John G. Hanhardt
Between Language and the Moving Image: The Art of Gary Hill (1993)
Язык оригинала: русский
Central to Gary Hill’s project as an artist is the negotiation of the processes that link language to the moving image. His works reveal a fascination with the exposure of the essential relationship between language and our cognitive formation of images, with the exploration of the materialism of writing articulated through video and multimedia installation. This primary concern with the vital power of the word is located in a poetics of language that finds its fundamental expression in the incorporation of the body as an idea and ideal into the aesthetics of the text. Extending this aesthetics, Hill carries the self into the larger context of the public sphere and the history of the word as logos. The irony in his work is derived from the potential threat of the erasure of language within the very technologies he employs in his art making; his aesthetic investigations are based on a philosophy of language and expression that seeks to recode technology through a logos of a poetic language of imagery. This tension between modern technology and the primary philosophical roots of techno as a poetic of language and meaning is the space negotiated by Hill in his art. In this space, by turning the camera upon and into the self and the other, Hill eradicates the traditional boundary between subject and object, body and technology, word and image. With the aim of providing a context for Hill’s work in this exhibition, I want to comment on these merging themes by exploring the relationships between a selection of Hill’s projects and various other artworks and objects.
The first illustration in this investigation of works connected to Hill’s art is a phantasmagoria from the 18th-century Belgian creator, Etienne Gaspard Robert (Robertson). In his pre-cinematic magic lantern demonstrations, Robertson created spectacular installations in which images of skeletons and the dead, projected into the smoke-filled space, floated ghost-like above the spectators. In American artist Raphaelle Peale’s “Venus Rising From the Sea” - A Deception (After the Bath) (1823), a similar play with the themes of illusion and reality, desire and spectatorship, is achieved through the trompe l’oeil canvas which masks its presumed subject (the body behind the sheet); Peale uses his cunning artistic skills to simultaneously hide and reveal the object of our gaze. In juxtaposing these works from the late 18th and early 19th centuries, we are faced with the everyday realist style of Peale’s canvas and the spectacular illusionism of new technology in Robertson’s theater. These works foretell the crisis in representation created by the photograph and motion picture, a crisis being played out today as electronic-image technology assumes new dimensions of power in our culture further diminishing the boundary between the “real” and “unreal”. Peale’s play with the image that records at the same time it conceals its subject explores the epistemological limits of realism; this type of image has been at the center of the debate surrounding the photographically/cinematographically recorded image and its relationship to the “objective” representation of the world around us. Robertson’s theater of illusionism playfully articulates and anticipates the spectacle contained within the projected film image and the later proliferation of television screens and the power they have for creating apparent truth. Both Peale and Robertson are offered here as emblematic texts of the diminishing boundary between real and unreal explored in Hill’s videotapes and installations. Hill’s vision becomes fittingly relevant at this critical time in the history of art and technology as his aesthetic draws on a variety of metaphorical strategies to revise the relationship between the image and the means of its creation.
In Hill’s exploration of these creative and destructive forces of technology, the body becomes a metaphor for language and a means for exploring the spectator’s reception of the aesthetic text. His installation “Tall Ships” (1992) and his single-channel video-tape “Site Recite (a prologue)” (1989) are particularly interesting in their placement of the body at the center of perception and representation of the spectator’s point of view. In “Tall Ships,” images of bodies, hovering in near three-dimensionality on the walls of the dark corridor, approach and pull the viewer into a shared space; there the viewer is engaged in an intimate dialogue of gestures and facial expressions. The silence of the images reinforces their presence while their gestures convey deep longing and an isolation relieved only momentarily as the viewer shares the space with them. Like Robertson’s phantasms, Hill’s apparitions elicit a strong response from the viewer, who is launched into a sort of primal discovery of the images and recognizes in them the same desire for an intimacy with the moment and with the other.
“Site Recite (a prologue)” articulates a representation of the Renaissance “wonder cabinet” filled with lost and remembered objects. Upon the screen, images shift in and out of focus as the camera lens becomes an eye recording objects; the sound track, through its unique use of language, layers the experience of perception and reception of the image as a complex text of meanings. Placed on a rotating disc, the skeletons - the shifting signifiers - circle in and out of the camera’s eye, which eventually shifts to the dark interior of a mouth, looking from the inside through a web of tongue and teeth, out. The camera develops into a simulacrum of the body as its lens becomes the mouth and the eye, both the articulator and observer of the world, and it approaches a phonetic vision in which image and word are fused. A metaphor for this fusion is the body as both image and articulator of speech, a speech consisting of a language which circles back to represent and ultimately embody the image; here, the language of words and images circulates through the videotape, representing and ultimately embodying the phenomenology of observation. Hill’s postmodern spirits, like Robertson’s pre-cinematic ghosts, are fused to their technological counterparts, and receive their living breath from the medium even while overcoming that medium in terms of its traditional usage. The first philosopher to use a typewriter was Friedrich Nietzsche who in 1879 experimented with the rounded keyboard pictured here. Nietzsche’s decision was motivated by his increasing blindness, as the organization of the keys permitted a tactile means for an organization of his writing. I use this typewriter, its instrumental embodiment of language, as an instance of technology at once being shaped by and shaping language. In its spatial organization and displacement of language from the mind to the page, it reflects Hill’s exploration in his videotapes and installations of how to make concrete the processes of cognition. Nietzsche, the great postmodern philosopher and assailant of the sacred traditions of academic philosophy, began to reshape his discourse through the instrumentality of his first technology for writing: the typewriter, the immediate precursor of the word processor. The word processor further transformed written language, from the typewriter’s static sheet of paper to the word processor screen, which allows the easy shifting and reorganization of language. Hill’s art, too, reshapes the discourse of the traditional cinematic order of frame sequences into that of the fluid time and space of the video universe; his cognizance of philosophy and the tradition of the word places his writing and image making in the precarious realm between tradition and revolution, written language and moving image.
“Primarily Speaking” (1981 - 83), one of Gary Hill’s early video installations, plays with the movement of words and images. The installation consists of two long wall units positioned face-to-face, each equipped with four built-in monitors masked to be flush with the surface. Words and phrases are aurally presented and integrated with solid fields of color and images of objects and scenes on videotape. The articulation of images and sounds is formed by the changes in sequences of the videotapes and soundtracks between the two wall-like structures. This rapid and precise movement between color fields, images and words, combined with the shifting position of the listener/viewer, results in a proliferation of contexts - and thus the contents - of the various elements.
The physical depiction of semantics in “Primarily Speaking” moved to another more literary level in Hill’s “URA ARU (the backside exists)” (1985-86). This spectacular videotape employs formal and rhetorical strategies to explore word meaning in its treatment of a selection of Japanese words as palindromes (words that read the same way both backward and forward and that Hill further breaks apart and reforms). In the tape, which consists of a series of visual-verbal haiku, Hill employs great economy of action and technique; the printed word moves through each scene, echoing the spoken word. The result is the inscription of language into the visualization of its own meaning.
In “Primarily Speaking” and “URA ARU (the backside exists),” language is rendered material as images representative of it extend from the optical enclosure of the monitor and into the installation space, which is the spectator’s space as well. Hill’s transposition of language into a visual medium reconstructs the language of video art itself. Like Nietzsche’s typewriter which made visible the thoughts of the near blind philosopher, Hill’s video works make manifest his uniquely expressed view of the relationship of word to image. His understanding of video technology is expressed in his ability to remake these instruments into a supportive complex of poetic interrelationships.
The artist’s place within the context of the artwork is a complex cognitive issue. The physical stance - of the painter before the canvas, the writer bent over her paper, the sculptor contemplating his materials - reflects physically the question of where the artist stands in terms of the work, but there are also the spatio-temporal and ideological positions when the work of art is viewed in its social context. Hill’s art constructs a variety of metaphorical strategies with which to represent the body’s position within society; he achieves this via his rendering of video into a technology usable as a means of individual creative expression.
At the written heart of American democracy is the Declaration of Independence, written primarily by Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson embodied an 18th-century ideal which replaced a narrow view of the self in favor of one of the self as part of something greater, exchanging tunnel vision for a broad multi-perspective stance toward the surrounding world. Jefferson’s Monticello, built on a hill from which a physically broader view was possible, was an architectural expression of that desire, as was his invention of the swivel chair. The swivel chair’s arc of movement permitted Jefferson to physically shift his writing body and point of view from the locked position of a single aspect to numerous other ones; this is symbolically fitting as this was probably the chair in which he drafted the Declaration, the written testimony to his engagement with the democratic ideals of the new republic, and with an all-encompassing and less self-interested perspective (a distinctively greater perspective than, for instance, that of Bentham’s architectural panopticon, which afforded society a limited yet controlling view of prison live).
Art - also as architecture and design - embodies ideals and ideology. Hill’s videotapes and installations bear a relationship to this distinctively American poetics of expanding the view of the self through an open exploration of language and image making. In “CRUX” (1983-87), this idea of image is taken one step further with the image’s making of itself, a complex negotiation of the traditional concepts of subject and object as discrete entities. Here, Hill himself controls - via his positioning of them - the five cameras: two focused on his arms, two on his legs, and one pointed up to the face. The cameras accompany the artist as he crosses a ruined building in a rural setting, turning him into the ironic subject. The five video channels thus recorded are played on five monitors suspended against a wall and synchronized to represent the movement of the body over the torn landscape. The constant replay of the installation conveys the sense of a technology open to all, a generous means for the construction of a vision. Hill’s remaking of the technology into an instrument of poetic inquiry with the potential to express the quest for an ideal, and not simply mercantile, vision of television and society is parallel to Jefferson’s creation of the Declaration, which also was, in a sense, an instrument of poetic inquiry for a nation then just beginning to identify itself. Jefferson’s chair, whose mobility allowed for a generous view of the world around him, becomes a physical embodiment of the Constitution’s own inclusiveness and support of a democratically viewed public sphere. This is echoed in Hill’s new installation “Learning Curve” (1993), in which the old-fashioned school desk and chair embody, in their view of an ocean wave’s endless movement, the expanded vision of personal experience and public history that is the necessary foundation of our perception and understanding of the present.
In the 1980s, video installations moved to the forefront of new expression in contemporary art. Nam June Paik, Bill Viola, Dara Birnbaum, and Gary Hill created large and compelling bodies of work. At the same time the art market and artists’ careers were expanding, expressing a new surge of interest in artistic culture, best manifested in the rapid construction of museums during the decade. Today, the art world is once again in flux; art continues to flourish in terms of abundance but the markets are changing. Arselm Kiefer’s extraordinary installation “20 Jahre Einsamkeit” (Twenty Years of Loneliness) 1971-1991 is composed of the refuse of the artist’s studio, objects related to his artistic past ranging from actual works of art to raw materials and balls of dirt and sunflowers from the place where he lived in Germany. In the installation, the canvases and other materials that distinguished Kiefer’s art are piled to the ceiling in a mute and moving testimony to the creative ideals of the previous decade. Kiefer’s reflection on the painter’s canvas and materials as a kind of detritus of the imagination is an ironic and poignant meditation on the creative process and the materials an artist chooses to work with. His installation lays bare the contents of his studio and is, in a sense, a laying bare as well of a life, of the realization of the self he is today and of the precarious flux of the artistic venture. A space that could have been cold and impersonal is hauntingly personalized.
I am suggesting that Hill’s art is itself a meditation on being an artist and the struggle to remake technology into a poetic instrument. Like Kiefer, Hill confronts himself in his art as a thinking being seeking to strip it of the decorative and ephemeral so as to retrieve a sense of self and memory. For Kiefer it is the poetics of a personal history and painting; for Hill, the poetics of language and media.
Hill’s art does not face the crisis of a questioned and eroding art form and tradition, but the challenge of renewing tradition and charting a new horizon of possibility. Indeed, he transforms the technology of video, carrying it away from the conventional categorization and usage of art and television and into the intimacy of the artist’s studio and imagination. By stripping the monitor and camera of their conventional applications, he recreates cathode ray tubes so they become a contemporary language which allows the moving image to enter into the discourse of sculpture and installation, and of self-inquiry. In this regeneration of the medium through a philosophic strategy of image making, Hill has recovered the place of language and origins of technology in a metaphysics of techno. His installation “Between Cinema and a Hard Place” (1991) consists of twenty-three monitors positioned to create a demarcated space with rows like that of a field. The work adapts Heidegger’s “The Nature of Language” into its self - questioning meditation on the marking of space and time, language’s earthly roots, and disrupts the mechanics of the cinematic sequence of moving images and spoken text, and thus its own flow, to bare the nature of a technology at odds with itself.
“As soon as we try to reflect on the matter we have already committed ourselves to a long path of thought,” Heidegger wrote. Thought is commitment, language, a precious vessel for thinking, images need words in order to be understood. This sequence of demands, commitments of both time and energy, has led to Hill’s artistic release of a body of work fragile in construction but strong in its resolve to resist the easy consumption of ideas. This is perhaps most eloquently articulated in his videotape “Incidence of Catastrophe,” one of the handful of major works created within the discourse of single - channel videotape. This work uses as its inspiration the writer/philosopher Maurice Blanchot and his text “Thomas the Obscure.” In this epic work the artist himself is enfolded within the phenomenology of the written/printed text; as his body and eye merge to become one, the screen struggles with the folio sheet, the press - type on the page - with the impression of language on our consciousness.
In his exploration of the age - old debate between word and image, Hill’s aesthetic language has retrieved a hope for art. As Kiefer symbolically rebuilds the aesthetic discourse of painting in a Homeric pyre of fragile canvas, Hill, our most visual of new image philosopher/artists, also reconstructs the aesthetics of the video medium with his brilliant solution to the dilemma of being an artist in the fin de siиcle: the placement of the body at the center of the process that links language to image, poetics to poetry, and the words we speak to the tongues we embody.
In Russian: Между языком и движущимся образом: Искусство Гари Хилла
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