To inaugurate the first British exhibition of Gary Hill's recent video installations, the Oxford Museum of Modern Art held a day seminar that, on paper, seemed like a good idea. The Human Anatomy Lecture Theatre was well-chosen for discussion of Hill, who, in his work, often documents and dismembers images of the humsan form. The speakers, including Lynne Cooke and Raymond Bellour, looked promising and were to prepare for a 'performance/.intervention' by Hill himself with his poet collaborators George Quasha and Charles Stein. The theme was to be the influence on Hill's work of the French writer and literary critic Maurice Blanchot.
What prevailed had far more to do with Blanchot than Hill: continental literary theory was privileged over any examination of what Hill's place might be in the contemporary video art firmament. While this no doubt kept the Blanchot devotees happy - a large contingent, judging from audience questions - there was an equally sizeable group who, at the end of the seminar, expressed the feeling that the Blanchot angle had produced more light than heat. So, when it cam time for the promised 'intervention' - a backlit body beind surgical screens , a micro video-camera scanning pages of a book in close-up with the images relayed onto auditorium monitors, and a polophony of voices speaking in language clear and unrecognisable - it took on, for a moment, a character which seemed to parody the language of academic obfudcation that had dominated the day thus far.
From which it would be tempting to conclude that as tey, the British don't know how to talk about video art. We had better learn, and fast. The arrival in this country of major exhibitions of work by Hill and Bill Viola amongst others, provides a relatively sustained opportunity to get to grips with an art in constant mutation, one that has transformed well beyond the critical paradigms provided by such critical paradigms provided by such critics as Gene Youngblood and Rosalind Krauss. It was a pity, then, that Bellour (whose seminal study of the moving image L'Entre-Image: Photo, Cinéma, Vidéo remains shamefully unavailable in English) was bottom of the bill - by which time everyone was flagging - and delivered a very generalised paper.
It was a salutary experience, after the seminar, to allow Hill's work to speak for itself. Or, rather, speak to itself. Two of the multiple-monitor pieces indicate the advanced stage Hill has reached in integrating sound and image in order to establish video as a tangibly physical experience: working with the body, these pieces act on our bodies. Inasmuch as it is Already Taking Place 1990 compels us to approach its 16 uncased monitors of widely differing sizes, featuring close-up fragments of the male body, and asks us to listen to sounds of subdued scraping of a finger on a page (the detail staged and magnified in Hill's intervention), quiet, incantatory murmerings and the rubbing of hands.
If Insamuch.... beckons, Between 1 & 0 1993 keeps us at a physical distance. Thirteen 14" monitors forming a Greek cross on the wall flash extreme close-up images of body details in extended linear flurries across its limbs. The sense of a body coming into being as an image, but never achieving its complete form, it matched and enhanced by the sound of the manic scribble of graphite. The quasi-pornagraphic address of its imagery positions us as voyeurs, but the images and sounds come in irregular, intermittent blizzards - the viewer is stunned but enticed.
But it is now the legendary Tall Ships 1992 that stands out as a departure from and a development of elements in other works. A departure in formal terms; here, unlike elsewhere in the installation, we are presented with complete figures, this time silent, and with the monitor (so insistently foregrounded in the other 'body' pieces) significantly absent. Instead, we have 16 black and white images of people projected onto the walls of a deep, almost entirely unlit corridor-like space. The movements of the figures are triggered by the spectator's own passage through the space, courtesy of a computer-controlled interactive system. The incorporation of the element of regulated chance in Tall Ships means no two experiences of the work are exactly the same, but the silence of these sepulchral figures as they approach, pause and turn away from us makes the sensation one of simultaneous distance and intimacy. Tall Ships alone makes In Light of the Other a vital experience. It is this work whic finally reveals the poverty of the appeals to Blanchot, and the theorists' inability to account for the complex physicality of the spectator's response.