The Makers: Gary Hill's Mind-Bending Media Art

Meet Gary Hill, Seattle's artist-sculptor-writer-performer extraordinaire for the last three decades
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The Makers is a new column on Seattlemag.com that explores different Seattle creatives and their crafts. These artists live to design, connect and create.

“I got my hands on the early Sony Portapak, purely by happenstance, and found myself deep in the cybernetic milieu of electronics—body and self—and went from there,” writes Seattle-based artist Gary Hill in response to my question about how he first started doing all that he does. His works include video art, sculpture, installations of varying shapes and sizes, and musical performance pieces, all of which usually incorporate technology in some way.

I meet him for an interview in his Belltown studio—a two-story, 3,000-square-foot basement space with high, airy ceilings. The space is in alternating states of organization. A set of bookshelves is neatly tidied, partially filled with art books and other texts, and partially filled with books that accompany some of Hill's installation pieces, like this one. A ladder stands open on the bottom floor of the studio, facing a blank cement wall. In the upstairs office, digital mixers and other sound equipment tower upon tables on all sides of the room. Hill seats himself in a wooden chair. Behind him is a piano keyboard, more sound equipment, and higher up, another smaller keyboard.

If you haven't heard of Hill before, you may not be alone. For such a prolific artist who has lived and worked in Seattle for 30 years and won a multitude of awards, including a MacArthur Genius Grant in 1998, Hill seems lesser known here than he should be. He tells me he once sat on a panel for contemporary art and the other panelists there didn't seem to be aware of his work at all. He's laughing a little while he says that, though, and seems to take it more as a characteristic of the Seattle art scene rather than a personal slight.

Hill came to Seattle in 1985 after his two artist exchange fellowships in Japan ended. His brother, who lived in Seattle at the time, sent him a classified ad for a job at Cornish College of the Arts to start a media program for the school. Hill landed the position, ran the program for about five years, and has lived in Seattle ever since.

Gary Hill

Besides the Sony Portapak, Hill’s early influences include the music of Terry Riley and La Monte Young, the New York Painting and Sculpture 1940-1970 exhibit, some LSD during his younger years, and a friend’s older brother who made complex wire sculpture (Hill himself started out mainly as a sculptor).

Now Hill works in a variety of media, often mixing sculpture with sound, written and spoken language, and video. His latest works include an installation at the historical Rossiva Cinema in Moscow and a 3D-animted variation on a Beethoven opera at the Lyon Opera House. You can see a huge list of Gary Hill's works, including when and where they have shown here.


'Red Yellow' installation at the Rossiya Cinema in Moscow

Hill's newest installation, Red Yellow, showed in Moscow this summer. The piece consisted of a lifeguard tower built over a few rows of seats inside the historical Rossiya Cinema. A video plays inside the tower, showing the coast, waves crashing on shore and a wetsuit dangling and blowing in the wind. Hill shot the footage for Red Yellow while on a recent surfing trip in Magdalena Bay, Mexico. Raised in Santa Monica, Calif., Hill surfs fairly often, or as often as one can strike a balance between the waves and the weather in the Pacific Northwest.


Another view of the 'Red Yellow' lifeguard tower

In 2013, Hill directed Fidelio, which hit the stage in Lyon and also at the Edinburgh International Festival. Like most of his other works, it isn’t exactly conventional. The opera, which Hill combined with Harry Martinson’s science fiction poem, Aniara, is done almost entirely in 3D-animation. It also takes place on a spaceship, and the main characters ride on modified Segways.

One of Hill’s most iconic works is called Tall Ships, which debuted in 1992 and has shown at the Henry Art Gallery. When I ask him if there was a piece he’d shown that elicited a particularly interesting reaction from viewers, he says he once received a letter from a woman who saw Tall Ships. “[She] said something to the effect that it saved her life. She ended it by saying, ‘If you ever feel you can’t go on, you’re depressed, or the work is meaningless, read this and know that it does make a difference.’ She couldn’t have known that I’ve had bouts with depression—I still have the letter.”

Before moving to Seattle, Hill lived in upstate New York between 1969 and 1984 (except for the 1979-80 school year he spent in Buffalo). There, during his early years as an artist, he made “wrought iron, quick, dirty, hippie jewelry” and washed dishes to make a living while he applied for artist grants. “I lived in a basement that had three inches of water in it for some of the time. You know, it was 50 dollars a month,” Hill describes, laughing. It took eight years for him to obtain his first grant. When I ask if he ever thought about giving up at any point during that time, he gives me an emphatic no. “I never thought about it like that. It’s always been my life. There is no career,” he says.


'Cutting Corners Creates More Sides', in production in Hill's studio

Cutting Corners Creates More Sides is another of Hill’s recent mixed-media pieces. This one debuted in 2012 at the Galerie in Situ in Paris. You can watch the video portion here. The installation consists of a long table inset with speakers, through which Hill’s own voice speaks, and at the end of the table two screens show a variety of objects. The objects include silvery tools, a rubber band, some yellow wiring, and a teal thumbtack. They come barely into focus and then abruptly out again. The spoken words include lines like this one: “A Doppler shift of a distant siren, a perturbed neighbor, a whimpering dog, whatever the night offers gives me much needed movement, however brief.”


'Cutting Corners', the installation

When watching Cutting Corners, your attention shifts to the minute, to the tiny bits of an object barely seen on the screen. Your vision gets blurry, your thoughts become a little disjointed. You might even feel a little frustrated. At the same time, you are captivated by the poetic sentences being spoken. The result is a delightfully disorienting mix between the spare and the grandiose.

Hill says he doesn’t consider his own work to be poetry, instead saying that “it happens in poetic space, that all the other stuff happens in.” His inspiration derives from daily, “odd-lived moments.” “I drop a screw on the floor and it bounces in an uncanny way,” he explains, “or my foot falls asleep at the same time I hear water running and something happens.”

Look for Hill's work in the future at the Henry Art Gallery and at the James Harris Gallery. He has shown recently at the Seattle Art Museum and the Seattle Art Fair. He is also in the beginning stages of a collaboration with artist Coley Mixan through a University of Washington program called Strange Couplings. Hill says he isn't sure exactly what will come of the partnership, but it might involve guitars and musical jam sessions.

You can watch many of Gary Hill's videos (including some dating back over a couple decades) on Vimeo

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