Published  12/01/2010

Gary Hill: Poetics Beyond the Third Dimension

Poetics Beyond the Third Dimension

Gary Hill: O lugar sem o tempo/Taking time from place
Oi Futuro gallery, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
20 July–6 September 2009

Gary Hill: Circunstâncias/Circumstances
Museu da imagem e do Som (MIS, Museum of Sound and Image), São Paulo, Brazil
19 January–21 March 2010


If a word is worth 0.001 pictures, as stated at the entrance of American artist Gary Hill’s first work in this, his second solo exhibition in Brazil, talking about his work seems superfluous. Nevertheless, Hill's pieces are not simple images but a language of images frequently also composed of words. It is not by chance that, often, his work references poets, writers and philosophers. Clearly, the 'word' is not an expletive for Gary Hill.

The words that Hill places within his works are to be taken away right after and replaced with broader 'language' which, according to the philosopher Heidegger, a recurrent inspiration to the artist, is accessed when we cannot find the right word for something that concerns us. Yet Hill’s gag is effective as it provokes a sense of strangeness the artist aims to reach, making the viewer question the image, the word and much that he or she has taken for granted.

Born in 1951 in Santa Monica, California, and now a resident of Seattle, Washington, in 1973 Gary Hill created his first single-channel video work and soon after ventured into the then-untried arena of video installation. His numerous recognitions include a Kurt Schwitters Award, a MacArthur Foundation grant, two Guggenheim fellowships and the Lion d'Or for sculpture at the 1995 Venice Biennale. An active international exhibitor, he has been given solo shows at the Watari Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo; Sprengel Museum in Hanover, Germany; Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City; and Musée de l'Art Contemporain de Montréal in Canada. Hill's first solo exhibit in Brazil, O lugar do outro/Where the other takes place, in 1997, was displayed at two venues: the Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil in Rio de Janeiro and the Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo.

Consisting of works created from 1996 to 2008, Hill's latest exhibit is staged at the Museum of Image and Sound in Brazil's largest city. Before travelling to São Paulo, the show appeared in Rio de Janeiro at Oi Futuro, a cultural centre dedicated to art and technology which has sheltered some of the best and few late contemporary art exhibits in town. Taking 'place' as Hill's subject, the translation of 'Taking time from place' into Portuguese is not the most fortunate rendering. The phrase loses one of possible multiple meanings it suggests; in English, the title has no clear subject or major character.

For the Brazilian audience, Hill's issues may seem a bit too confrontational. For instance, his generous scale is atypical in the country's national art. Mainly, his work places common perceptions and beliefs before the viewer within a challenging context. Wall Piece (2000), for example, is preceded by a text in which one can read sentences (such as 'I see myself from outside') that could have easily been written by a phenomenology philosopher. The work itself conveys the inside of a dark room; one strobe light flashes right before, after or at the same time as another strobe light, within the video showing a man – Hill himself – bumping against a wall while saying short words. Viewing Wall Piece is a somewhat unpleasant experience. The introductory text states, 'I am blind'. So becomes the viewer.

Accordions (The Belsunce Recordings, July 2001) from 2001/2002 elicits a similar effect. The work decomposes movement and, thus, extends the sensation of time. Here, the affected sense organ is the ear, as the environmental sound, after edition in geometrical progression of time, becomes abstract, loud and disturbing. It is as if one heard hippos as the image blinks. At the opposite extreme, Hill's slow takes produce characters that approximate nearly still images. The artist's editing process detaches sign and significance from the image, which loses its reference and becomes a fragment from which a new sign arises.

Hill used a similar technique for Viewer (1996). Here, 17 individual life-sized images of silent standing men, placed together in a line, seem to observe what is happening in the room. Thus Hill places the viewer within the work via a device that Diego Velasquez inaugurated in the 17th century with his Las Meninas. Hill's choice of title, Viewer, designates viewer and viewed as a unified entity. While Hill's audience considers the work, many will find that the act of facing the figures shown in the work as they look back is, frankly, disconcerting.

In Language Willing (2002), Hill continues his pursuit of dislocation: divergent movement of fingers from left and right hands follow, at different speeds, a flowered table cloth while a poem is being quickly recited.

Finally, Up Against Down (2008) returns the theme of fragmentation explored in Accordions. Five pieces of a body (Hill himself again) are shown on different screens while a constant sound frequency accompanies pressure being put against a surface. Inside these pieces, the viewer sees materialised a sentence encountered at the entrance of the exhibit: 'I am a sequence of pictures'.
Frequently, Hill plays with simultaneity to convey comparisons, approximations and superposition of neighbour languages. He could be considered a Minimal artist given his economy of resources in a time of hyperproduction and reproduction of images. He could also be considered a Conceptual artist due to his concern with words and intellectual preoccupations. For many commentators, Hill is a video artist, although the term only describes his medium. Calling Hill a video installator would be more accurate, although this role still gives much more emphasis to technique than is, in Hill's case, due. After all, in Hill's work poetic metaphor created through extended images, not technique, dominates.

Hill’s fondness for mathematical games (numbers, fractions, progressions, etc.) could also indicate a strictly constructive heritage. His objectivity is loose, seemingly contrived. Light, for example, seems to be flashed at regular intervals but is not (for example, in Wall Piece). Body and sound are meant to be synchronised but are not either (Up Against Down); and, of course, there is the embarrassing situation produced by strangers who are no more than images (Viewer).

So while Hill's aggressive insertion of the viewer into works that, above all, question 'self' and 'other' might be startling to the Brazilian audience, the artist's search for balance between construction and subjectivity will not be unfamiliar to them. Such Brazilian Neoconcrete artists as Hélio Oiticica and Lygia Clark were, like Hill, sculptors of scenes and senses. By working poetically around and beyond the edges of known dimensions, time and place, Hill offers new spaces for discovery.

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