A practitioner's commitment to principle in art

A review of 'An Art of Limina'

An Art of Limina: Gary Hill's Works and Writing

An Art of Limina: Gary Hill's Works and Writing

By George Quasha and Charles Stein

Ediciones Polígrafa 2009, 640 pages, $75, ISBN 9788434310421

Perhaps astonishingly, I had never watched a video by Gary Hill before reading this book. Luckily, the book is designed to keep the work of Gary Hill open, so that when I finally did encounter the videos (all the single-channel work is now online at www.garyhill.com), I was not burdened by the outer husk of a reified interpretation. On the contrary, it seemed that I was seeing each piece in multiple dimensions, making connections with the text and — in many instances — continuing along my own path. An Art of Limina is an invitation to keep seeing the work anew, even to those for whom it actually is new.

For authors George Quasha and Charles Stein, the works of Gary Hill are decidedly not new; the book primarily comprises essays written on the basis of thirty years of collaboration and dialogue amongst all three artists/poets. As Quasha remarks elsewhere, “It takes a life to be known.” But knowledge and time hold a particular significance for the authors, and neither makes claim to any definitive interpretation based on privileged access. Lynne Cooke’s foreword rightly emphasizes a tension between different modes of historical allegiance: Quasha and Stein are noted to consistently elicit concrete precedents while simultaneously distancing themselves from general trends in criticism and art history. This is an important acknowledgment, but its significance can only be understood in conjunction with the authors’ own relationship to the artist.

Gary Hill, Incidence of Catastrophe (1987–88). Courtesy of the artist and Donald Young Gallery, Chicago.

An Art of Limina is not a book “about” Gary Hill in any conventional sense, which is one way that it departs from more traditional art criticism. The distinction between “interpretation” and “the further life of the work” — a trope that recurs with remarkable frequency across a range of otherwise divergent essays — offers an explanation for the tension noted by Cooke in the foreword and situates the significance of their project as a poetics. “Further life” is functionally defined as “an extension of the creative energy and interest that the work itself … projects through its own instance,” which contrasts with interpretation viewed as definitive account and/or assessment in art historical discourse (9). As a “further life” manifestation of the work of Gary Hill, the book is performative at every level, meaning that it is as much a reflection on its own process as on the art to which it explicitly refers. In other words, the authors implicitly evoke (without discussing) the nature of their own work as much as the art of Gary Hill, which is why it is impossible to say anything about the one without reflecting on the other. (It’s important to note that the book is also a factually definitive account of the works discussed, to the extent of correcting errors in a previous catalogue raisonné.)

The “principle complex,” which is laid out in the prologue to frame subsequent text and recurs frequently throughout, serves as a theoretical basis for the book’s pervasive self-reflexivity. In distinguishing “principle” from “concept,” the authors explain that “[u]nlike a concept, a principle is never defined by the work, of which there can be an unlimited number; there is no definitive instance” (93n). Whereas conceptual art is oriented around an external (or previously formulated) standard and is often fully realized with a single manifestation, principle-based art is an organic creation that develops from a ground of open potentiality. The two terms are not dichotomously opposed, but while principle-based art manifests unlimited possibility, conceptual art without a core principle is an effective dead end.

The “principle complex” comprises three inseparable principles, which together can be aspects of a practitioner’s commitment to principle in art: axiality, liminality, and configuration. As a functional definition, the “axial” is defined as “the conscious, radical self-alignment that liberates identity/work into its unknown further possibility” — the principle of dynamic orientation by which an art action is realized as a singularity within a given context/medium (38). Although the true dynamism of this principle is difficult to capture in a single sentence, it has much to do with the commonplace experience of personality maintaining certain integrity across various contexts and interactions; and it applies equally to a body’s efficient mode of operation in space-time.

Directly linked to axiality, the “liminal” implies “a conscious choice to work at the edge and accept the energetic advantage of precariousness” (45). The reappearance of the word “conscious” is no coincidence; liminality, in this specific usage, involves recognition of the processual embodiment of principle (which is never contained within a given body) and operates in that “between” space where axis is assuming particular orientation.

Finally, the “configurative” is a “textualization in process,” the weaving of a particular orientation with its own internal consistency (56). Developing out of previous art historical conceptions, the configurative is an essentially performative response to the realization of radical potentiality:

If traditional representational art is “figurative,” in the sense that it seeks to capture the “figure” — the structure and shape — of the object it represents; and if art that moves away from the figurative is “abstract” (in the precise sense of “drawn away from”); then later art that allows a non-referential yet identifiable image to form anew can be thought of as con-figurative or re-configurative. (58)

Configurative works depart from a postmodern absence of perspectival view with an anamorphic shift in perspective; now that freedom of form is a familiar concept, the question is no longer one of depicting our world, but of creating possible worlds. If figuration is a word in a sentence and abstraction explores its grammar, then configuration follows from the possibility of infinite sentences beyond the first. As such, conscious awareness is equally important for the third term in the complex: “When we become aware of this event of configuration … we are rendering the world-weave accessible to reconfiguration” (ibid). An axis opens to the conscious participant, who is now free to perform its further life, and a new word enters a language.

Gary Hill, Wall Piece (2000); single-channel video/sound installation. Video projector, strobe light and strobe controller with steel
floor mount, two speakers, one DVD player and one DVD (color; stereo sound). All images courtesy of the artist and Donald Young Gallery, Chicago.

With this in mind, An Art of Limina can be read as a manifesto of sorts — the performative rendition of a poetic principle. The authors state as much explicitly in Preliminaries: “That makes this in some ways a work in realizing a general poetics shared by the three of us — that is, a poetics as the working principles of a time-based art, one that pertains to language and a range of visual, auditory, and electronic objectification” (8). And since the principle is simultaneously named and operative, a descriptive passage about a piece by Gary Hill without reference to the authors’ work is illuminating on this account:

This [voiceover] might even be heard as a manifesto declaring a radical new realm of video synthesis, except that the utterance itself belongs to happenstance on the same plane as the developing imagery.… If in the apparent tug of war between word and image the words threaten to overwhelm the video with over-positive interpretation, it is equally true that the images and the process as a whole reclaim what is being stated verbally and refuse to be dominated by the concepts with which they are, nevertheless, in perpetual interaction. Virtual dialogue supplants any inferred polemic. (123)

Although the original context is incommensurate, the same proportions delimit Gary Hill (as video) and George Quasha and Charles Stein (as voiceover). The authors are proposing a critical discourse in dialogue — a mode of speaking with principle-based art and that, in the process of naming, configures the latter’s axis within the consensual medium of language: “the meaning of the image is given by the word, the meaning of the word is given by the image, and together an intimate and significant gesture is performed” (284n). Rather than the closure of conceptual interpretation, their aim is to resonate with the artwork on principle, opening it to ever further associations of kinship: “the premise [is] that the work is never complete — that the distinctions that a work makes are never definitive, but that they are always generative, and that … efforts at definition don’t limit the way a work comes in but encourage continuous beginning from it” (517). And since, as I have argued, the nature of An Art of Limina is self-similar (i.e., the parts resemble the whole), the same dialogical relationship is evident within Gary Hill’s works themselves. The authors remark:

[W]e ourselves are the extended medium of the piece.… Perhaps we should speak of resonance, that is, how an articulated impulse resonates in us, what it continues to do inside us, what it gives birth to in some complex sense that cannot be conceptualized outside of the work’s continuing process. In this sense Gary Hill’s way of engaging with Blanchot, Heidegger, or Bateson is not to discuss, illustrate or comment on these sources but to resonate with them — is not, indeed, so much an intertextuality as an extended textuality, a further life. (200)

Thus, rather than making a video “about” Blanchot, Gary Hill’s video coperforms with Blanchot’s writings by aligning with them on a structural level, elaborating a shared context whose expansion furthers the reach of all contributions and constantly redefines the field.

This review is thus, optimally, an instance of such resonance. In fact, I had the same reaction to An Art of Limina as George Quasha experienced when first encountering Gary Hill’s Happenstance: “Happenstance was like a read-out of a part of my own brain, because it proved something I fantasized was true, that in the deepest sense a poem is an animate force that is active in all of the mind’s projections, visual/aural/tactile” (479). After musing for years about the potential of art to declare context and create worlds — art that “radically orients and reorients space, time, language, thought, even dreams and visions … simply by declaration” — I was astounded (259). George Quasha and Charles Stein have accomplished something that I have long dreamed about: a book that simultaneously embodies and offers a core vocabulary for an entire species of radically performative art. It is an ambitious project, which is reflected in the book’s encapsulation of their thirty years of shared experience.

An Art of Limina has profound ethical and political implications reaching far beyond the delimited fields of art history and poetics. In awakening to the existence of thresholds/limens, we replace “the hypnosis of automatic signification and consensual interpretation” with the discovery and development of complex new orders of human reality (331; 399). This awareness of reconfiguration and its potential opens new orientations of being in the world, and “to model the relationship between thought and world, language and sense … is by that very act to change the intuitive context of the way we think of the world, thus to change the world itself” (292n). Rather than blind indoctrination into an existing symbolic context and consequent exposure to gross manipulation, performative art emphasizes the ethical responsibility of conscious involvement as “art-beings who exist in relation to more or less continuous projection of our own event” (261). (Corporations are already remarkably well versed on this point; see Leadership: Theory, Application, and Skill Development by Robert N. Lussier and Christopher F. Achua, who write frankly on “the process of culture creation, sustainability, and renewal” [370].) Further, the poetics explored here is profoundly democratic; while the significance of conceptual art is often constrained to a select few, in principle-based art “the images carry within their own graphic qualities and sequential structures everything necessary to bring the viewer into ‘initiation’” (227). Perhaps “invitation” is a more suitable word — a call to further the life of the work.