Gary Hill: Taking Time to Take Place

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This catalogue essay reflects on the show of five installations, curated by Marcello Dantas,
“Gary Hill: o lugar sem o tempo / taking time from place,”
Oi Futuro, Rio de Janeiro, July 21-September 6, 2009.

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(Gary Hill’s advanced course in happenstance)

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I: Reflections Between

note: [1]

When you set multiple works by an artist side by side in exhibition, you create a certain hunger for narrative and interpretation. Why are these works here together? What’s the common denominator? Is there a progression here that bespeaks development in the artist’s work? Time signifies after all—“And what I want to know is, is this artist getting better, more relevant, or is he repeating himself?” The critical mind loves to box things in like this; it somehow tames the wildness of the work (and one’s fear of missing the point). But there really are artists who think differently, whose work is less intent upon improving (or proving) than in going further­—wherever that takes the art vehicle. So, what’s their story?

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One not so easy to tell, or one that tells itself performatively, within the reflective between. There are, normally, stories that develop—they seem to go somewhere, and we follow them gladly to a sense of completion (which unfortunately never lasts, however happily ever after, or unhappily nevermore). And there are stories that happen in the very telling—yet seem to go nowhere fast. Perhaps these take place in No Time—a time, that is, that is always and only one’s own, and at great expense of own time. A body of work whose core principle is this latter species of telling may be seen to evolve, yet without much sense of development as such. Its further is less forward than radial. And that’s hard to think about. Maybe the mind needs to take its time and displace itself—yes, indeed, but hold on there! To think this way is already to get ahead of ourselves, saying more than is ready to be said. What might do more to reorient our thinking is a new order of questioning—questions that are learning to live without answers, as inquiry that thrives on edge with the intensity of sheer listening—a certain state of unknowing.

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In this state we may forget what we like. Or even what we are like. Take Viewer (1996), the oldest work in the show: You walk into a dark room with a long wall that’s all men, life-size and facing out, marginalized and disenfranchised, mixed race and bottom-of-the-social-rung—something like a police lineup—staring out and waiting to be viewed, yet seemingly viewing us, the viewers. Are we the subject of the piece (is the title ours)? Who’s on view? Not knowing who they are, these intrinsic aliens seem to live somewhere down the block (on the street?). And now, like them, finding ourselves among strangers, is there an emerging feeling that we are also finding ourselves strangers­­—here, in this moment, our own instance of slipped identity? A moment where the place in which we find ourselves is somehow hovering on the outer margin of time, a bit stranded in the middle of this very space.

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And now for a rather different wall, a far more dynamic surface: Wall Piece (2000). Enter the blinding dark—well, in this space there is risk of instant momentary blindness and seizure—you could call it a strobic zone of language in bodily peril. This is what you see, and hear: the projection on the wall of a strobe-lit well-dressed man (the artist) repeatedly hurling himself against the wall while speaking one word per hurl, uttered at the very instant he hits the wall. You could say that language in its materiality exists inseparably from the battering of wall, word, voice, and body. Who the batterer and who the battered? He who hurls himself against the wall batters himself, and his spoken language is caught, indeed crushed, in the middle, rendered virtually incomprehensible. It’s a painful sound as a word is literally beaten out of him. (If this work weren’t pre-Bush Era CIA tactics, we might think “forced self-torture to silence whistle-blowing language”—yet, come to think of it, this piece might be a bit prophetic, the bodygruntcrunching on the wall, as it were, announcing a period of tortuous loss of language integrity.) High intensity utterance in a language no-man’s land. And there’s further complication: an actual strobe in the room, out of sync with the projected prerecorded strobe-event, flashes in the dark, sometimes coinciding with the projected image, in which case it may annihilate the image, causing further identity-erasure. What one strobe produces another may take away, just as what the voice creates the brutal saying may render inaccessible. The tortured liminality of language at the margin of intelligibility, stressed to the breaking point, here in the middle of the space—or time, as gap, materialized through self-interrupting flow.

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Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita… In the middle of the journey of our life, as Dante began The Divine Comedy­—the journey, that is, back from hell, and in this vision it is inherently a passage of, with, and through language. Is this in any sense a journey one undertakes willingly? This question may be inscribed within Language Willing (2002).

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Here a scarcely intelligible text, performed by the Australian poet-composer Chris Mann, sounds binaurally in the viewing space where a double image appears on the wall.[2] The energetic recital of phrases, so rapidly and in such a wide range of non-ordinary intonation, brings the text closer to unmelodic music than to speech. Parts of phrases are tantalizingly comprehensible, but rarely a whole thought or sentence—although one gets the impression that the thought in the text is intricate, even complex.[3] The ear never quite gives up trying to make out the semantic play, yet the pull is toward an alien music, almost as if one were listening to an unknown language. Strange, yet with the intense attraction of something known through the body. The viewer must continuously reorient attention, drawn away from the familiar and toward the originary, as if to an “underspeaking” (an ursprache).

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We see two separate images of the artist’s hands on circular moving surfaces, and both are covering, tracing, and/or revealing the patterns of the decorative wallpaper surface. Inscrutably connected to the verbal performance, they seem to try, quite absurdly, to hold their position on the turning surface, to grasp the situation or get a grip on things—to be, if not comprehending, at least prehensile. This method of reality control makes as much sense as a child avoiding cracks on the sidewalk—a sort of belated body magic strangely abstracted. It attracts. The sound breaks, the wheel turns quickly. The mind clears for another “take.”

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Language Willing is an instance of “turning” language, or axial language that turns the tables on itself. We try to make some sense of the words. Is saying “language willing” like saying “God willing”? If so, exerting our own will over language is backwards; sooner or later we learn that it has a will of its own. Or: Language is a state of willing; it grows truer when we’re willing to listen. And the turning senses won’t stop here, achieving a certain interminability that takes speaking beyond even self-definition, outside the time of language, or at cross-section to time itself.

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Happenstance, with a mind of its own.[4] Maybe, as William Blake said, “Any thing possible to be believed is an image of the truth”—or at least that could be as far as we get, flickering projections of truth-like perspective, and then on to the next. In any case, do we really want to foreclose on such an area of richly embodying language activity by turning it into a sophisticated maxim? We arrive at the interpretative statement, and then what? The wheel spins back around, and it starts all over. Zero point.

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There is a possibility of art that holds the view open, keeps the reality door swinging—which is not to say that no meaning is possible or that we can’t take a definite stand on issues, but that we have access to a non-reductive process of knowing and experiencing; it doesn’t stop at relative definiteness. Rather it is something like a site of emerging possibility—a place we go to reorient the very sense of the possible. A place very near the edge of intelligibility, a threshold, where things don’t so much end up making sense as bring us to our senses.

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II: Up Against Time

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The most recent work among the five, Up Against Down, is a single-room installation of six projections comprising

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a series of projected images of various parts of the artist’s body forcibly pressing or pushing against a seemingly infinite pure black space. Very slight reflections of the body parts are visible, but the depth and composition of the space remain ambiguous. As the body presses against the indefinable surface, multiple low frequency sine waves along with their sub-harmonics are heard, and the changing tension and force of the body’s pressure modulates the waves of sound resembling a kind of shadow of primal drumming.[5]

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The body in space, a full-tilt engagement in bodily struggle to be a certain way, an obviously personal all-out effort that is so curious in its uncontextualized behavior as to also seem abstract and non-personal—these characterize Gary Hill’s world of severe, even austere, physicality. There’s a concreteness so focused and complete in its intensity as to seem purely ideational—like mysterious ideas being birthed before our eyes. Yet it’s a birth that never ends, a spatially emergent force of embodiment released into an eternal moment. We feel it in our own watching bodies as energy transmitted directly from imaged event to cerebrospinal neural network. A contagion of this fierce concentration might indicate a hell realm, as if we had stumbled darkly into a previously unknown rung of Dante’s Inferno. Indeed, where are we?

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Or when? Is this even space? Is endlessness of such intensity more like space than time? Space-time, since Einstein, rolls easily off the lips in an abstraction that never quite matches experience—except, perhaps, at moments like this! You could almost say, here in this dark situation, “There’s a guy up there in his several parts, locked in the frustration of his spatiotemporal person-trap.” For the time of art, here an uncircumscribed duration, he may never come out. Perhaps this says something about why eternity does not always come highly recommended.

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The notion that the separation of space and time might be inadvisable did not begin with modern physics but instead seems to have been registered in human reflections from time immemorial. Take the Japanese word ma, which in the original Chinese (kanji), the ideogram showing the sun shining through a gate, meant space, but in a range of Japanese usage, from architecture to music, it can refer to either space or time—or both. It refers, in fact, to the between, the interval, the intervening reality. Hence the liminal zone comprising the margins of space and time, negotiable according to site, situation, circumstance.

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In Kunio Komparu’s great work, The Noh Theater: Principles and Perspectives[6] —a book of real importance to Gary Hill in the mid-1980s—a chapter is devoted to ma in which the range of meanings (from architecture to music) plays out as fundamental to the whole, quite ancient, phenomenon of Noh.

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As an expression of space, ma can mean space itself, the dimension of a space, or the space between two things…. As an expression of time, ma can mean time itself, the interval between two events, rhythm, or timing….

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This variability, or what I prefer to call axiality, suggests that in the case of ma, a long-standing usage recognized that the polarity of space and time is “polar” in a very special sense. Space and time are at once separated and linked by a pole in the sense of axis, a common hinge on which they swivel into “normal” appearance, now as space, now as time, depending on the perspective—and, in a sudden anomalous moment, as space-time. Physics, broadly speaking, produces this anomaly in mainly cognitive/conceptual and abstract terms, whereas art (Noh, as Komparu’s analysis suggests) presents it sensorially/intuitively and concretely. And this polarity, no doubt, has a hidden axis as well, a swing point within ma viewed as principle, suggested by Komparu’s architecturally focused distinction in the subtitle, “Ma: The Science of Time and Space.” The science in the art becomes indicator of an art dimension of science—a liminality function at the level of ma as principle, which shows up in the dynamic marriage of science (as theory or technology) and art, and, indeed, a certain indifference to the very distinction.[7]

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In Up Against Down, Gary Hill presents an actual, though “impossible,” limen/ma—a space-time threshold. In the dark a bright figure presses against unbounded dark. The slight reflection of the agent pushing—head, shoulder, hand, foot—calls out the interfacing of light/dark, and yet it could be, as it appears, that one resides within the other (the reflection of the lighted figure is an artifact of its “facing” into the dark), or that they are paradoxically of the same nature, a coinherence. Contrary action without full opposition? Perhaps, but the urgency of the action that says continuously, “I’m doing this with all my might!,” bespeaks utter contention, and no breaks, no relief, no let-up. Toward what end? There’s no indication of end, no ending, no goal, no telos, no evident teleology. Only the event itself.

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Event? That would mean outcome or point-specific event in some cases—e.g., physics:

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A phenomenon or occurrence located at a single point in space-time, regarded as the fundamental observational entity in relativity theory

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—an end-point in its very existence. But such a static notion of event doesn’t handle the experience of Up Against Down—or even the dynamic contrariness of the contentious title, which points to the nerve-racking energy of what’s seemingly happening. The stance, the happening, the—let’s say—happenstantiality, or, even better, the happenstantiation. The thing is not letting up. The pressure is on to stay on. It happens to be unending, relentlessly interminable—a happenstance of the eternal between. Yet it takes time to be so doggedly in place. The ordinary at the heart of the infernal impossible—like waiting for the wee-hours last bus on a dark cold night way the hell out in nowhere, and it never comes.

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Time seeps back into the artifact, even when banished by cyclicity, eternality, or some other presumption of sameness. The time of viewing merges with the state of the event, yet as long as I’m not fully entranced I’m aware my mind is also pushing—against this time. I try to remind myself that that’s not me doing all that pushing, but I’m not convinced. There’s identity slippage. The ma, the gap, can seem a prison between two unreachable shores. The strange time of unattaining alters the sense of space—something is sucking the space away. The frenzied pushing may be demonic, and that unidentifiable immeasurable blackness may hide a vampiric emissary of some black hole—and here we stand at the edge, the event horizon, peering into the abyss. This is a fantasy of desperation—and it’s no better or worse than any claim of clarity or analytic precision or hermeneutic elegance here, at this site, in this time and place.

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Ma also eats language, or translates it into primordial groan. Here

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multiple low frequency sine waves along with their sub-harmonics are heard, and the changing tension and force of the body’s pressure modulates the waves of sound resembling a kind of shadow of primal drumming.

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Up against oblivion, the saying transmutes. Mute trancelike concentration drums on itself. There are haunting sounds in Noh drama too that translate transmogrifying times—there are many times there (condensed, slipping, vanishing, reversed, split) registering the many crosshatched dramatic spaces (shifting, oscillating, flowing, expanding and contracting) of intervening phantasms and psycho-temporalities—sounds that bespeak the unspeakable. Pushed time presses into space and alters it beyond recognition.

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And what this artist is doing before our eyes is pushing back against time, and against the irremediable onslaught of the other side of time—emptiness itself. The push-space is the limen of being/nonbeing. The big edge itself. And the person in the total push is always at the limit of identity, and about to go over the edge, but that the sheer force of the unknown resists total contention with equal force.[8] And at the center of the action, the hyperlocal core felt in any intervenient person, is the pointless point of singularity. And all that blind effort, the doing that does everything it can and in the end endlessly does nothing—ejects us, the slipped identities in the space of time slippage, back out of identification, and strands us in the middle. Right here.

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And in conclusion… well, we might be feeling a bit pressed by now and have begun to lose our taste for grand literary wrap-ups. A work like Up Against Down renders meaning itself liminal. It puts a threshold in the place of thought. Whatever one’s interpretation, the fact of an artist attempting an apparently absurd or impossible act, particularly on an enhanced scale, constitutes a statement of sorts. But that statement includes the unsaid and even the unsayable. What is not said may seem to invite speculation, such as the question of what moves an artist to create such a work. And one might consider the inexpressible unlimited frustration and sense of limitation that leads to such a pure gesture of “failed” action as going up against the void. Here we might notice that, in this work, the non-saying is not only equal to saying in sheer force, it’s inseparable from saying. By analogy, a mouth opening to scream but producing no sound is equal to the scream. It’s not only failed sound but also a dimension of scream and something potentially far more intense than literal sound. One might think of Munch’s The Scream—in its eternalizing moment of sheer despair, no actual sound is heard. Or a dream of momentary powerlessness when the effort to scream is all the more terrifying because no sound comes forth—and frozen, it lasts, and lasts. There is such a “thing” as absence that is far more poignant than recognizable presence—and far more present.

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Time under such stress may seem to ooze across the scene as if to liquefy space upon contact—a fused substance of unknown viscosity. Space, so intensely countered, hammers time into sheets of articulate sine waves that carry viewing into the ears, the pores, the nerves. Let everything be known by way of its oppositions, its fixtures of energetic escape in a happening substance, its ups against its downs.

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Ma.

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The bounding line between space and time is a hard flow. Like liquid crystal that is self-bounding when pressed and reflects, it remembers where it has been and knows exactly where it is.

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[1] This essay reflects on the show of five installations, curated by Marcello Dantas, “Gary Hill: o lugar sem o tempo / taking time from place,” Oi Futuro, Rio de Janeiro, July 21-September 6, 2009. The exhibition comprises: Viewer, 1996; Wall Piece, 2000; Language Willing, 2002; Accordions [The Belsunce Recordings, July 2001], 2001-02; and Up Against Down, 2008. At certain points here I have drawn upon our book, An Art of Limina: Gary Hill’s Works and Writings (Barcelona: Ediciones Polígrafa, 2009; Foreword by Lynne Cooke), written over the last fifteen years in collaboration with Charles Stein. I continue the basic theoretical/critical stance of that book; namely, what we call “the further life of the work, an extension of the creative energy and interest that the work itself actually projects through its own instance.… In short, we intend that our writing about his work contribute to the very possibility the work opens up. The theory is that critical alignment with a work brings that work out, brings it forward to possible participation. The further life is also an active dialogue with the ongoing work itself.” In the main, I have chosen here to focus on a single recent Gary Hill work (not discussed in An Art of Limina): Up Against Down, in its Brazilian premiere, comprising Part II, “Up Against Time”; it was initially written on the occasion of the American premiere in the show I co-curated with Aaron Levy and Osvaldo Romberg at Slought Foundation, “An Art of Limina,” March 21-May 1, 2009.

[2] The inaugural installation of Language Willing at the Barbara Gladstone Gallery in New York City (September 14th–October 19th, 2002) used a quadraphonic system and two video projections, one for each image; in other installations the double image has been produced by a single projection and binaural. The present show uses an LCD monitor.

[3] Chris Mann’s book, Working Hypothesis (Station Hill of Barrytown, Inc., 1998), shows the challenging complexity of the author’s thinking, with a thematic range from, say, the nature of language to political oppression. If the wild, almost Finnegans Wake-like transformative syntax gives an impression seemingly contrary to the serious commitment in the thought, the aesthetic disjunction is even greater in the oral performance.

[4] Gary Hill’s early single-channel work, Happenstance (part one of many parts) (1982-83), announces a root principle of his work as a performative allegory of its own richly imagistic instantiation—a limen of video-synthetic image creation/decreation and its non-separation from languaging. Instead of representation/fixation, image is a site of speaking. Or language is happening in image time. (This and other single-channel works can now be viewed online: www.garyhill.com.) See An Art of Limina, op. cit., Chapter Three.

[5] This 2008 work is a six-channel video/sound installation using six video projectors, amplified speakers/subwoofers, six asynchronous media players (color; stereo sound). Descriptions of the work here and in the body of the text are provided by the artist.

[6] “Time and Space in Noh: Apposition and Fusion,” Chapter Seven (New York: Weatherhill/Tankosha, 1983), pp. 70-95.

[7] Komparu himself was first a Noh actor in a long family lineage, who unexpectedly turned to writing as architectural critic, and just as unexpectedly returned in time to the Noh theater as actor. As one who crossed and recrossed a threshold between apparently incompatible disciplines, he was well-positioned to expose an infamous liminality within architecture itself in its science/art polarity—often, indeed, a struggle. He does this in part by focusing on the profoundly architectural aspects of Noh.

[8] It becomes evident after a little observation and thought that nature only abhors a vacuum in certain moods, and that to the extent that it does seem to display such emotion, it may be an artifact of the misbegotten word “vacuum.” At certain vantages of experience and thought the empty­—zero point—might invite rather different interpretations. In “zero point physics,” for instance, it’s the source of unlimited energy.

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