All summer long, every single day, for every single hour that the exhibition Made in LA at Los Angeles’s Hammer Museum was open (six days a week, nine hours a day, and six on weekends), the artist EJ Hill stood in a room known as the Vault Gallery at the top of a three-tiered pedestal, like the kind you see medalists stand on in the Olympics.
Visitors filtered in and out and went on with their summers while he remained there, sometimes alone, always unwavering, his gaze held often by something in the invisible distance. I thought of EJ, an artist I’ve had the privilege to know as a friend since 2014, standing there on his own many times throughout the summer. As our small family took our summer trips and sweltered in the Los Angeles heat, I was both haunted by the thought of him standing there alone, and moved each time he came to mind by the power and simplicity of his gesture.
Again now, with his An Unwavering Tendency Toward the Center of a Blistering Sun, a solo show at Company Gallery in New York, I am haunted by the generosity of his offering: both the one he makes to himself as a human living in a world with a history (and a present) that would annihilate him, and by what he offers to all who enter there. To hold the complexity of the work, you have to trace it back to the summer and to all that came before, to feel out and honor the roots.
For part of his multi-layered contribution to Made in L.A., Hill worked with artist Texas Isaiah on a kind of commemorative healing project around the city of Los Angeles. Hill ran laps around the perimeter of each school he attended, from pre-school through university: one lap for each year he was there. Texas Isaiah went with him, exploring what it means to accompany someone and bear witness.
The images that emerge from their work together show Hill running on sidewalks outside high concrete walls; standing arms akimbo outside the gates of a Neo-Gothic building; hunched over hands on knees, trying to catch his breath; sagging exhausted in a bougainvillea-lined archway. In each photograph, Hill’s body, often sweating from the exertion of his task, appears small against the institution’s scale: his body the only figure in the frame, contending with the force and scope — the rigid lines — of educational institutional power.
Ta-Nehisi Coates puts it succinctly when he writes of his own childhood in Between the World and Me (2015), “the schools were not concerned with curiosity. They were concerned with compliance.” But what kind of compliance is available for brown bodies, queer bodies, ill bodies, riotous, irreverent, gender-non-compliant bodies, poor bodies, trans bodies, feminist anti-capitalist bodies? What kind of compliance is available to bodies that cannot comply? And what are the punishments meted out on these bodies, what repercussions do they face for standing up, and standing out?
Of this part of the project, Hill has said in a videotaped interview, “these laps that I’m running around these schools, I’m […] playfully calling victory laps […] I’m trying to sweat out the lessons that I no longer need, making […] myself a victor of these spaces that are built all around us but not necessarily for us.”
Victory is the defeat of an opponent, the vanquishing of an enemy in battle, and so Hill’s project functions both as a healing rite and a rigorous, provocative critique. What do we learn about ourselves in educational systems that have capital and compliance as their aims? Which bodies receive their educations without detriment and which bodies incur violence because they do not, cannot, comply? Whose voices are allowed and whose are forbidden?
These laps were the ritual before the ritual. Excellentia, Mollitia, Victoria (Excellence, Resilience, Victory) became the cumulative title of the installation and durational performance Hill enacted all summer long: a self-made Latin motto marking the necessary elements for survival in a system that desires your compliance or your death.
At the Hammer, Hill’s project was housed in its own room, a rectangular gallery with a smooth vaulted ceiling and a broad concave curvature opposite the entryway. The entire space was painted a distinctive shade of blue. Somehow, it was exactly the color of a cloudless Los Angeles sky during the hottest part of a summer day, and simultaneously the color of an Angeleno sky at twilight when day and night exist, briefly, together.
When I first entered the space on the evening of the opening, the day before the performance began, it felt as if Hill had created a temple. Even with the din of opening night revelry in the spaces outside, visitors hushed as they entered there.
The neon sign behind the pedestal that would hold the artist for the rest of the summer cast its glow on everything — onto the running-rite photos that lined the walls, onto the sculptures that comprised the installation, and onto the faces of everyone who stood inside that room, making its question feel ever more urgent — “Where on earth, in which soils and under what conditions will we bloom brilliantly and violently?”
I thought about what it meant to flower with destructive force: something about pulling strength from roots, something about strange beauty blossoming unabashedly and unashamed, something about destroying a system that cultivates normativity, and so erasure. And I found myself wondering which bodies were held by this “we.”
Days later, when it came time for me to return to see the work complete with EJ standing there, I scrambled madly around my house and the neighborhood market, gathering offerings. It did not feel appropriate to come to this space empty-handed.
When the kindly museum staff-person regulating the number of people who could enter the gallery at one time let us in, others went first so I could struggle with our stroller. The power of the space and of this human standing strong arrested me. I left my child in the stroller in the middle of the room and forgot everything but the work for a series of long, silent moments. It was not easy to look at him — a brown body atop a wooden block, enduring standing there — and it was impossible to look away, to pretend there was not a human being standing there, enduring.
Who stands? is what came immediately to mind, and then a flood of answers: slaves on auction blocks, laborers on assembly lines, victors, protestors, prisoners, the accused, those who “place” in an athletic competition, those who honor and pay tribute, those who vow, those who swear. I could not stare at him comfortably — the power dynamics of the gaze were too present — so I took in the photographs on the walls, the sculptures in the space, and glanced at him reverently when I felt I could.
Finally, I remembered my son. He had been fussy all afternoon: it was hot and he does not like to be confined. But I was able to forget him for a moment because when we entered the space, his eyes grew wide and he fell completely silent, transfixed by EJ Hill. When I came back to myself and remembered my child, I crouched by his stroller to try and explain what I could about what we were witnessing. EJ looked at us and it was then that I realized: he had not yet met my son. As if a breeze had blown it, his right hand lifted in subtle salutation. He gazed at us both, and then he held my baby’s face with his eyes. His hand floated to his heart and my 14-month old son gripped the bar of his stroller and leaned quietly forward, as close as he could, to this being he was witnessing. We stayed like that for a long time in a kind of triangle honoring life and hardship and perseverance. It was the eighth of June, which meant that EJ still had 74 days to go.
I had heard about Hill’s work long before I met him. It was legend before I had the chance to see him perform. I’ve come to see this as an element of the work itself: it generates narratives, gets passed along from person to person, takes on a mythic life of its own.
So too with Excellentia, Mollitia, Victoria: many have told stories of the profundity of the time they spent in the space, many more made it a practice to visit Hill regularly throughout the summer, and on the last day, a large crowd gathered with flowers and offerings to witness him come down off the block for the final time.
Alongside the physical and mental strength Hill’s performance demanded was a willingness to still his life for a time. The rigor of his action did not allow for much more than the performance itself. By Hill’s own account, quoted in a profile written by Carolina A. Miranda for the LA Times, his life took on a “monastic” quality as he ascended the pedestal each day — entering a meditative state to be able to sustain the number of uninterrupted hours he would be there — and then descended the pedestal each evening to make his way home for food and sleep, preparing for the day that was to come. In late capitalist culture where we are trained to pursue and achieve and advance and consume and forget, stilling one’s life to make time to stand and remember is an act of ultimate resistance.
All this infuses the work Hill currently has on exhibition with a layer of purpose and protest and significance. An Unwavering Tendency Toward the Center of a Blistering Sun is a sparse and punctuated exhibition that feels almost like poetry in its spare and heartbreakingly beautiful phrases. Here, on the fifth floor of a gallery space on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, is “Altar (for victors past, present, and future)” (all works 2018), the pedestal that was so intimately connected to the artist’s body for so long, now telling its story through the ghostly gray foot marks that populate a particular path along its surface. Here too is a new work in neon entitled “A Commemoration,” which memorializes Hill’s own action while leaving space for acts of resistance still to come. It reads: “Here stood he, stoically and valiantly, for those whose burdens lie darkly in even the highest of noons. June 3–September 2, 2018.”
Seven unique photographs that the artist took during the summer with a medium-format camera also line the walls. They were taken on the days when the museum was closed, days he did not have to take a stand. What I notice is that, except for one image, the artist’s own body is no longer visibly present. We infer someone is there from the indexical evidence of the photographic gesture.
There is something about the hypervisibility of Hill’s performance-body and the almost total absence of his figure in these photographs that speaks to the double bind of non-normative bodies.
On the one hand, there is hypervisibility — no way to recede into a background — and on the other, there is erasure — no way to really be seen. This is perhaps why I find the single image that does include Hill’s figure, lying with his eyes closed on his back in what appears to be a backyard pool, so alluring. It initially seems that, as in the collaboration with Texas Isaiah, there must have been someone there to pull the camera’s trigger. But examining the photograph more closely, you see the end of a shutter release cable in his right hand, opening the possibility that he is lying this way, letting the water hold up the weight of his body, enjoying himself alone.
I used to have a lover who insisted that when a song came to mind, it was trying to tell me something. I resist this logic but think of it almost every time it happens, mining my unconscious like a game. While writing this piece, the Miguel lyric: “a free spirit, with a wild heart” came to me like an incessant refrain, guiding me somewhere, though I’m not sure where.
What I do know is that on this earth in this time, loving yourself if you do not comply is a fierce and inspiring act. Placing yourself on the top of a winner’s podium to stand and remember all the lessons it hurt to learn, all the lessons you now must shed, is an act of love and defiance that is nothing short of heroic — and so must take a wild heart. As Hill put it in the LA Times profile, “It’s hard being black, brown and queer. It’s hard to be alive in spaces that are designed to kill you. But there I am, still standing.”
An Unwavering Tendency Toward the Center of a Blistering Sun continues at Company Gallery (88 Eldridge Street, 5th Floor, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through October 21.