Nau mai, haere mai, welcome to eyeCONTACT, a forum built to encourage art reviews and critical discussion about the visual culture of Aotearoa New Zealand. I'm John Hurrell its editor, a New Zealand writer, artist and curator. While Creative New Zealand and other supporters are generously paying me and other contributors to review exhibitions over the following year, all expressed opinions are entirely our own.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Dramatic video installations

Gary Hill: Voice Grounds
Curated by Leonhard Emmerling and the artist
St Paul St
12 March – 24 April 2009

Voice Grounds presents a range of work from the wide-ranging corpus of Gary Hill, a most remarkable, innovative American artist – a video pioneer. In this rare programme of legendary and unusual projects, all are screened on walls; no monitors, or monitor tubes out of their cases – as he has sometimes done – but some split screens, and the sound is impeccable. Individual day screenings are with a single channel in Gallery 2, all week screenings with five channnels - in Gallery 1. Two works on every day.

Here is the list of works arranged chronologically – paralleling the images above:

1984 Why do things get in a muddle? (Come on Petunia) Wed. only
1986 Mediations (Towards a remake of Soundings [1979]) Tues. only
1987-8 Incidence of catastrophe Thurs. only
1989 Site Recite (a Prologue) Fri. only
1995-6 hanD hearD Tues – Sat after April 7
2001,July, Accordians (The Belsunce Recordings) Tues – Sat before April 4
2001 Goats & Sheep (from Withershins [1995]) Sat only

So seven works spread out on different week days are quite difficult to get to. You have to be keen – especially if you don’t work in town – but so you should, they are worth it. Six are currently screening at present. The seventh starts in the second week of April.

The most visceral installation, the five channel Accordians, features the faces and occasional movement of the inhabitants of Belsunce, a city in Algiers. The sound track is loud, random and staccato, very short bursts of sliced up spoken voices. The images of people in the street are similarly brief. They abruptly zoom in and then out: unloading of goods from vans; beggars on the footpath; busy passers by; dense crowds and a lot of faces. There is an all pervading paranoia, a sense of an outsider intruding – maybe a tourist with camera – a mood of hostility. It’s a disturbing, powerful experience.

Site Recite is a particularly carefully and precisely written work that uses Hill’s own slightly Beckett-like text and an actor’s voice. The soothing voiceover reveals a mind examining its own ocular and verbal limitations – literally a ‘head-trip’ scrutinizing its own physiology of senses outwards from within. Meanwhile the camera briefly focuses one at a time on bird skulls, insects, nuts, shells, crystals and unexpected natural objects on a flat round table, searching for parallel visual metaphors in the outer non-body world. We see quick glimpses amidst focussing and unfocussing blurs. Now and then the text and image synchronise. Usually they vaguely overlap, one hovering over the other and not really connecting, yet creating a peculiar haunting beauty.

Incidence of Catastrophe shows us Hill’s interest in Maurice Blanchot, using his novella Thomas the Obscure to riff in a long video about the collapse of the self, a mental breakdown. It dwells on a consciousness that scrutinises the act of reading with close-ups of the turning and scanned pages. It expands on Blanchot’s story, a strange, looping, condensed blend of Edgar Allan Poe and Beckett.

What is interesting about this film and another, Why do Things Get in a Muddle, is how similar they are to aspects of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks TV series, made five years later. A panicking reader running through the ferociously dense, moonlit woods; an animistic gushing river; the bizarre voices and movements of Alice (from ‘Alice in Wonderland’) and her father - these actors had to recite the script backwards while being filmed normally - all seem big influences on Lynch’s brand of filmic surrealism.

Interiority is the main preoccupation of Hill’s in all these works. Inner mental processes, self examination, and how they fit in with our social interaction – if and when that happens - and of course it does. The theme of reflexivity so apparent in Site Recite is made more obvious in Mediations (Towards a Remake of Soundings), where the voiceover comes out of the black flicking speaker being filmed. The commentary describes the artist’s actions (which we see occurring) pouring grains of sand over the undulating cone so that the accumulating layer muffles the sound quality. Oddly, it becomes more distant but then clearer.

In this cross-referencing suite of works the actions of the tongue or gestural movements of clasping, folding or pointing hands often serve as signing devices for language attempting to link signifier with signified, or study itself. The vulnerability of The Self is indicated by collapsing banks of sand worn away by foaming waves, or mouths of molars being picked at by dental probes searching for decay.

Any show of successive video installations like this, featuring such a programme of quality works, is a rare event. Of these dramatic and engrossing St. Paul St presentations, usually it is the shorter ones that are the most haunting (Site Recite, Mediations). Others are particularly intense (Goats and Sheep), if not exhausting (Why are Things in a Muddle). The last, seventh work, a soundless one with five projections, begins on the second Saturday morning in April. For any lover of quality contemporary art, several visits to this very special exhibition are essential.

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