Internationally acclaimed video-and-sound artist Gary Hill, who has lived in Seattle since 1985, gets the grand treatment at Henry Art Gallery with a career retrospective titled "Gary Hill: glossodelic attractors."
Knowledgeable critics have written many dense and complicated things about the work of Seattle sound-and-video artist Gary Hill. But a phrase that came up at a live performance by Hill at the Henry Art Gallery last month made the animating genie behind his high-tech installations seem pretty self-explanatory: “Surf the impulse, and let the rest of your mind ride up behind.”
In fact, Hill’s show at the Henry, “Gary Hill: glossodelic attractors,” works so well intuitively that it almost seems a shame to impose any intellectual constructions on it. The nine installations in the exhibit cover more than three decades in his career and make it clear that disorienting intersections between sonic and visual worlds have fascinated the 61-year-old artist from the beginning.
Hill’s résumé couldn’t be more impressive. He has won two Guggenheim fellowships and a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant. He had his first museum retrospective at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris in 1992. In 1994, a midcareer retrospective followed at the Henry.
All those awards and accomplishments can be a little intimidating. But in person Hill, who first came to Seattle in 1985 to found Cornish College of the Arts’ video program, is affable, open and droll. I had a chance to stroll through the exhibit with him a couple of weeks ago and get his comments on some of his work in it. Here’s how it went:
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“Withershins” (1995): Awarded the top prize for sculpture at the 1995 Venice Biennale, “Withershins” is an ankle-high maze that, once you enter it, triggers a human voice that says different things to you depending on where and how you step. If you come through its northern opening, a male voice addresses you. If you enter from the south, a female voice does. The voices have video counterparts on the wall: a man using sign language, facing the maze, and a woman with her back to the maze. In another corner of the room, a blueprint of the maze is festooned with Post-its on which Hill has scrawled fragments of the text.
These sentence fragments, spoken in a hushed, neutral tone, build into tentative grammatical structures, acquiring a quasi-sense as they do so.
How did Hill go about writing the text?
He thinks of it, he says, as “a sculpting of language.” The piece’s mutable texts, he admits, aren’t typical language but “more like cumulative phrases, little modules of thought that are interrelated.”
What’s the gizmo that makes “Withershins” work?
The voices are triggered by “switch-mats” located every two feet or so beneath the wall-to-wall carpet. There are 400-odd phrases that can be triggered by visitors’ weight. The switch-mats, Hill says, work exactly the same way as the entry mat at supermarkets that opens the door when you step on it. The switch activates two computers, one for the male voice, one for the female. The maze accommodates two visitors at a time. If additional visitors enter the maze, the sensors and computers will ignore them.
While it’s fairly easy to breeze through the maze from one end to the other, the unpredictable verbal component makes it tempting to head deliberately for the maze’s dead ends.
Hill anticipates that visitors will “end up wanting to explore what is going to be said.”
“Beauty Is in the Eye” (2011): Flower power rules in this multicomponent piece. On one wall, a fantastical 3-D figure (Hill in outlandish costume) gazes out from beneath an elaborate headdress while holding test tubes filled with flowers. Opposite him, caught in an elongated portrait-shaped video monitor, dozens of figures step forward to accept a single blossom from Hill’s disembodied hand.
Their reactions to his gift are as varied as the flowers themselves.
What’s that towering structure on Hill’s head?
“Multiple molecular structures of LSD 25,” Hill says. The entire exhibit, he adds, “is meant to be a reflection on that psychotropic thread through my works.”
He notes that even the earliest piece in the show, “Mesh” (1978), is an exercise in “seeing with your ears and hearing with your eyes … These things definitely came from doing acid. That’s probably one of five things that changed my life forever — absolutely. That’s just the way it is.”
“The Psychedelic Gedankenexperiment” (2011): On two huge video monitors, Hill gives a lecture that’s entirely incomprehensible at first. It takes a while to realize that, on one of the monitors, he’s uttering actual words — but they’re recorded backward. (Bring up David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks,” which used the same technique, and Hill will tell you he did it first in 1984, six years before Lynch.)
Hill’s opening statement reads: “I am taking the liberty, as artists do, to declare Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) as the art experience par excellence.” He goes on to see “the psychoactive event itself” as a work of “found art” in the tradition of surrealist Marcel Duchamp.
On the wall, you can read the text that Hill used as his “score.” It looks like the phonetic spelling of some long-lost language of the Northwest Coast — maybe Haida? — but in fact it’s Hill’s guide to pronouncing words backward so they’ll sound like English when played back-to-front.
The 23-minute video — played forward on one screen and backward on the other — isn’t just a stunt but expands on his fascination with a Gregory Bateson essay that Hill explored in his 1984 work “Why Do Things Get in a Muddle? (Come on Petunia).”
“It’s basically about entropy,” Hill says of the essay, “and why things naturally go towards chaos rather than towards tidiness.”
In “The Psychedelic Gedankenexperiment,” Hill’s task is to construct an LSD molecule. The action, created using green-screen technology and puppetry, takes impossible turns in the backward-running video, as Hill’s tools, screws and other apparatus fly off various surfaces into his hands. Hill’s facial expressions are oddly riveting, too, as he makes his way through his backward-spoken speech.
“There’re uncomfortable things that happen to the body, and very awkward looks in the face,” he notes, “because you’re concentrating on how to say something, not how to act.”
Despite the evident strain behind his feat, Hill looks very dapper as he gives his speech. (“I had to,” he jokes. “I was an intellectual.”) And he seems weirdly at home in his surroundings: a computer-generated anechoic (non-echoing) chamber.
“I thought that would be a nice environment,” he smiles.
“Withershins” and “The Psychedelic Gedankenexperiment” will be on display through Sept. 16. The rest of the installations will be subject to rotation midsummer.
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org