New York

Gary Hill

The architecture of Gary Hill’s video installation Primarily Speaking, 1981–83, enforces a somewhat distanced response—there’s no particularly good position from which to experience the whole thing. Two white slablike structures face each other, forming a corridor perhaps six feet wide; four video monitors are mounted in each of these monoliths at a little above eye level, facing the four monitors in the opposite wall. Images usually appear on only one monitor on each side at any one time, with the other three monitors showing blank screens of color—the additive primaries blue, green, and red on one wall, and the subtractive primaries cyan, magenta, and yellow on the other; at various points during the presentation these color triads switch sides. Meanwhile a spoken soundtrack is heard from speakers mounted behind each wall, coming now from one side, now from the other.

Standing at the end of the corridor between the two walls, you can see the monitors at an acute angle. When you’re in the corridor itself, you can watch only one wall at a time, so you either have to turn back and forth to see the two banks of monitors, or else choose only one to pay attention to. The experience is like trying to focus on the two sides of an argument at the same time—an appropriate image, since Primarily Speaking is built around the monologue that alternates between the two sides. (In fact Hill has used the same text for other versions—both installations and videotapes—of the piece.)

Hill’s text is a knotty collage of figures of speech and idiomatic expressions, intoned in an almost mechanical rhythm. Accompanying this monologue are simple visuals, short, crisply shot scenes which function like “words” in a video sentence. The hortatory tone of the text, in which an unseen narrator confronts “you” the viewer, links it to Barbara Kruger’s accusatory photomontages, while his punning use of clichéd phrases pushes it closer to Jenny Holzer’s wry pseudo-slogans. But beneath the humor of a line like “I’ve swallowed many a hook, line and sinker in my time, considering how long I’ve been a fish out of water” is another purpose: to crack open these stale phrases and recapture the savor of the images they present.

The argument of the piece is a familiar one, though strikingly presented. The tape alludes to things being in a bad way: “This time it’s more than just a change in the weather,” the narrator announces, while clouds are seen rushing across the sky. Consumer culture is referred to through a Vocoder-processed ditty—“Blue green red, cyan magenta yellow; food, feed, fed, I have the time of dayglow”—sung while images of feeding hogs and price-code bars flash on the monitors. The images, both verbal and visual, pile up with increasing urgency until the text declares, “The place is here, the time is now—zero hour. And so on,” while shots of a mushroom cloud appear on a screen. No specific solutions to the present crisis are proposed—although Hill does at one point suggest that perhaps paying closer attention to form can help. In the end, though, he declares, “I don’t want to make a production out of it. . . . All I want is to walk through it with you.”

In Primarily Speaking Hill distills formal and technical complexity into a clear, simple-seeming structure. This and the work’s obvious purposefulness command the viewer’s attention. Although he offers no answers, Hill restates, with surprising freshness, urgent issues—which have themselves become clichés, capable of being mistakenly (and dangerously) considered just the stale, rhetorical figures of political discourse.

Charles Hagen