Projection Artist

Gary Hill's video art is disturbing, but worth it

The room is dark and loud, and a projector plays the image of a guy in a suit slamming his body against a wall, again and again, as strobe lights flare. No, it's not a Sid Vicious video and this is not a bad flashback. It's art. And it's what you'll experience if you go to see "Wall Piece," one of four video installations by Seattle artist Gary Hill on display at the Arizona State University Art Museum.

Some people think video art is a joke, while others are drawn to it. Hill's work is a good introduction for the neophyte, as well as a must-see for the sophisticate. And while it embodies qualities that drive some away from the medium altogether, this show, organized by the Boise Art Museum and traveling across the country, is an example of video art at its finest.

Video art is hot as well as controversial, and has been for decades. Among the questions that critics have asked and continue to ask: What makes video art different enough from movies or television to justify showing it in a museum? Can people who aren't hip to the latest digital animation still be affected by it as much as they are by the rich brush strokes of a painting?

An image from Gary Hill's "Language Willing."
An image from Gary Hill's "Language Willing."

I think they can, because video art is very different from a movie. On the basic level, most video art is not storytelling, at least not in any immediately obvious way. It's usually short, concise and focused on one point. But the heart of it all is that, like a big, juicy painting, a video piece can rivet you to your spot in a gallery, tease you with elements that play on more than just your sense of sight, and envelop you with illicit feelings -- good and bad -- that define our experiences in this world.

It is not easy to define good video art. Like so much else in life, it's relative. But too often artists (who should stick with their previous materials) use video because the technology is "fun" or, in the reverse, techies begin to think they're artists because they can use digital techniques to "master" an image, creating things they probably couldn't by hand. But the technology itself is simply a tool. And any video art worth its pixels does much more than just show off the artist's knowledge of the equipment. It's also a lot more than just filming your favorite angst-ridden, dysfunctional friends and lovers in a moody setting. The kind of confidence and sincerity I seek in a work of sculpture or painting is what I often cannot locate in many works of video art, despite my personal obsession with the medium. A lot of it is simply boring or so esoteric that no one gets it. Gary Hill's work has always been one of the exceptions.

Hill is an exception because, since his earliest work in the 1970s, he has studied the equipment available and made it work to fit his ideas. As one of the first to be recognized as a video artist, Hill has garnered international acclaim. He takes a sincere and serious approach to presenting pieces that challenge our perception of language and thought. Take the work mentioned earlier, "Wall Piece." It is projected on a 15- to 20-foot square wall so that the figure is huge and overpowering to watch. As the artist throws himself against the wall, he blurts out the words to a self-composed script, one word per jarring whack against the wall. If you saw him doing this on a 13-inch television screen, you'd probably walk right by it. But the sheer size of the projected image makes it impossible to avoid. The raw uneasiness of the physical act is accentuated by strobe lights -- one within the film that corresponds to each word/whack, and the other in the gallery. The uneven pattern of the two harshly flashing lights creates a mood that borders on the unwatchable.

In fact, many people might just leave because of the tension -- maybe it hits too close to the discomfort of home. But, as Hill said in our interview at ASU, "you have to decide you want to be there." And it's worth staying for the full sequence, which lasts for about 10 minutes. You're the voyeur, watching the cold reality of a personal experience that we'd probably deny is within us all.

A similar visual blending occurs in "Language Willing." What I mean by blending is the way in which the viewer loses the ability to focus on one sensory aspect of the work. In this piece, the sound is as busy and confusing as the sights. They eventually merge together to create another uneasy, but tantalizing, experience. The script was written and read by Australian poet-composer Chris Mann in a high-pitched, Monty Python-sounding voice that makes portions unintelligible. Mann is speaking so fast (and it's not sped up; in fact, he typed the script in tiny six-point font to intensify the reading) that it parallels the busy floral pattern of the wallpaper pictured as two projected discs in the film. Mann then punctuates the text by jumping from subject to subject in irregular rhythms.

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