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Sandwiched between muffled traffic noise and the reverberations of gallery-running goings-on at Roberts & Tilton is Gary Hill’s wall-sized video installation, Observaciones Sobres los Colores. Once your ears adjust to the volume, you hear a child’s slow, unwieldy reading of Wittgenstein’s Remarks on Color. Positioned like a news anchor, the boy reads Spanish translations of the text’s 88 sections as a timer in the upper right hand corner counts up. Behind him, footage of street protests unfolds in slow motion.
Though occupying the best of Roberts & Tilton’s four walls, Hill’s piece seems, at first, a bit adrift, its cerebral subtlety and demanding duration not quite rising above obscurity. If the look and style of the piece feel dated, that’s because they are. The press release notes that Observaciones Sobres los Colores was filmed in Venezuela—in 1998—and subsequently smuggled out. The background footage, from 2002 street protests in Caracas against the then-nascent government of Hugo Chavez (produced by non-governmental association Active Citizenship), was added at a later date, and the work has never before been exhibited in the U.S.
Video has a curious flatness, particularly in Hill’s hands here, a quality intrinsic to the medium and the smooth oiliness of its frame-rate and color balance. As a cheap and a direct medium, video is useful in the capture of real time absent the often atemporal concerns of aesthetics. As such, it has a certain plasticity, deployed in the capture of urgency on one end and sterility on the other: Endless feeds of surveillance v. the efficiently edited snippets of news.
Similarly, Hill has made demanding and subtle work before. The passive and vaguely threatening Viewer (1996, not part of this exhibition) consists of quasi police line-up of average citizens blankly watching you as you watch them. The scene is both dull and weirdly intense—like being stared at by a stranger. Who are these people? And who’s viewing who? By contrast, the child in Observaciones Sobres los Colores acts as both focal point and conduit, a curious presence as well as the means through which we hear Wittgenstein’s text—but in clumsy soundings out.
By slowing down the borrowed footage, Hill makes literal the geologic crawl of political movement. This forms the piece’s essential ground, against which a child’s incipient conception of time is tested and obscured by numbered regularity and cryptic philosophy. But Observaciones Sobres los Colores, though hypnotic in its tedium, is tenuous in its connection between Wittgenstein and populist uprising. The 2002 coup in Venezuela was a time of great upheaval, uncertainty and, ultimately, myth-making according to some. That Wittgenstein’s late work is “impenetrable” is a notorious fact. In being so, is Hill simply connecting it with another thing, using its opacity for cover or as a kind of universal remote?
The adjacent protest footage, as you might imagine, contains image upon image of flags, rippling slowly in the wind in the vicious hues of color on film. The flag is a primary signifier, one collapsing a nation’s meaning into itself and acting as both connective tissue and a means of measuring progress and decline. The yellow of the boy’s shirt is a striking primary color, and Wittgenstein’s text, obscure though it may be, seeks to tease out the intrinsic value and experience of color. Perhaps the obscurity of Wittgenstein’s philosophy and the turmoil of Venezuela’s governing philosophy are not that far apart in that both move uncertainly toward a kind of reconciliation with reality. Even so, the politics unfolding so largely in our visual field seem incidental to Hill’s aesthetic concerns.
But not without a fight. In several scenes, we see protesters covering their mouths as if to shield from tear gas or otherwise compromised air. Similarly, it is easy to forget in slow motion that the protesters are often shouting, with anger and purpose. Is Hill drawing a parallel between the difficulty of speech—of articulating specific political goals, desires or problems—and the dense impenetrability of Wittgenstein, especially as heard through a child’s voice?
Slowing the footage down enables Hill to underscore the visual characterization of protest. Shots of buildings fade into crowd scenes, drawing a contrast between the housing and edifices of civilization, its citizenry expunged onto crowded streets. Overall, as a document in real time, the Active Citizenship footage mainly shows the banality of protest, given an ironic boost of excitement in Hill’s use of slow motion. The footage, out of context, would otherwise be a representation of the everyday: drab contemporary fashions, citizens walking and behaving politely. Here, it’s lent a clear political dimension in the protesters’ sheer numbers, and an aesthetic one in Hill’s slowdown.
Observaciones Sobre los Colores is both hypnotic and boring. The demand of its duration, unfolding over 78 minutes, tests the viewer’s endurance as it also recalls the now archaic, highly conceptual period of art in which Hill began his practice. No climax or reconciliation is reached in Hill’s piece, thus patience in the face of it isn’t so much rewarded as it is mirrored in the slowed texture of the crowd, playing out behind a fidgeting child whose conception of time is still forming. The pixelated fuzz around this central figure (a consequence of using a green screen) suggests the future implied by his youth, as indexed in the body, has been flatly applied to the protesters’ goals, even as he loses himself in an obscure text on nothing other than color.
Gary Hill, Observaciones Sobre los Colores, runs June 6–27, 2015 at Roberts & Tilton (5801 Washington Blvd., Culver City, CA 90232)