Sun, May 11, 2003 - Page 19 News List

A Quick History of Video Art

Gary Hill helped defined video as a medium, but the medium has changed so rapidly that sometimes its hard to recognize his imprimatur

By David Frazier  /  STAFF REPORTER

Still from Primarily Speaking, a 1981 video by Gary Hill.

PHOTO COURTESY MOCA

It's odd to have a Gary Hill exhibition come to town when this pioneer in video art is finally starting to look old and low tech and deconstruction is going out of style. But the Museum of Contemporary Art, Taipei, has filled its upstair galleries with a condensed greatest hits of this middle-aged contemporary master.

The show, Unfolding Visions: Gary Hill Selected Works 1976 to 2003, comes off as technically very important, like required reading on a syllabus. Because the reigning critical consensus says: "How can you talk about video at all without talking about Gary Hill?" And MOCA makes this point by offering it as a complement and precursor to the brand new, computer generated videos and network game art of Chinese artist Feng Mengbo (馮夢波) downstairs.

But the show is still difficult. Maybe it's because it's hard to see the novelty in video techniques that were experimental in the early 1970s. Maybe it's because a TV playing in the middle of a gallery looks clumsy now. Maybe it's because many of the concepts Hill helped introduce into visual art -- the labyrinthine nature of language and texts -- have since been explored to death.

Born in 1951, Hill was of contemporary art's first generation. He switched from welded steel sculpture to video in the early 1970s and has almost come to define the "video artist," even though he's said he doesn't relish the designation. Only Nam Jun Paik, the father of video art, ranks above him.

Hill's early works were all "single channel" videos of only a few minutes in length. They explored how video images could be distorted and changed through electronical processing [in the galleries they appear on back to back TVs as Selected Works I and Selected Works II].

By the late 1970s, Hill began adding sound to his creations, and the thematic focus moved away from image and towards language. In Primary Colors, a work of 1981 to 1983, Hill makes a video with two inset rectangular screens, each of which corresponds to a voice. When one voice speaks, its screen changes, sometimes cutting to a new image with each new word, sometimes cutting with each new syllable (MTV began perfecting the same technique of matching visual cuts with beats at around the same time). The two voices engage in a dialogue that makes sense for perhaps a few exchanges at a time, but inevitably degenerates into nonsense. Images meanwhile offer similarly meaningless visual puns: a mention of objectivity turns the insets to black and white; the phrase "hang in there" is matched by a shot of a dangling cow's udder.

Hill was fascinated with an odd characteristic of language, how most is actually is nonsense that fails to communicate. As he pushed this idea further, he interrogated and subverted language more vigorously. In the 1979 video Soundings, he films stereo speakers reverbrating with fatalistic statements about how they are about to be silenced: one is submerged, one buried, one pierced and one burned.

By 1995 he had created the installation Bind, the piece that greets visitors to the exhibition and establishes the theme of smothered and helpless texts. The work consists of an open book bound with steel cables to a small television set so that it is covering the screen. The open pages also face the screen so they cannot be read. Around the edges of the book however, you can see the TV flashing, and you can hear Hill's voice reading passages which are predictably difficult to follow, if, in fact, they can be understood at all.

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