Los Angeles

Focus: Gary Hill

Enchantment is the province of the image, and the image is never more enchanting than when it is unmoored, hovering in the indeterminate realm of fascination. In Gary Hill’s Between Cinema and a Hard Place, 1991, video monitors with their outer casings removed punctuate the dimly lit space like volcanic debris. Pastoral images move across the disembodied screens, as magical as the Romantic landscapes believers conjure from such tortured stones. The spoken text is from Heidegger. A fragment: “When the word is called the mouth’s flower and its blossom, we hear the sound of language rising like the earth.”

Hill’s work is seductive in part because it is nothing like most video art. A shockingly static form, too long in thrall to its “specificity,” video art continues to display the traits that have marked it since its inception: an overt reliance on the hardware, idioms, and relentless flow of broadcast TV, and what Rosalind Krauss has called video’s esthetic of narcissism—its collapsed present (the simultaneous projection and reception of the image) and its encapsulated body, sited between camera and monitor. Hill strips away the hardware, imperils the idioms with an idiosyncratic form of discourse, and interrupts the flow with strange moments of epiphany. He foils video’s mirror effect—its self-love—with a gaze that pierces both the apparatus and the false sense of mastery over the body the apparatus bestows.

With “Gary Hill,” a major exhibition of nine installations and five single-channel tapes (organized by Senior Curator Chris Bruce for the Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington, Seattle), Hill has finally been “discovered,” at least in America. Seemingly an overnight art-world sensation, Hill has actually been showing work since the mid ’70s: he was accorded a retrospective at the American Center in Paris in 1983, featured at the Venice Biennale in 1984, selected for Documenta in 1987, and the subject of a traveling exhibition organized by the Pompidou in 1991, the same year he was also included in the Pompidou’s visionary “Passages de l’Image” (Passages of the image) along with Bill Viola, Chris Marker, and Dan Graham.

This, however, is a surprising moment in which to “discover” an artist whose work invokes Lacan’s Imaginary, intones Blanchot’s Thomas the Obscure, and ruminates on Heidegger. Theory is on its way out (so they say), while beauty is making a return. So why Hill and why now? Perhaps because “the heap of language still seeps.” With this aphorism, one of many studding his writing, Hill conjures Robert Smithson’s famous 1966 work, and implies that as in Smithson’s drawing, the texts that write us accumulate one atop the other with tense exactitude, as if to ward off entropy. Indeed, the words that form the texts out of which this ever-mounting tower of Babel is built will not disappear: theoretical or practical, opaque or crystalline, they are the persistent symptom of our information-glutted fin de siècle.

Smithson’s notion of language as material—tangible, weighty, as embodied as any symptom—was certainly prophetic for post-Modernism. It anticipated, among other things, the ways in which, in the ’80s, artists such as Sherrie Levine and Peter Halley transformed the language of French theory into objects-cum-texts. Hill shares these artists’ quite radical obsession with language, but insists on a rapprochement with the technologies of language that their work elides.

For Hill, the voice is one such technology, but as with all technologies, slippages are assumed. This is dramatized in Why Do Things Get in a Muddle? (Come on Petunia), 1984, a tape in which the spoken word augurs not enlightenment but confusion. Actors portraying “The Father” and “The Daughter” recite entire sections of their prepared remarks in reverse. The recording is then played backward, so that the words we eventually hear are in the “correct” order but impossibly (if not irretrievably) muddled.

A muddle can be a muddle, or it can be a tantalizing prospect, like Alice’s looking-glass, which cheerily perverts all logic, promiscuously transforming things into their opposites only to expose the other side of truth. The text of Why Do Things Get in a Muddle? derives from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass and Gregory Bateson’s writings on the metalogue. Bateson’s metalogue is a dialogue whose form illustrates the philosophical problem being discussed (i.e., a metalogue about the nature of passion is impassioned). As Lynne Cooke points out, it is a means to think about language without recourse to metalanguage. Though the metalogue is not a precise metaphor for Hill’s project as a whole, it does suggest the kind of boomerang effect his work instantiates, where the text winds its way back not to itself but to the body that marks out the text’s trajectory. Hill has said, “I must become a warrior of self-consciousness and move my body to move my mind to move the words to move my mouth to spin the spur of the moment.”

From the mouth, then, to the eye, which, in Hill’s work has many surrogates—the lens, the projection, the anamorph. In And Sat Down Beside Her, 1990, two tiny monitors dangling from a web of thick black cables project text onto a wall, but the words are intercepted and distorted by four lenses, like pairs of spider’s eyes, affixed to the ground. In Beacon (Two Versions of the Imaginary), 1990, a horizontal tube suspended from the ceiling projects text and images from each of its ends while slowly revolving in darkened space: words from Blanchot’s The Gaze of Orpheus sprawl across the wall, turn the corner, and devolve into trapezoids of light while images of a woman and a child move toward one another then apart, and never meet. As they covet each other, we covet the revolving beams of light. Yet to stand in the light’s path and accept its illumination is to erase with our shadows the things it shows us. The Blanchot text echoes this: “Once it [the object] has become an image, it instantly becomes ungraspable.”

What is it, then, to make the world and/or the word into an image? Once seen—if seen, that is, and not distorted or erased—can any image approximate truth? In one sense, this is not Hill’s concern: his tapes and installations are less involved with interrogating sight than with enacting time—the split second between cuts, movement through space, the passage from one state of being to another. Hill is enamored of blur. Yet blur is not a condition of the object, of the image, or of vision (impaired, frustrated, or occluded), it is the picture of time passing.

This is made apparent in Site Recite (a prologue), 1989, a meditation on death that is, appropriately, both gorgeous and very cold. A camera traverses objects arranged on a low table in the manner of an 18th-century vanitas. Accompanied by a sonorous soundtrack written and recited by Hill, skulls, bones, and pieces of petrified wood shift in and out of focus, rhythmically blurred by the roving camera’s eye. Hill’s voice anchors us in the present but his images stubbornly conjure the past. The blur illustrates the distance between the past and the present as it signals the difficulty of ever being fully present before objects of the gaze.

If Site Recite is a prologue, Searchlight, 1986–94, feels a bit like an epilogue, though its perpetual to-and-fro precludes the whole notion of an ending. In the dark room where Searchlight is placed, there are no words, only the low rumble of white noise; there is little to be seen besides an ellipse of white light moving back and forth across the walls. Only at the midpoint of its 180-degree arc—and then only for a moment—does the light cohere into an image of the ocean’s horizon line and the noise into the sound of waves, lapping at the shore. Then the moment is over; both sound and image return to blur, lost until they resurface only to be lost again. Searchlight is a beautifully poetic emblem of Hill’s entire project, which like the fantasy of knowledge is a tease, always promising more than it can give because—in the blink of an (electronic) eye—it inevitably runs out of time.

Susan Kandel

“Gary Hill” can be seen at the Guggenheim SoHo, New York, from 11 May to 20 August 1995, and at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, from 24 September to 27 November 1995.