New York

Gary Hill

Galerie des Archives

What does it mean to be transfixed by your own body? Gary Hill may not have the answer, but Hand Heard, 1995–96, his startling recent installation comprising five large-scale projections in an octagonal room, suggested he’s been exploring the question. Each projected image depicted a person engaged in the rather mundane activity of scrutinizing his or her own palm. Hill’s construction was at once banal and poetic, even disturbing, and the longer you watched these figures stare endlessly into their hands, the more unnerved you became. What exactly were these people doing? And why were Hill’s images so mesmerizing, so oddly beautiful?

To take delight in one’s image in a mirror is undoubtedly narcissistic, and one has only to remove the mediating presence of the mirrored surface, and self-immersion can become a sign of psychosis. Sartre’s Nausea (1938) contains a vivid description of the experience of becoming so radically cut off from the world that even a part of one’s own body can seem alien and repulsive. While the sort of self-estrangement and extreme bodily self-objectification suggested by Hand Heard could have resulted from an existential crisis or schizophrenic episode, one could see this piece itself as figuring the act of aesthetic contemplation when it engenders hallucinatory transformations.

These were some of the thoughts occasioned by Hill’s glowing frieze of nearly static, utterly silent heads and hands. Shot in partial profile from neck and wrist up, a familiar camera angle in cinema, each “subject” was seen holding a hand up to his or her face. Although the images had a distinct “real-time” feel, it seemed that Hill had looped the color footage into a seamless cycle of repeated sequences. He asked the spectator to enter into a contemplative space not unlike the one indicated in the projections. Instead of the traditional subject-object relationship, Hill constructed a subject-subject encounter that became indistinguishable from an object-object relation, as each body placed itself under surveillance.

Installed in the back room was Hill’s Liminal Objects, 1995–96, which comprised a number of stripped-down black and white television monitors. Each monitor transmitted seemingly computer-generated animated images: a wheel appeared to roll back and forth through a bed; a houselike form moved through a human head/brain that was continuously changing position; and the fingers of two apparently human hands were woven together. The sensuous, ghostlike, yet strangely substantial images in each work commingled within a luminous, illusionistic space.

Probably inadvertently, Hand Heard, which dominated this show, had a somewhat comic effect: Were the subjects of the video members of some sort of New Age cult engaging in a collective ritual? Or had they been roped into becoming test subjects for the artist? It could be suggested that Hill was constructing a situation in which individuals were “permitted” to participate in an activity designed to provoke distinct physical responses. In fact, it was interesting to observe how each person reacted: quivering hands, blinking eyes, and the inexorable pull of sleep were some of the outward signs that indicated disturbances disrupting the meditative silence. Any communication between the individuals and their bodies could not be overheard, only surmised.

Joshua Decter