New York

Gary Hill

The most striking component of Gary Hill’s Frustrum (all works 2006), one of two installations commissioned by the Fondation Cartier that were recently presented concurrently in New York and Paris, is a projected video animation of a giant eagle caught in the wiring of an electrical pylon. As the bird flaps its powerful wings in a futile attempt to escape, the loud crack of a bullwhip punctuates the darkness while ripple generators disturb the surface of a large pool of black oil in front of the screen. In the center of the dark liquid sits an impressive twenty-six-pound brick of gold bullion. Valued at approximately $270,000, it is inscribed FOR EVERYTHING WHICH IS VISIBLE IS A COPY OF THAT WHICH IS HIDDEN. At Gladstone Gallery, a security guard (not technically a part of the installation) actively discouraged people from getting close enough to actually read the motto on the precious metal, so viewers were forced to rely on the representation on a monitor in another room.

Hill’s juxtaposition of gold, oil, politics, and art triggers a landslide of associations. Critical engagement with the American war in Iraq is clearly on the artist’s mind, as is the twisted logic of oil dependency and our generally crippling patterns of consumption. But the work could just as easily be seen as an (ironic?) paean to the market. Gold? Oil? Art? Which investment best suits your portfolio? Here, you get two for one: The financial value of the gold underwrites that of the art. The brooding lament that Hill distills into social commentary is undercut by the work’s apparent allegiance to a corporate model of success. Frustrum reflects the artist’s conscience, but it must also represent the so-called conscience of Fondation Cartier—which likes its art to be socially aware—as well as the trade in luxury that ensures Cartier’s continued existence. This returns us to the presence of the security guard as an element (intended or not) of the installation that is at the center of the paradigm of power to which Hill alludes in the bullion’s inscription.

Hill goes for gold again in Guilt, appearing to reference feelings of helplessness in the face of the atrocities committed at Abu Ghraib. This busy installation features five telescopes on pyramidal mounts, each one trained on a different gold coin. The sovereigns stand on their edges on slowly revolving columns, and bear likenesses of the artist punching himself in the face and adopting pained expressions that seem to mimic those of tortured prisoners. Standing beneath overhead speakers, viewers hear brooding monologues delivered, almost inaudibly, in Hill’s own voice. This felt like the artist’s Don DeLillo moment—the voice of a narrator putting himself on the line as he bares his soul in recognition of unfolding disaster. The targeted sound ensures that the details of Hill’s rant sometimes remain obscure. But the cadence of his speech, peppered as it is with expressions of anger, is familiar from the work of Jenny Holzer, Bruce Nauman, and many others.

But whose guilt does Hill address here? The circle of complicity is tightly drawn around artist and viewer. We perform the role of gold-digger as we stoop to peer through the telescopes or edge closer to the ingot. The work’s brand of theatricality feels like nothing so much as a flashback to the glitziest art of the ’80s. Indeed, Hill is one of the leading practitioners of what has been termed “festival” art: the bigger, the better. Luxury goods are brought into alignment with bleeding-heart empathy to establish an occasion for what might be termed a “core experience” in which art is aligned with truth. The encounter is played out on a field on which global politics and cultural imperialism meet in the context of de facto allegiance to a corporate entity. Here, Hill has too many masters to serve.

Jan Avgikos