Walk the earth on your eyes: over the fields, into the forest where the sun hardly shines, over the gurgling brook, out the bay, the quiet and unbroken ocean's horizon, the billowing of the waves, green room tube closing with a white noise crash, double forte. Wash your face. Lay down, pan the room, finding a book, recite the words, write some others, freeing the memories inscribed by the amino acid chains since your kind first walked the earth.
These are some of the things Gary Hill cares enough about to record and display. Experiences so common as to be inoffensive, so inoffensive as to be banal. Despite this or because of this we share them; they are ours. By extension, should we want to repeat them, we could. Considering Hill's choice of subjects, it's as if he were inviting us to do so. Transcendence through the boredom of repetition.
There's a twist, of course. Hill's technically sophisticated single channel videos and multiple channel video installations show us the quotidian in a way we could never experience without them. Filtering the raw digital materials through multiple processors, synthesisers, incomprehensibly fast sequencers, oxymoronically minute video tubes, and the biggest video guns money can buy, Hill shows us his version of our 'everyone's' world transformed.
Provisionally, this dialectic could be framed as nature and technology. Official considerations (e.g. publications for his mainly institutional exhibitions) often incite transitive verbs most properly associated with the scientific method, such as to investigate, to question, and to experiment, further emphasising this traditional duality. This lends Hill's practice a semblance of authority and legitimacy; moreover, I suspect, it helps fund the R&D necessary to develop the often staggeringly complex technical apparatus. But Hill's practice is unequivocally outside of science. Another term must be shuttled between this initial split poetry, or culture, or fiction, or écriture (wonderful French word for anything humans do except science) I'll settle for art since his work is seen in this context (where else?). That Hill's method is nominally understood as art excuses him for experimenting outside the laws of positivism. Historically, this has typically been the case when artists choose to embrace to paraphrase Bertolt Brecht the bad new things (i.e. technology) over the good old ones (i.e. conventions so reified as to be incorrectly considered 'natural'). Yet Hill doesn't triangulate merely out of necessity; he seems so confident and nimble as to suggest that this is precisely his game. He is poetically licensed to be scientifically illegal with the natural world. So framed, it's as if the argument is already won. Yet, there is a dangerous temporal conundrum on the horizon behind us, as it were. To officially recognise an art which today sanguinely incorporates the rapidly and ever-changing face of advanced technology, could easily become little more than a quaint marker of technology's progress tomorrow. Reviewing the 12 works within Hill's travelling exhibition at the Guggenheim SoHo (organised by the Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, Seattle), produced between 1983-1994, this paradox becomes sharply focused.
Hill's best works show him exploiting high-tech in an almost Greenbergian manner; delineating its inherent characteristics, exaggerating its peculiarities and betraying his roots in structuralist film/video-making. Circular Breathing (1994) incorporates five large-scale video projections and stereo sound. At the beginning of each cycle, all screens are blank, then a real time video clip appears on the leftmost band. As each successive screen (travelling from left to right) is filled with different imagery, their respective speeds slow by one half. Thus, as all five screens become activated, they are slowed to an almost photographic state of suspension. The cycle continues in the opposite direction, ending with all screens again blank. The mathematical precision of this process affects a visceral reaction in the viewer. The play between the spatial differences described by the video clips and the temporal shifts in their movements (further punctuated by audio materials) proves, rather than suggests, the possibilities of para-normal cognitive-perceptual experiences vis-à-vis technological mediation. Hill makes Timothy Leary's enthusiasm for Virtual Reality technologies in lieu of psychotropic drug experimentation seem a logical next move.
Hill deals a bad trip when either the technical component or the poetic aspiration eclipses the other. Since the subjects are so commonplace, this quickly becomes clear (hang around longer and you get angry with him for making you stand there hoping for more). The tilt towards gimmickry is strongly felt in BEACON (Two Versions of the Imaginary) (1990) which is made up of a ceiling mounted, rotating aluminium cylinder which projects video images from both ends. As the cylinder rotates, images of books, streams and faces gradually come in and out of focus on the walls of an otherwise darkened room. Words recited from Maurice Blanchot's collection of essays, The Gaze of Orpheus are loosely synched to the images. While there are parallels between Blanchot's ruminations on the image and memory, absence and presence, and the effect of Hill's spinning projection tool, they seem coincidental at best, a pretentious way to show off a new toy at worst.
I Believe it is an Image in Light of the Other (1991-92), errs in the opposite direction. Composed of seven four inch black and white video projectors hanging above books scattered on the floor, the images shown (bleeding over the books' open pages) are of Hill's body, some more of Blanchot's words and a computer rendered chair, the ur-object for such perceptual/philosophical musings. With even the gentlest move away from sincerity (like giggling in a church), Hill's poetic conceit becomes a hyperbolisation of insincerity. Deep thought with Gary Hill.
Yet there is an undeniably seductive quality to most of Hill's work due, in large part, to the precise control he obviously holds over the media. His success is due to his ability to surf the extremes of techno-phobia (by putting a humanistic face on it) and techno-tyranny (some of the works adamantly insist that you watch and obey) without being tagged. Whatever the case, Hill seems to have mortgaged his significance as an artist on the logic and developments of technology. To say it another way: Hill always had a promising future in front of him. If you're not into it, turn around, and walk the earth on your own two eyes.