When Gary Hill was 14, he started making his own psych file. He needed to prove he was crazy. It was 1965, and even as young as he was, he knew he was not going to fight in Vietnam. But in 1969, he drew number 35 in the lottery. So he stayed up three nights in a row, and early in the morning on the third night he took a tab of Orange Barrel Sunshine LSD. His plan was complicated, because while they were taking pretty much anybody with limbs, they didn't want smart people, so he intended to get 100 percent on the written test and then come across as stark raving mad in person.
"So I'm staring at the floor and getting myself whipped up—I did a thing, a freak-out, whatever," he says. "They sent me to a psychologist; he sent me off with a note. It was a 1Y—incapable for now, but we'll check you later."
Outside, it was pouring rain. Hill was still flying, and terrified. He came across a guy he'd seen on the way in, a guy in a poncho who was gesticulating wildly and speaking nonsense while standing in front of a giant fan—an exemplar of the freakishness and mental disability of the entire scene. The guy gravitated to Hill as Hill left, and the two walked a long while, one terrified and one frantic. "Hey, man," the guy said when they finally split, his voice coming down an octave. "Take it easy." It had just been an act. He never forgot what he learned that mad, rainy day: "What are the leaders gonna do if we all go AWOL?"
Gary Hill is already an acknowledged genius so many times over, it's almost silly. In 1998, he won the MacArthur "Genius" Grant. His work has been included in six Whitney Biennial exhibitions since 1983, and in the international megashow Documenta, for which he created the piece he's most famous for in Seattle: Tall Ships. (It's owned by the Henry Art Gallery, but shown only occasionally. Reportedly Woody Allen was too afraid to enter it.) In 1995, he won the Golden Lion for sculpture at the Venice Biennale.
He's been in Seattle since 1985, when he came to establish the video program at Cornish College of the Arts, but even people who know his work from around the world don't think of him as a Seattle artist. It's because he shows more often elsewhere: in Brussels, Long Beach, New York, Moscow, Yokohama, Halifax, Berlin, Vienna, Essen, Chattanooga, Prague, Athens, Sydney, Chicago, and Montreal this year alone. And that's just temporary exhibitions, not including all the places where his videos are on regular display as part of the permanent collection. If you travel, you'll just run into them. Wandering through the Philadelphia Museum of Art recently, I happened across a Gary Hill video room sandwiched between Mexican modernism and Marcel Duchamp.
"I think of what I do as sculpture," Hill says. He began his career as a teenage welder (not to mention surfer—surfing is still his main passion) in Redondo Beach. When he moved to Woodstock to study at the Art Students League at the end of the 1960s, he also made jewelry. When he wasn't doing that, he was washing dishes, until an artist he met, the painter Bruce Dorfman, took him into New York City to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see the historic exhibition New York Painting and Sculpture 1940–1970.
"I was floored," he says, half a dry vodka martini in, at a bar near his studio (and home) in Belltown. "Within one year, I went through the entire historical paradigm: biomorphic, abstracted painting, Carl Andre, then sound. I had a show in SoHo. Artforum said—it was Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe—half of it is, like, Donald Judd, and half like Anthony Caro. [Dis.] Now things are a little different."
Back in Woodstock, Hill knocked on the door of Woodstock Community Video, and the man inside showed him a Portapak—that early, handheld tool of so many feminist artists and other titans, like Bruce Nauman. "You're in a room, you have a monitor, and you're looking at yourself from a third point of view, seeing yourself as others see you," Hill remembers. "I began to record myself, play it back, respond to my recorded self. I thought, 'This is like the mind writing. This is mind process.'"
Since 1973, Hill has been working in video. His pieces range from 4 to 45 minutes long. Some involve multiple actors, while others involve only Hill's voice and a progression of images—waves crashing, the metal mouth of a typewriter, a dinner party circa 1983, a man (Hill) throwing himself against a wall in sync with each word he speaks into an ear mic, a naked man (Hill) writhing in agony as he tries to get out a single understandable word. Each video is a world of its own, elaborate, complete, a place to get lost. His most recent show at his New York gallery, Barbara Gladstone (other artists represented there: Keith Haring, Matthew Barney, Anish Kapoor), involved wearing 3-D glasses, sitting on stools made in the shape of LSD's chemical makeup, and watching a video of Hill speaking text that he's recorded backward, then reversed, so it sounds very strange. I tell him it sounds like Twin Peaks.
"David Lynch took that from me!" he says, this time sitting in his studio, watching a version of the new work on his computer and mouthing along. "It came from a piece I did in 1984 called Why Do Things Get in a Muddle, with the subtitle Come on Petunia..."
That new show was called of surf, death, tropes & tableaux: The Psychedelic Gedanken- experiment. A Gedankenexperiment is not an experiment you actually do—it's one you do in your head, it's a thought experiment. Like all of Hill's works. Maybe his ultimate piece—all 43 minutes of it are on Vimeo, for free—is Incidence of Catastrophe, based on the experimental novel Thomas the Obscure by Maurice Blanchot. In the 1941 book, the protagonist is the reader of the novel he is in. Hill plays Thomas, and likewise becomes very sick and incapable of communicating.
In 1986, the year Hill was introduced to Blanchot ("These are not just books. These are things that read you. It's kind of terrifying"), his daughter Anastasia was born. Anastasia appears at the end of Tall Ships. She was 6 years old when Tall Ships was made, a time when Hill struggled with his own nervous breakdown, still fighting the conflict between the person he finds in himself and the violent, opportunistic, dumb, American-dominated world he finds out here. Tall Ships is a dark corridor you enter that's 90 feet long, and as you walk, video ghosts—more precisely, laser disc ghosts—come forward to meet you. Anastasia is at the end, beckoning. If you stand still, stand by the people who have come toward you, they will not leave you. If you walk away, so do they.
When he made the piece, in the 1990s, everybody was atwitter with talk of "interactivity," and he pissed people off at a conference when he said it had nothing to do with that.
"I just stripped it down to what I thought the piece was about," he says, "which was this experience of yourself, and almost a safe place in which to experience this. I wanted to make a velvety soft place, for you to meet the stranger of yourself."