The Stranger Does Acid with Gary Hill
Seven Reviews by Seven Writers
Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels
Gary Hill is a Stranger (and MacArthur) Genius Award winner. He lives in Seattle. We gang-reviewed his new museum survey.
1. The Show with No Spoilers
It is entirely disorienting to descend into the darkened lowest level of the Henry Art Gallery from a cherry-blossom spring day—to then enter into the universe of artist Gary Hill is dizzying in a nitrous-oxide kind of way. I do not want to tell too much, too concretely; the discovery here is an inestimable part of the freaky joy. But if you like the unmooring of old-school 3-D glasses and David Lynch, you may become stuck in the eddy of the very first room. Is that a lysergic acid molecule? Does Hill's face betray, just barely, the preposterous hilarity of his enterprise here, of art itself, of life?
The work in glossodelic attractors, like the name, hints at organizing principles—of light, of sound—with the same tantalizing hand that life holds out, almost making sense, only to withdraw that promise with a guffaw. A certain kind of person may be driven mad here, trying to decipher the meaning, to find their own clear image in Hill's hall of electronic mirrors. Best to relax and enjoy the magic act, the tickling of eyes and ears and brain. Only at the end does he ruin the illusion—he should've put that schematic on the far wall behind a velvet curtain. As it is, it's like finding out the Wizard of Oz is not only (spoiler alert) a regular guy, but one who's obsessed with Post-It notes. BETHANY JEAN CLEMENT
2. Gary Hill Was Confusing Until I Got Lost in His Maze
I chose to arm myself with only the basic information: Gary Hill is considered by many to be wonderfully crazy, and his show in the bottom floor of the Henry, which didn't come with any instructions, was a bit "weird," I'd heard. The result of many, many years of LSD use.
I've never done an illegal drug in my life.
The concave and convex screens showing similar videos of glasses of water balancing on a board confused me. As did the large room lined with wire, speakers, and security cameras that captured pixelated shots of me. I giggled to myself about how it all felt like the kind of art you see in a movie, made by the art-student character whom no one really understands.
But then I got to the maze, which, unlike everything else, did have a brief explanation. You can enter on the left or the right. One way, you'll hear a man's voice, the other, a woman's. In the middle, when two people are in the maze, the voices merge. "Sometimes," says the placard.
I walk slowly, like the sign says I should. The man's voice speaks calmly, but in fragments. "Hemispheres play havoc in your skull/The mind can't help but mince." "Speaking in many ways/Only to fall back." I can feel the sensors lightly pop and snap under my feet as I trigger each phrase.
I wanted to piece together words with my feet all afternoon. I loved this maze. Does this mean I'm not straight edge anymore? MEGAN SELING
3. Spying on Yourself Like a Pervert
You walk into Gary Hill's 1978–'79 installation Mesh and are immediately confronted with a pixelated picture of yourself, taken unawares. It's a standard black-and-white image courtesy of one of the three movement-triggered security cameras in the room, but the point is, you don't see it coming. And then, suddenly, there's you, framed on the wall like the retro star of Max Headroom's wet dreams.
Studying the face you unconsciously present the world—instead of the brightly composed one you offer mirrors and staged photo ops—is both embarrassing and exhilarating. Like peeping into your own bedroom window.
The portrait skips from screen to screen around the room, framed by backdrops of wire mesh, and you follow because, like it or not, no one gets bored staring at their own damn face. As you move, the sounds of radio transmitter static trail you. More sensors result in more unexpected pictures where you look just as awkward and terrible in remarkably new ways. Still, it's like running smack into an old friend in a strange city. You look haggard as shit, but I'm still so happy to see you here. (But seriously: Would it kill you to stand up straight?) CIENNA MADRID
4. A Tension to Detail
I'm glad I didn't take the acid. The original plan was to dose before going to Gary Hill's glossodelic attractors, since it's an exhibition geared for the psychedelic experience. While most of Hill's installations could've been handled under the influence, the last one I encountered, Up Against Down, would've had me cowering in anguish. I was leery of re-creating the scenario that occurred a decade ago at Cleveland State University's radio station, where I did a show while tripping on mushrooms; I feared I was trapped in the studio, condemned to play music for an eternity to a faceless audience. Harrowing!
Up Against Down is situated in an approximately 40-foot-high, silolike space (a tiny and usually overlooked architectural detail at one end of the Henry Art Gallery). As you enter, you're riveted by a minimalist, bassy drone that oscillates ominously—earthquake ambience. Six DVD players project images on the curving walls of a middle-aged man's feet, hands, back, and face in profile, each part isolated and glistening with sweat.
Looking up, standing essentially inside him, you view the man's back quivering, his jaw clenching, and you feel unbearable tension. Every muscle in him strains to burst through the silo's lidlike ceiling. The drone continues its hopeless threnody. The man—and you, too, chump—is imprisoned in a perpetual existential struggle. Even LSD would not ease Up Against Down's sense of crushing futility. DAVE SEGAL
5. When the Back Behaves Like a Back
After watching the man talking backward, watching the surfboard on the endless sea, seeing myself distorted on a screen, and walking through a maze, I arrive at the installation that profoundly moves me. It is in a cylindrical space that rises about three stories. A cluster of projectors cast images of a man in pieces on this and that curved part of the wall. We see his foot, his back, his head, his hands. One of the images is long, another short. One is just above your head, others are near the top of the space. Each piece of this man seems to vibrate uncontrollably, almost violently. What is happening here? What makes this installation so meaningful?
I think this is the answer: The individual is in a sense a totalitarian state. Each part of us is fused into one body, one action, one mode of being: the individual. The feet do the walking for the one, the back bends for the one, the hands hold for the one, the head thinks, hears, eats, and sees for the one. To be the one and only, the many must be stable and behave. But what happens if you break the body apart? The energy that bounds the body is fragmented. Each part becomes independent and does its own thing. The back behaves not like a human but like a back—pulsating, heaving, backenning. To become one again, we must repress these rebellions of the foot, the back, the hands, and the head. CHARLES MUDEDE
6. Quietly Rocking Your World
The thing that's always annoyed me about psychedelic art is how goddamned pushy it is. Those Day-Glo Jimi Hendrix posters and comics from the late 1960s always seemed to be caps-locked proclamations of profundity: SEE HOW EXPANDED MY BRAIN IS? OMG THIS IS AWESOME AND YOU WISH YOU WERE ON MY PLANE OF CONSCIOUSNESS, WHICH IS VERRRRY ELLLLEVATED.
So while I appreciate a lot of the art in glossodelic attractors—Withershins (the maze) plucks at my narrative curiosity, and the pixelated self-portraiture of Mesh appeals to my vanity—the piece I like best is Sine Wave (the curve of light). It's just sitting there, like an afterthought, in the corner between two flashier works of art, and there's not much to take in: Two screens show video of a half-empty glass of water balanced at the end of a plank, being walked around a quiet wilderness scene. People impatient to get to the ALL-CAPS show-offy stuff could miss the subtle detail of Sine Wave: One of the screens is concave, the other is convex.
The longer you stare at the twinned videos, the more disconcerting the whole piece becomes. You start to lose your balance. Everything kind of moves around you. It's a simple trick, but it's enough to change your consciousness for a moment or two, and that makes it, to my unaltered mind, the most successful piece in the show. PAUL CONSTANT
7. Proper Psychedelia
"Psychedelic art" is to tripping what Six Flags amusement parks are to Europe: a cheap camp approximation. The neon plumes of black-light posters have as much to do with the actual experience of hallucinogenics as Six Flags' poured-plastic Eiffel Tower has to do with Gay Paree. But Gary Hill's lysergic-soaked art miraculously gets it right, at least according to my experience. I mean, really: Aren't we all just glasses of water being led on a nature walk? And isn't life just a maze that's simple to escape, if only you open your mind? (Also, that weird spare buzzroom is the Platonic ideal of a bad trip.)
But the trippy verisimilitude reaches its apex with The Psychedelic Gedankenexperiment, featuring two slightly curved projection screens, two HD video projectors, and two videos of Hill dressed in a lab coat and delivering a wonky lecture, which background info reveals to be composed of sentences Hill memorized backward. It's David Lynch trippy (though Hill says Lynch's use of the technique in Twin Peaks was inspired by him), and the piece took on an amazing new dimension with the introduction of a hand, which appeared onscreen as a black shadow and soon began picking Hill's nose. These twin layers of action—one person speaking on film, another person fucking with the person's image on film—instantly threw everything into a perfectly trippy "What am I really looking at?" puzzle. Then I heard the Butthead-esque chortle from the other side of the screen, followed by a shuffling student in a backward baseball cap. It was just like an acid trip. What seems revelatory might just be someone fucking around. DAVID SCHMADER