San Francisco

Doug Hall

Doug Hall, who was once associated with Jody Proctor in the performance duo T.R. Uthco, has attempted an ambitious seven night, live, soap opera as part of the San Francisco Art Institute’s Annual. The Annual, which was first held in 1891, takes place at various locations this year, and Hall’s piece was performed at SITE, a San Francisco art space.

The difficulty of performing a different activity for one hour on seven consecutive nights could only be surpassed by the difficulty of attending such an ongoing event. However, since the remains from Seven Chapters From the Life . . . (A Soap Opera) were intended to function as an installation piece, it was possible to attend Chapters Three and Six without losing sight of the whole. Each night, the brief text of a new chapter was hung up the wall, e.g., “Chapter One: He was born very young and had everything to look forward to,” and a related action was performed in isolated intensity, while the audience observed, or examined, the other “sets” in the darkened room. Seven Chapters, despite its title, differed from a traditional soap opera in every way—notably, all the activity was performed by Doug Hall alone, and there were no unresolved crises at either end to make viewing junkies out of the audience.

There were teasers though. I couldn’t resist my curiosity about the set with slouch hat and roses, which I guessed would represent some sort of meeting with Joseph Beuys. Wrong, I discovered. But upon learning that no such implication was intended, I indulged in food for future thought; through what complex or subconscious channels do dissimilar living artists arrive at similar objects as props? Since they have the latitude of three dimensions and the option of functional use of these objects, which, for example, painters lack, what metaphysical and practical factors determine these selections? The possibility exists for endless speculation.

Chapter Three and Chapter Six did not resemble each other conceptually or actually. Since I have seen earlier pieces by T.R. Uthco, I was not surprised to see Hall seated in a chair for Chapter Three, an activity he perfected in 1976, when he sat for hours on a chair bolted to the outside of a building in 32 Feet Per Second Per Second. This time he faced the wall, separated from it by a rectangular structure resembling a box kit. Three small flashlights shone toward Hall and a fourth was suspended within the box in such a way that it illuminated the artist’s face (somewhat) and the wall (in a lighted circle). An arrangement of gray tape, similar to electroshock apparatus held Hall’s head in place, and his deep, exhaustive sighs were echoed regularly by an accompanying sound tape, which contained occasional piano music as well.

The text for Chapter Three read: “Some days were uneventful and for long periods of time he found himself staring at the wall.” After a long period of time, Hall’s somewhat orgasmic sighs had an enveloping effect, but his repetitive activity repelled rather than attracted some of the audience. A taped voice whispered louder and louder, “give it up, give it up,” which sounded equally like “keep it up.” The recorded sighs and Diane Andrews Hall’s piano improvisations were replaced by yawnlike noises, then additional regular sighs. The wonder of it all was that Hall, by his very uninvolving act of turning his back, was able to command the audience’s attention and transport many of them, myself included, to a meditative state resembling his own. “Disorientation,” he said was one result, “I felt like I was sitting upside down.”

The irony is that by sitting perfectly still in Chapter Three, Hall was able to project a more significant experience than by moving around with many props in Chapter Six. We’ve all been less-ismored to distraction by painting and sculpture in the clichéd ’60s-’70s, but performance art is a relatively unplayed ballgame, with disarmingly unpredictable results. A dirt-covered patch, littered with toy soldiers and miniature incendiary devices (lighter fluid can and stockpiled matches), which was the set for Chapter Six, promised drama, action and excitement. The opposite occurred once the oft-repeated dramatic climax, an explosion into flames of tiny war equipment, ceased to be sufficiently titillating after the first few times to arouse latent pyromania in the audience. As the battlefield progressed from nursery floor cleanliness to a carnage-strewn arena of broken hills andinterrupted roadways, the mastermind Hall, hands covered with dirt, repositioned guns, soldiers and tanks and then destroyed them, pausing only to sit back on a chair from time to time and survey his work like a giant overlord at a chess table. Live and taped battle sounds issued from his mouth as he set a toy plane on fire and crashed it to the ground. The fairly serious fire along one of the gun-lined ridges produced a great deal of smoke and transformed the artist into an eerie, flame-lit manipulator. One thinks of the way a painter works—move a lot of paint (or a soldier) here or there, then contemplate it and the next move for a time at least equal to that of the activity. Since it was all a game, the audience responded with giggles at the horrors of the Lilliputian war. “Kill the sound,” said Hall after an hour. In silence, Hall sprawled on the battlefield and asked the audience to provide the denouement. “They both should live,” someone said of the two remaining enemies. “They both lived,” said Hall as he turned out the overhead light and ended the piece. The text provided no clues: “Chapter Six. He knew that certain things had to be understood later. He piled dirt from the cellar onto the kitchen floor.”

Mary Stofflet