New York

Hannah Black, Beginning, End, None, 2017/2019, three-channel video installation, color, sound, 10 minutes 22 seconds. Installation view. Photo: Da Ping Luo.

Hannah Black, Beginning, End, None, 2017/2019, three-channel video installation, color, sound, 10 minutes 22 seconds. Installation view. Photo: Da Ping Luo.

Hannah Black

The five large screens of Hannah Black’s video installation Beginning, End, None—a new iteration of a work from 2017—were suspended from the ceiling of the long, darkened gallery. They formed an austere procession of loosely edited montages, assembled from images of motes, slowly churning like stardust: ghostly computer-generated architectural renderings, scientific illustrations, a scorpion illuminated by a UV flashlight, and other found or casually shot material. While the configuration lent the space a hallowed ambience and gave the fragmented work a sense of order, it also had a disquieting effect: Whatever your position in Black’s stripped-down maze at any given moment—even if you lingered at the edge of the room, trying to keep as many screens in view as possible—you were missing most of the action, including, maybe, that crucial image or phrase that would snap the drifting pieces of her brooding puzzle into place.

Beginning takes as its subject the cell—particularly, its commonplace definition within industrial capitalism as a factory, one that makes, as a disembodied male voice enthuses at one point, “thousands of different molecular machines.” But in the age of biotech, when cells do indeed produce and become commodities, the notion is hardly a stretch. The artist uses her installation as a philosophical and rhetorical experiment to cast doubt on the scientific and sentimental criteria with which we distinguish these categories. What, after all, is life, that principal, elusive property that sets the cell and the factory apart? THERE IS NO UNEQUIVOCAL DEFINITION, announces a pink bar of text, obscuring the face of a train or bus passenger who gazes out the window. And what is death? Curiously, pinpointing that moment with regard to the proverbial building block of life isn’t easy: “A cell doesn’t have a heartbeat,” a knowledgeable young woman’s voice explains. On one of the screens, a blurry underwater image of a small boat, viewed from below, cuts to a close shot of a wrist with a strong pulse.

In another sequence, a bright, rudimentary animation of an automated assembly line is accompanied by an audio clip of a lecture by the historian Marcus Rediker, who formulates the slave ship, that institution of “malevolent genius,” as a hybrid of warship, prison, and factory, the abstract products of which are labor power and categories of race. Then, silence, and a coldly mesmerizing, simulated moving shot of a virtual structure modeled after Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon fills the screen. It brings to mind the oft-reproduced, horrific aerial-view diagram of an eighteenth-century British vessel crowded with abducted Africans, as well as the conditions of mass incarceration. Black repeats this footage of the software’s roving techno-omniscient imaging throughout, showing the famous symbol of state and self-surveillance in skeletal, theoretical form, its tiered radial structure, watchtower nucleus, and endless little doors evoking the cells of a prison, or of a cheek swab.

There is no Fibonacci-style neatness in her work’s tangle of analogy, metaphor, and association, nothing like that trite yet mind-blowing ratio linking pine cone, conch, and the proportions of the ideal body in Greek statuary. Instead, in response to what the press release calls the “ideological aura” of the enduring cell/factory comparison, she offers a commensurately diffuse rumination on their status as reciprocal, ever-mutating analogue that expand outward. IT’S THE BEGINNING OF THE WORLD, one channel speculates, the text appearing as if in outer space; IT’S THE END OF THE WORLD, declares the other. THERE HAS NEVER BEEN A WORLD is the statement that rings truest from the depths of her vertiginously skeptical installation. Yet Black, radically noncommittal and subtly humorous, hedges with a semiconsolatory postscript. She shows us the window gazer once more, accompanied by a youthful-sounding voice of reason: “I wouldn’t go so far as to say life and death can be construed as social constructs . . . only.”