New York

Doug Hessler

Project Studios One

The set-up for Tracking is preparation for a straightforward piece involving a re-creation of a section of wilderness trail. As experienced by the artist, the trail is a fixed site filled with a finite set of elements, yet the experience of walking the trail is never the same twice. Weather, sunlight, the hiker’s own state of mind, all contribute to the perception of the walk. Tracking uses several overlays of visual material to duplicate such a set of possibilities.

Doug Hessler first built a long, wide corridor that heads the viewer into the piece. At the end, images of the trail are displayed. Still slides alternate with moving Super-8 images—the trail itself may be pictured as a stationary section and the path and surrounding grass, or filmed with grass blowing and the camera moving forward. Laid over the image of the path itself colored blobs flicker on- and off-screen, or a solid wash of red suddenly lays itself over the image.

Varying by season, the section of trail is shot from slightly different angles and distances in snow or in sunlight. What we have is a chronicle of the site, a certain amount of factual information literally colored by the artist, but otherwise left pretty much untouched. The fact is that even with a selection of slides of the area, it is difficult to determine the length of the trail, how much it varies along that length, if we are seeing the entire trail or a few repeated sections of one part. Hessler doesn’t clarify this information—instead his narrated comment repeats over and over: “Each time I walk the trail it’s a different trail.” Hessler’s aim, then, is to create a constancy negated by variation and change. With a dual purpose in mind, he counterposes “the fixity and flux of visual information.”

Essentially, Hessler is presenting a simple problem of perception, through his duplication of the site, implying with his statement that he can cause the viewer to share in his experience of the trail. In fact he doesn’t re-create the nature of the experience, but instead produces a kind of visual shorthand representation. The most we can do is accept his comment as true, and appreciate its validity for him. Attempting to draw the viewer into the work, Hessler notes that the viewer’s shadow will fall onto the “screen” as the film projects, so that he will really feel that he is at the site. Instead of integrating the viewer into the piece, however, the shadow acts as a separator, blocking our view of the image. The shadow itself may be a necessary evil in the piece; it doesn’t seem to function as an additional element as much as an inescapable one.

The short segment where Hessler’s camera moves through the trail grasses is reminiscent of Nancy Holt’s exploration of the Pine Barrens. With her camera held at eye level, pushing aside the weeds as it progressed, Holt’s much longer film did capture the feeling of immersion and participation lacking in Hessler’s. Tracking uses the audio as a repetitious motif; Holt used the non-eventful passage of time, relying on the tedium of the experience itself. But while Tracking is much more entertaining than Holt’s trip through the Pine Barrens, her film did make an indelible impact of just that flux/stasis Hessler describes, but somehow misses.

Deborah Perlberg