Gary Hillby Robert C. Morgan
Barbara Gladstone Gallery
January 13–February 10, 2007
My initial acquaintance with Gary Hill’s work occurred in the early nineties, first with a large-scale, computer-generated video installation entitled Tall Ships (1992), shown at the Whitney Biennial in 1993, and later, with an exhibition of six works presented during the summer of 1994 at the MuÅ›ee d’Art Contemporain in Lyon, as well as several other encounters, including a traveling exhibition that came to the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1995. Given my interest in early conceptual video work from the seventies, I have to admit that I came late in recognizing the significance of Hill’s work. Although he had a strong conceptual leaning with regard to issues of representation, cognition, language, and meaning, he had not emerged through the usual ranks of avant-garde art. Instead, his influences seemed more connected to literature and philosophy, although he was never formally educated in a college or university. Hill is one of the few artists to receive the MacArthur Fellowship (1998) who unequivocally deserved it—not for ideological reasons—but for aesthetic/conceptual ones. In his case, I do not differentiate between the conceptual and the aesthetic. Given today’s emphasis on careerism and conformity, I find his focus and independence of spirit to be significant. It was largely for this reason that, in 2000, I published an anthology of critical essays, along with a series of interviews and writings by the artist himself, entitled Gary Hill (John Hopkins University Press).
Hill’s fourth exhibition at the Gladstone Gallery consisted of two conceptually related works from 2006 commissioned by the Fondation Cartier d’Art Contemporain in Paris, entitled _Frustrum and Guilt. _ Both works focus on America’s role in the Middle East, which Hill’s metaphors encapsulate in material and linguistic terms.
Frustrum is dramatic, cinematic, and engaging. Stepping into the darkened gallery, the viewer is confronted by a wall-sized projection of a computer-generated eagle trapped, except for its wings, inside the triangular scaffolding of a radio tower. The eagle’s huge wings spread outward, reminiscent of the roaring MGM lion—the corporate insignia that defined the film industry of Hollywood in the fifties. But there is something more insidious about this eagle than the MGM lion. For one, it is perched above a large, rectangular reflecting pool of pitch-black oil, the center of which holds an ingot of gold bullion. As the eagle beats its wings, they strike overhead wires radiating from the tower, unleashing a barrage of sound that resonates throughout the space. When the wings dip toward the base of the tower, computer-activated ripples spread across the surface of the oil pool.
The brick of bullion in the center of the pool is lit from overheard by a halogen light. It is stamped with a text that reads: “For everything which is visible in a copy of that which is hidden.” This cryptic message—typical of the kind of language that Hill has used in the past—is illegible to viewers standing around the edges of the pool. Therefore, the language component in Frustrum becomes truly hermetic. Its self-enclosed tautology—the literal inability to read a cryptic text—implies a Gnosticism, a hidden knowledge, of the centrality of gold (in this case, swimming in oil) beneath the political rhetoric of our “democracy.”
There is one passage within Hill’s heightened cinematic vision that actually becomes—for lack a better word—“transcendent.” This is at the moment when the wings of the eagle are spread like a Boeing 777, conveying a palpable sensation of gliding. The wires overhead are as yet undisturbed, but we know that the bird will soon strike again. This kind of aesthetic interval has also entered Hill’s work in the past, as in _Learning Curve, _ where the viewer, sitting at an elongated desk, watches a slowly unfolding video image of a huge wave. At that moment, Hill offers the pause of expectation that heightens the drama of the potential in relation to the actual, a simulation of an unspoken text.
This “transcendence” is not so evident in _Guilt. _ For this work, the artist has placed, at various locations throughout two of the galleries, high-powered telescopes trained on gold coins embossed with Hill’s countenance, less as an official portrait than as a torture victim. The viewer, peering through the telescope, surveys the artist’s agonized facial expression at a safe distance, while well aware that the telescope is also focused on gold. Does the desire for the gold erase the image of torture? Or does the stamped gold image of torture disincline us from desiring the gold? In other words, do we repress guilt in the process of desiring gilt? This, of course, is the conflicted basis of _Guilt. _ It becomes a kind of linguistic/behavioral double entendre, a recurrent theme in Gary Hill’s work going back twenty years or more.
The problem with Guilt is that the telescopic views of the isolated coins are often obstructed by viewers who are unaware that the coins are not supposed to be looked at with the naked eye, but only through the telescope. There also seems to be a technical problem with telescopes’ ability to maintain a precise focus given the varying distances at which the coins are placed. The more I reflect on Hill’s conundrum with Guilt_—a concept, incidentally, that I fundamentally like—I become more aware of the conundrum facing architects like Rem Koolhaas and Frank Gehry, whose ideas may be theoretically intact but fall short of locating a material presence within an appropriate context. The works of both architects have a tendency to enter into the closed space of perception instead of enhancing the capacity of the space to make sense of the virtual present. With Hill, I think the problem may be a technical one that has something to do with how we move and how our perceptions shift in the process of moving. This problem also has a history and is well-founded in the history of ideas. For example, Merleau-Ponty once clarified the notion that the cognitive process of seeing constitutes a kind of mental reference to our corporeality through which, in turn, our bodies enable our eyes to see the world in terms of politics. Somehow I think Gary Hill would like _Guilt to perform on this level, but, unlike the ineluctably poetic precision of _Frustrum, _ it doesn’t quite get there.
ContributorRobert C. Morgan
Robert C. Morgan is a writer, international art critic, curator, poet, lecturer, and artist. His most recent book is Clement Greenberg: Late Writings (2003). He holds both an MFA in Sculpture and a Ph.D. in Art History. He is currently Adjunct Professor of Fine Art at Pratt Institute.