clusters of books, their ends glowing faintly with the video light that shines from within them. I lean close to the floor, curious, like the other viewers, about the source of the images. Inside each cylinder a small video monitor points downward, shining through a single lens which focuses its light onto the books below. The only sound is a faint brushing noise, barely audible above the whispers of those in the gallery.

There is a sense of confusion here, confusion about how image, text and body depend upon one another. On some of the piles video images play across pages of printed text, while on adjacent piles the pages themselves are blank and images of printed words are projected onto their surfaces. On one book the image of a chair spins slowly on an empty page. Elsewhere, hands open repeatedly over empty pages, palms up in a gesture of benediction or perhaps submission. Other body parts also appear-mute faces on fields of text, naked torsos turning slowly and disappearing into the binding of a book.

As I watch the other Saturday afternoon museum visitors in the Soho exhibition space, I'm struck by their reactions. Some do not engage the work, walking slowly, almost suspiciously, through the gallery-but many are intrigued. They squat beside the piles, tourist and downtown art-folk alike, and put their hands between book and projector, reassuring themselves, I imagine, of the usual relationships between image and object, between video and text. More often than not they seem satisfied with this gesture, which I too am compelled to perform. Yet in the smiles of those around me I see the same sense of wonder and confusion which I feel. Despite having reassured myself about the mechanics of the piece, I feel a disturbing sense of dislocation.

This, I think, is the strength of Hill's work. Here in a small, relatively unassuming installation Hill has givenexperiential form to the zone where body, text and image overlap. My hand, like those of the other curious visitors, literally enters this in-between space. The traditional hierarchy in which we, as human subjects, see images and speak or write words has becomes fluid. In one part of the installation text is the foundation on which images of the body float, while elsewhere the words themselves become floating, unstable things no longer fixed to the page. The human forms are fragmented and mute. Assigning meaning is no longer automatic. The viewer's body becomes his or her only means of negotiating a position in this unstable environment.

Hill is not overly reliant on a conceptual structure to convey his ideas (though he is not above such an approach, as evidenced elsewhere in the exhibition). Rather, they are contained in an experiential poetic, one which is accessible to all who question the work. Even if one were to walk away from the work feeling uncertain about the motives or the theory which drive it, Hill has transformed the ideas into a bodily experience. It is something that one carries away from the museum to be recalled and perhaps learned from later-haunting though not immediately comprehensible, like a dream.

This seems a somewhat populist idea of art making and one with -which Hill is not entirely at peace. All the works in the exhibition are alluring, even seductive in their visual and sculptural forms. But from the inside many seem cold, tinged with a bitter irony or a nagging absence. I am effectively drawn into the work and lead to question some fundamental assumptions, but I am also plagued by an elusive sense of loss that seems to be at the heart of Hill's work.

Also seemingly populist in their appeal are Learning Curve and its companion piece Learning Curve (still point).In each of these works Hill has taken a child's school desk and extended its surface some 15-20 feet out in front of the seat. Wandering the gallery, I can not help but marvel at the expanses of smoothly sanded wood, so different from the closely proscribed desks of my childhood. In Learning Curve the surface widens and rises slightly as it stretches away from the chair, ending in a low, gently arched video projection screen. A wave breaks continuously, from right to left, across the screen-a motion of both unending collapse and continuous up-welling. Sitting in the desk I feel suspended within a moment of possibility, able to take in both anticipation and loss from a safely telephoto vantage point. The effect is all the more remarkable for the sense of calm that surrounds the experience. But for the wary gaze of the guard as I sit on the artwork, I am entirely secure in the silence of the moment.

But there are dissonances for me as well. The work alludes, most directly, to Hill's younger days as a surfer in California, to a child's dream of perfect waves. It is a clearly romantic notion. I remember the school desk more as a place of struggle against free fall than as a site for contemplative stasis, but this is also the appeal of the work. Hill's surfer's dream is of a state outside of the dialectics of the classroom, poised serenely between rising and falling, between arriving and departing. This point of betweenness is an adolescent's secret dream; a place where he or she can simply be, free from the anxieties of shaping an identity, where being and becoming are one. The work exudes some the wonder of this dream and as a viewer I revel in it. But there is also an element of the spiritual which attaches itself to the work. Perhaps it is the suggestion of meditation and Eastern religion in the repeating wave images that evokes it. Whatever the source, its presence feels forced, working against the populist accessibility that drives the work.

In Learning Curve (still point) the desktop narrows as it stretches away from the seat, converging with a cartoon-like sense of perspective on a small black and white video monitor. The naked monitor, stripped of its casing and extraneous parts in what has become something of a signature style for Hill, displays a side view of a breaking wave. The feeling is one of narrowed focus. It suggests a more precarious position than that in Learning Curve -here one's visual experience is folded into a singular, internal space. Like the curl of the breaking wave, it seems a powerful and fragile place to inhabit.

As with Learning Curve, Learning Curve (still point) refers to an idyllic state. In the exhibit copy Hill speaks of the surfer's quest for the "green room," the perfect balance of being both inside and at one with the wave. This is clearly the state illustrated, but as I again feel the guard's stare, I am aware that it is not the state experienced. There is a certain lack of pathos in the execution keeps me at arms length. Despite sitting at the desk ("in" the artwork as it were) I feel I am watching from the outside, a position more akin to what I experienced sitting in the desk of Learning Curve, a position governed by detached and distant observation rather than keen and precarious balance.

I spend several minutes walking up and down the sides of the desk, examining the monitor and it's life support system of cables hidden beneath the desktop. Perhaps I am looking for wads of gum and initials carved into the wood, searching for a sign of daydreaming of a more mundane kind to accompany Hill's. Again, once inside the work the terrain is somewhat cold, as if it were more a monument to lost youth than the embodiment of a youth well lived.

As with I Believe It Is an Image in Light of the Other, much of Hill's work shows a fascination with language in its many forms. It is a long-standing concern for Hill who began to experiment in the 1970s with ways in which speech, text and image related. Since the late 1980s this focus has been fueled by Hill's obsession with the French writer Maurice Blanchot, a friend and contemporary of George Bataille. Speaking at the Whitney Museum of American Art in November, 1995, Hill described his first reading of Blanchot's novel Thomas the Obscure in almost mystical terms. He felt "some winged thing coming up [his] spine," as if the text were reading him as much as he was reading the text. Blanchot seemed to be speaking directly to him, with only a thin gauze of text separating Hill from the author.

Thomas the Obscure inspired Hill's long-form single channel work Incidence of Catastrophe, and a number of other works. In this show the ensemble work And Sat Down Beside Her represents Hill's fascination with Blanchot at its least interesting. Each of the three pieces in the ensemble is an ingenious formal variation on Hill's use of a single lens to focus the light of a video monitor onto a surface. The sculptural forms of the works and the texts which he employs suggest the frightening woman/spider that haunts the protagonist in Thomas the Obscure. Unfortunately the pieces feel conceptually derivative. They fail to engage me despite numerous visits to the darkened room in which they sit, each isolated in it own dim pool of video light. Fortunately, the room is adjacent to that of Beacon: Two Versions of the Imaginary, another Blanchot inspired work which strike a much better balance between artist and author.

Beacon.. (1990) occupies a vast rectangular gallery, probably the largest completely open space in the exhibition. Slightly toward one end of the room, mounted parallel to the floor and just above head height is a slowly rotatingaluminum cylinder. Video images are projected out each end of this "beacon" and onto the walls of the darkened gallery. The images are faint because of Hill's relatively primitive, though elegant projection technique. Similar to the projectors used in I Believe It Is An Image In Light of the Other and And Sat Down Beside Her, two small video monitors are mounted inside the four and a half foot long tube. Each shines out through a single lens, one located at each end of the cylinder.

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For a viewer entering the darkened space the effect is not unlike that of a giant camera obscura. One has the sense of being inside an imaging space, where content is only revealed over time as the eye adjusts to the darkness. But unlike the camera obscura which projects an image from directly outside itself onto an interior wall, here I feel I have entered a site somewhere deep within the psyche, closeted completely from the outside world-a site of strange and dark convergence. The image of an old man's face muttering vague but somehow powerful words drifts slowly along the wall opposite a shaky close-up of the printed pages of a book. Other faces appear from time to time, patient and impassive. There are no rapid changes here, the pace is slow and deliberate. At times the projection appears to illuminate a stationary figure in its slow progress across a wall, the camera having panned over its subject at the same rate as the cylinder rotates the projection (one cycle every six minutes). Once the beam seems to pick up a young girl's face and carry it across the wall. I follow her stare back to the cylinder and across the gallery to the opposite wall where the face of an older woman is projected. It is a chilling moment: perhaps they are mother and daughter, perhaps they are the same person meeting a gaze from a different time. Each stares quietly at the other across space and time, each potentially the other's reflection. The light which forms their images seems to flow both into and out of the beacon. I walk ahead of the child's image, then behind, pausing to let the light wash over me as it does the other visitors in its slow progress around the room. I am momentarily blinded by the beacon as my eyes once again readjust to the darkness.

Later, as I stand directly beneath the slowly turning cylinder, I notice the camera has panned, once again, at the pace of the beacon. This time the projected light reveals a foreground of silent, bubbling water and the blurry brush of a stream's bank beyond. The Beacon turns through an entire circle, revealing more from its vantage point seemingly in the midst of the stream-ninety degrees farther I see the water gurgling toward me on one wall and sliding away downstream on the other side of the room, another ninety degrees and I am again looking across the rolling stream to the vague forms on the shore. I sense time drawn into the flow, passing through and around the Beacon, washing over me, filling me with a sense of purpose. It is a moment of startling clarity. I think back to a wedding I attended that summer. Standing beneath a chuppa in the afternoon sun, the groom read a passage from Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra.:

Behold this gateway, dwarf!... It has two faces. Two paths meet here; no one has yet followed either to its end. This long lane stretches back for an eternity. And the long lane out there, that is another eternity. They contradict each other, these paths; they offend each other face to face; and it is here at this gateway that they come together. The name of the gateway is inscribed above: "Moment."

Nietzsche was testing his hero's will to live against the concept of eternal return-the idea that life is a never-ending circle in which we are fated to repeat the same actions, positive and negative, over and over through eternity. The images of the woman and the child seem to pose just this kind of quandary-the structure of the piece having suspended the usual temporal ordering. Woman flows into child and child into woman and over again, with the viewer at the nexus of the flow, caught in the gateway "Moment" on which everything somehow hinges.

The sub-title of the work, ...Two Versions of the Imaginary, is taken from Blanchot's essay of the same name. In it he argues that an image and a corpse are similar in the way in which they relate to the originals from which they are derived. The text of the piece, however, is drawn from a different essay, "The Gaze of Orpheus" in which Blanchot identifies Orpheus' attempt to gaze beyond death, an attempt to reestablish a visual presence that could not be restored, as the founding act of writing. Hill seems interested in the power of video light to both project an image and to gaze back at those who are accustomed to being in the position of controlling subject. In the installation Hill's projections gaze back (from both beyond and before death if we believe Zarathustra) in this way. The light of the projection even threatens to blind (if only momentarily) the viewer. As with Blanchot and his surrealist companions, the fascination seems to be with blindness as a moment of true seeing and as a bridge, perhaps, into forbidden worlds. In my case it is a doubly potent blindness, and I am carried far into my own forbidden realms by Hill's work.

Blanchot's are not the philosophical texts on which Hill draws. In Between Cinema and a Hard Place Hill uses elements of Martin Heidegger's The Nature of Language to structure the work. As the viewer listens to a woman's careful reading of Heidegger's comments on the relationship between poetry and thinking, he is faced with some 23 monitors, stripped once again of their casings and spread across the gallery floor. Arrayed loosely in rows, some on a small riser, the monitors range in size from small 6-inch black and whites to 13-inch color screens. All are tipped on their sides, forming vertical spaces for the video images as opposed to the usual horizontal.

The text slowly develops the concept of "neighborly nearness" as a means to describe the connection between poetry and the process of thinking. Meanwhile, images of stones, each isolated against a neutral background, appear in short sequences on varying groups of monitors, the movement between monitors drawing the viewer's attention to different areas of the installation space. The sequences evolve to include images of what appears to be underbrush and then a fence row as seen, perhaps, from a moving vehicle-a blurred, almost abstract image with strobe-like movements repeated on several monitors. Although the images multiply across the monitors they remain fleeting, never seeming to settle.

Listening, I focus on the text's discussion of what it means to be in the same "neighborhood" and whether physical or temporal distance are useful concepts for defining this concept. The words fill me with a surprising sense of nostalgia for connectedness and community. Through his titling of the work and the text's initial focus of on poetry and the thought process, Hill seems to be aiming at a breakdown in the linear, centralized space of cinema. And indeed the installation effectively breaks the structure apart, drawing the eye back and forth across the space and alternating fast paced sequences with lingering images and moments of emptiness. I, however, find myself fixated on the loss of a sense of place. In works such as I Believe It Is an Image in Light of the Other, URA ARU (the backside exists), and Why Do Things Get in a Muddle? (Come on Petunia), Hill explodes the solidity of language, much as he undermines a stable sense of corporeality in Inasmuch as it is Always Already Taking Place, CRUX, Tall Ships, and Suspension of Disbelief (see below). Here it is a concrete sense of place that is absent. Hill's switching mechanisms break the images apart, multiplying them and distributing them through space, applying the same techniques of fragmentation and de-materialization used on the body and language to undermine the stability of place and physical boundary.

The feeling heightens again toward the end of the piece's eight and a half minute cycle. Heideger's text notes that two farms separated by great distances might still be considered nearest of neighbors, and as I listen I catch glimpses of plowed earth and fragments of a farmhouse on some of the monitors. For me the link to issues of poetry and thought are gone, replaced by an anguished sense of lost connection to locality and earth. This connection may have been one of the first casualties of the West's industrial and now the electronic and digital revolutions, but it is particularly poignant here, particularly complete.

The effect is complimented by the breakdown of cinematic space, one of the new structures which has served as a reference in the absence of familiar soil beneath one's feet. Rather than the accommodating seat and the clearly visible screen of the theater the viewer is left to assimilate fragmented images from monitors scattered about the floor. Standing for the eight minute duration seems awkward and the area which provides the best view of the monitors is also the path through the installation to the adjacent works. Even those who feel comfortable sitting on the floor are constantly distracted by the comings and goings, straining to catch the audio over the footfalls and mumblings of other visitors.

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The effect is to push the critique of cinema onto a more general plane. The "hard place" to which Hill refers seems to be a place where there is no clearly defined position for the viewer. Fence rows blur and stones dissolve, images fragment and multiply-the boundaries which separated viewer from image, and cinema from the surrounding world are gone2. It is an uncomfortable experience for the viewer, one which invites nostalgia of the kind I felt, but the discomfort is also a welcome corrective to utopian visions of the disembodied self floating free in cyberspace. I find myself more caught than free, like the missing verb in the "rock and a hard place" adage from which Hill borrows his title. Like the viewer in I Believe It Is an Image in Light of the Other, I am forced to negotiate a position for myself in an environment of unusual relationships and fluid boundaries, only here there is no point at which I can readily intervene.

Adjacent to the Learning Curve pieces is Remarks on Color, a single channel projection piece from 1994. The image of a young girl (Hill's daughter) reading aloud from Wittgenstein's Remarks on Color fills an entire wall. The girl is dressed in brightly colored clothes, playing on the title and on the serious discussion of language games in the Wittgenstein's text. In a corner of the screen a number is visible, slowly, and seemingly randomly counting upward as the child struggles through the text. The reading is at once innocent and precocious given the nature of the text and the girl's difficulties with the some of the words. The pattern of her struggle and of the numbers, however, remains elusive, and I grow frustrated, worrying that perhaps there is a joke being told at my expense. Some in the gallery seem charmed by the girl's innocent gaffes before such a daunting text. Others with whom I speak suspect the precociousness is Hill's not the child's.

In Remarks on Color Hill has constructed a kind of video/language game of his own, instructing his daughter to read through the entire text without stopping, doing her best to pronounce the words she doesn't know. The tape, therefore, is an unedited forty-five minutes of reading in which the girl's errors occasionally slur the meaning of the text. The word "know" for example, frequently becomes "now" in her interpretation. More subtly, however, Hill has pasted the phonetic spellings of the most difficult philosophical terms into the text. As a result only relatively common words fall prey to the slurred and shifted meanings, while the least common and least understandable words are clearly articulated.

Unfortunately, the ironic connection between the precise meaning and pronunciation of the philosophical language and the fluid, imprecise (though infinitely more understandable) language of the child is likely to be lost for most viewers. The temptation is more to marvel at the spectacle of an immense image of a child reading Wittgenstein aloud and to be surprised by the precociousness of the child. Those who dwell on the text seem likely to spend their time trying to catch-up with Wittgenstein's meaning, and ultimately be pushed away by the difficulty of the text.

In this piece, as in many of his works which draw on a philosophical text, Hill walks a fine line between alienating and intriguing his viewer. I can not help but wonder if it is not a reflection of his own relationship to the texts he uses. During the November, 1995 talk at the Whitney, Hill spoke at some length about his interest in language and in Blanchot. A very impressed, if somewhat confused, docent asked Hill if he had studied philosophy or something like it. "No, I was a surfer" he replied with a smile. Hill seems to enjoy his amateur status vis-a-vis the texts he uses. They are objects of fascination, but they are never really his own. They are kept slightly at a distance, clearly borrowed-though sometimes to remarkable effect.

Images of two naked bodies slide noiselessly across the row of 30 black and white monitors that comprise Suspension of Disbelief (for Marine) (1991-92). Mounted along an aluminum beam seven feet above the floor, each monitor usually contains only a portion of a larger image which is distributed over the adjacent screens. The two bodies, a man's and a woman's, move toward each other with a rapid, flickering motion even as the camera move up and down the bodies in an intimate survey of surfaces. No single monitor retains an image for long, frustrating any illusion of materiality - the forms on the screens barely coalesce as images, let alone as objects. Occasionally a single image streams across all the monitors in succession, visible on each for only a fraction of a second. A hand appear and moves over the woman's body, pauses, fluttering between monitors, and moves on, leaving the impression of a caress-not of the body, but of something less substantial, of the image, perhaps of a memory.

Many times over the course of the afternoon, I return to stand with the other visitors in front of this piece-wondering what they are seeing in the bodies floating before them. The attraction is similar to the flicker of desire that animates the screens of MTV watchers, but there is something more. The grammar of video and sculpture are strained by the frenetic switching of the images and by the sheer number of monitors stretched across the field of vision; strained not to the point of breaking, but to the point of discovery. I find myself directed inward, where my own desires for and about these bodies are stirred, but left without an object on which to focus.

Later, as my eyes struggle to keep up with the piece's staccato movements I catch a glimpse of a fading image out of the corner of my eye. I turn to watch the last frame retreating into black and wonder if, in fact, that last frame is not already long gone and I am only experiencing the effects of persistence of vision. Suspension of Disbelief is, for me, Hill at his most poetic. The piece has conceptual content, but its force is visceral. The sense of loss that runs beneath the surface in much of Hill's work is finally visible, if only for an instant.

Opposite Suspension of Disbelief a corridor cuts across the Guggenheim's exhibition space. Past the bathrooms and the elevators one can see the flash of red from the girl's shirt in Remarks on Color. Hill's works seem to require the neutral, darkened space of the gallery, and indeed most of the works in the exhibition are carefully isolated from one another. This seems appropriate for the closed systems which Hill constructs, their dynamics leaving little room for any variables beyond those of the work and the viewer. So, whether by curatorial design or architectural coincidence, the fact that only these two works are visible from one another seems significant. I indulge myself that they might represent the two poles of Hill's sensibility, one ironic and playful with a hint of maliciousness, the other ecstatic and mournful. In light of the work presented, it seems a plausible indulgence.

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Printed in MFJ No. 29 (Fall 1996) Video Installation

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Last revised on 10-16-96 by Dayoan Daumont

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