Gary Hill's first exhibition in Paris in two years is captivating from beginning to end. Unfortunately, when I went on Friday, October 31, 2008, the centerpiece of the exhibition of five new works, Unconditional Surrender, was not yet fully installed. However, given the time needed for full appreciation of these challenging works, there is plenty to occupy on more than one visit.
In the office space as you walk into the gallery, two LCD images of Loop Through, 2005 sit on the wall. The image of a woman who could be mistaken for Isabelle Huppert appears simultaneously on the two LCD screens. Our work as viewers -and yes, Hill makes us work - is to attempt to discern the relationship between the two images. While it is clear that there is only one performance before the camera, what are the two different images? Is she looking at herself in a mirror and therefore we see the original and the mirror image? Or are there two cameras filming her from different angles? And, if so, where are the two cameras in relationship to each other? These questions about what we actually see are the gesture of disorientation in Loop Through.
Bound up with its challenges to perception and the discordances between perception and understanding of what we see, Loop Through takes up issues of performance and documentary. It is not only how the two images are filmed, but who is the woman looking at? At us? Herself? The camera? And then there is the question of how to read her almost unchanging facial expression. Her expression is, on the one hand, utterly dour, and yet, she is clearly behaving as actress on a stage. Thus, her expressions are contrived, but are they for the camera, for us, or so she can determine what she looks like in the mirror which might or might not be in front of her? At times she also looks straight at us, and we are made uncomfortable: I found myself smiling, but unsure of why I was smiling. Was it with discomfort? Or perhaps it was in a gesture of reciprocity, the same as I would smile at any stranger who walked down the street and stared straight at me?
In keeping his life-long preoccupation with the tensions between word and image, at the bottom of the gallery stairs, Hill has strapped a book by Jacques Ellul, The Humiliation of the Word, to a television set with no image, but rather, which has a strobe-like light going on and off. The piece demonstrates what has happened to the word in our television-saturated culture: the word no longer has any importance, no one has the time to sit and read, and words are frequently mis-interpreted, indecipherable or not worth attending to. In Hill's typical way, he frustrates our comprehension of both the image and the word in a piece where we cannot see the television image because of the book that covers it, and we cannot understand the words (presumably of the book being read) because they are sped up and distorted so as to become indecipherable.
The other two video installations, one in the gallery's showroom, the other in the cramped space on the first floor are companion pieces made strikingly different by the dimensions of the respective rooms in which they are exhibited. In each of the Up Against Down, 2008 installations, three different images of the artist's body parts - an arm and hand, the face, the back and arm - press against a black surface. The three images are projected at odd angles around three walls of each room. As the body exerts all its pressure on the surface, the skin turns red, the veins protrude and every ounce of expended energy becomes recorded on the surface of the body. Simultaneously, low frequency sine waves and their sub-harmonies are produced by the body's pressure and fill the respective room when they are emitted from an oversized speaker.
The challenge to our comfort as viewers begins when we walk into the room, and because of the angles of projection, the size and proximity of the images, as well as the space between them, ensure that it is impossible to see all three images at one glance. We are forced to look from one to the other. Upstairs in the smaller, enclosed space we are further unsettled when the noise of Hill's body reverberates through ours. We become involved in the intensity and the pain of the image when caught in the sound as it fills the room. This sweeping of the viewer into the tension of the piece is magnified in the smaller upstairs space by the ambiguous relations of the body in space. Our inability to find a single place from which to view the entire piece is an echo of the fact that there is no logic to the way the body parts in the three different videos fit together. The arms, the face, the back are at odd angles such that they could not represent a single image in which the other body parts have been cut out. It is endlessly confusing.
Perhaps the most compelling aspect of Up Against Down is the infinite physical exertion of the body to no apparent end. This intense pressure of the body is surely a comment on the way we continually force ourselves on the world around us. We might think we are forced upon, but Hill's images would argue that it's us who continually put pressure on ourselves and on the world with no clear goal. The endlessness of the looped image of hands and other body parts under pressure, gives these gestures a sense of infinite pointlessness that is, surely, the innocuousness of our physical lives.
The disorientation, endless fascination and innovation of Loop Through and Up Against Down is exactly why Gary Hill is still one of the leading exponents of video art today. He stretches the medium in ways that are not possible with any other, and while pushing the boundaries of video, he engages his viewer in distortions and contortions of vision, a vision which for Hill is sensuous, corporeal and emotive, all in the one breath.
(*Images, from top to bottom: Gary Hill, Up Against Down, 2008, 6 videoprojecteurs, 6 lecteurs dvd, 2 caissons de basse, dimension variable, courtesy of the Artist and In Situ / Fabienne Leclerc, Paris, photo by Marc Domage. Gary Hill, Loop Through, 2005, 2 moniteurs LCD, 2 lecteurs dvd, 2 dvd, dimensions variable, courtesy of the Artist and In Situ / Fabienne Leclerc, Paris, photo by Marc Domage. Gary Hill, Up Against Down, 2008, 6 videoprojecteurs, 6 lecteurs dvd, 2 caissons de basse, dimension variable, courtesy of the Artist and In Situ / Fabienne Leclerc, Paris, photo by Marc Domage. Gary Hill, Up Against Down, 2008, 6 videoprojecteurs, 6 lecteurs dvd, 2 caissons de basse, dimension variable, courtesy of the Artist and In Situ / Fabienne Leclerc, Paris, photo by Marc Domage.)