The physical and digital combine in a video installation that addresses the boundaries of time, myths, and the methodology of how those ideas are communicated by artist Hazel Brill.
It is rare that a gallery associated with a major art institution holds open submissions, and rarer still that one artist selected is capable of genuinely impressing and surprising the local audience. BALTIC 39 I FIGURE TWO was the second open submission exhibition at the Baltic 39 gallery in Newcastle upon Tyne, UK. The program, consisting of 10 projects by different artists for the duration of five days each over the course of five weeks, attempted to provide a space for artists to show experimental works in any media in a public context. During Week 2 of the Figure Two series (13-17August, 2014) the young artist Hazel Brill exhibited In Bardo: Act Two and, in retrospect, was the highlight of the series.
Hazel Brill recently graduated in 2014 with her BA in fine arts from Newcastle University. In her degree show, Brill presented In Bardo (also called In Bardo: Act One), a 9-minute video installation projecting her film onto multiple shaped canvases, the floor, and a freshly painted university plaster Greek statue. The asymmetrical composition took turns lighting up with impressively arranged projections of three dimensional renderings and animations loosely illustrating a narrative presented by an eerie and slightly comical monotone voiceover. The content of the work addressed the retelling of myths, seemingly tangential facts, and instructions initially inspired by online tutorials and interactive videos such as Second Life and spiritual communication platforms. In Bardo: Act Two was a continuation and expansion of Brill’s degree work.
Brill’s latest installation at the Baltic 39 was composed, this time, of an expanding symmetrical composition centered in the large gallery space. The gallery was completely dark aside from the 11-minute video played on loop. The narrative installation was projected onto two folded screens, another university borrowed statue and three smaller sculptural fragments. The video, made using computer-generated animation and projection mapping programs, washed overs the objects and occasionally framed a border that stretched across the gallery space. The virtual realm and the physical existed simultaneously in the constructed stage. The video, like her degree work, was a montage of images from online sources and animations that were smattered and blurred with information on the protagonist. The plaster statue transitioned from being the protagonist of the story, to a set piece the video played over: back and forth from object to wall depending on the needs of the script. Brill believes the plaster cast to be of the Greek god Hermes: the messenger god, the god of transitions and boundaries. If true, the statue is a fitting metaphor for Brill’s continued interest in liminal time and realities of the physical and the online realm. Bardo is a Tibetan word expressing the intermediary space between death and rebirth. The title of the two-part series In Bardo, speaks of these transitioning worlds.
The monologue that echoed through the gallery was composed of roughly three main scenes interspersed with repetitions and bits of information on Hermes’ story. The information Brill used in her videos were all found online from sites with varying degrees of reliability. The ‘facts’ are from blogs, online tutorials, Wikipedia, outdated websites, enthusiasts and other public platforms that lack authenticity. While the information remained skeptical, the voiceover was presented in a confident, authoritative tone that the audience would normally be expected to trust. The scenes contained versions of an instructional video on how to be a clairvoyant, cooking instructions of meat that was related back to the human body, and on sensory deprivation as a recommendation for finding clarity in mind and spirit.
The whole work itself was an overload of stimuli from the sound effects, to the voiceover, to the set pieces, and to various animations including those of waves flooding the set, rotating meat pieces with fans, collaged images of the body, religious iconography, text, gravestones spinning in darkness, and a vase and cloth that slipped around in space shifting from marble to fabric. The monologue helped explain the images as they unveiled themselves over the various pieces of the set, yet at times the voice simply added to the sensory confusion. One of the most hypnotizing animations involved the viewer entering a cemetery gate and ‘walking’ through the cemetery on a nonexistent wheel as it rolled forward and then later revealed its form from the side, only to start rotating again. The first-person video game element transformed the viewers from voyeurs to participants.
The stimulus overload all cumulated in a captivating visual display that could impress any viewer without need for deeper meaning. But it is those deeper issues that took In Bardo: Act Two from an exploratory process to a professional standing work worthy of contemplation. Brill expertly merged multiple inspirations and themes into a singular, coherent piece. The more accessible themes dealt with trust of online sources, technologies and realities in the physical versus the digital world, spirituality and clarity in cyberspace, appropriation of past stories into relevant metaphorical teaching tools, and the how the ideas of liminal time and space play into those topics listed above. Boiling all these ideas down to a singular theme is challenging and possibly overly simplifying Brill’s work, but the transitions of the in-betweens is a possible contender. The Hermes sculpture in a contemporary artwork represents it. The title word Bardo represents it. The text seeking to connect the physical world and cyberspace addresses it.
Brill does not always provide a clear preference in these comparisons. It seems she is posing and exploring the topics herself and encouraging the viewer to find their own opinions with her. This refrain from clarity is essential to the success of Brill’s work. In Bardo: Act Two contains so many themes and collages so many ideas, that allowing room for the viewer to recognize and then process the metaphors themselves becomes the greatest success of the work.
If any critiques were to be made of Brill’s In Bardo: Act Two it would have been in the presentation of the set elements. The smaller, sculptural fragments drifted away from Hermes loosening the relationship between the objects as the symmetrical composition removed valuable tension and form found in the first In Bardo. As the small pieces became peripheral objects, they were rendered unnecessary which, in a work where all parts needed to contribute, is a small disappointment. The purpose and placement of the fragments aside, In Bardo: Act Two has few weaknesses for an exploratory work that brings so much new and refreshing to the projection installation art form. Projection videos are increasingly popular in contemporary art and can be found in art festivals and public artworks worldwide. Brill took this trending technique and brought it to a rare level of sophistication with her developed metaphors. The perplexing and at times absurd work was presented at a professional standing rarely found in small, contemporary galleries.
Brill’s works are so much more than a segmented narrative with stunning projected animations on repurposed screens and borrowed sculptures. They are inspirational stories capable of deep analysis where the content of the work is of equal importance to the artistic technique resulting in a balanced and satisfying installation. Brill has all the promises of a contemporary storyteller. She uses tales as they were originally designed- not only to entertain- but to communicate metaphors that examine contemporary society or everyday life and morals. Hazel Brill bridges the gap of time by repurposing the myths of old into a new context relevant to today’s electronic society. In Bardo: Act Two is well worth the 11-minute viewing time and I fully expect to see more from Brill in the near future. For the time being, you can catch up on the In Bardo series at hazelbrill.com.
SRLS October 10, 2014