FLASH. I enter the room, and close the door behind me. I am standing inside Gary Hill's 1996 installation, Reflex Chamber. It's a space apart, shut off from the rest of the world. The room is small, about fifteen feet square. A five foot square table stands at the center. Otherwise, the room is empty. The walls are covered in black. It's so dark, I can't see my hands in front of my face. But then a strobe light flashes. Its brightness assails my eyes. Now I am blinded by an excess of light, instead of by its absence. The rapid alternation puts me into a trance. It's almost like an epileptic seizure. Vague shapes flutter in the darkness. Or are they merely afterimages, left behind by the flash? In any case, there are no solid objects in Reflex Chamber. There are only images and sounds. They cycle over and over, in an eleven minute loop. The sounds are mostly those of human speech. Hill reIs an enigmatic monologue. His voice is loud, though his tone is intimate and subdued. He speaks of presence and absence, of being lost in the world, of being exiled from human meaning. His words turn against themselves: "I have no mouth, no scream, no voice within... I didn't think this. This is not me. I'm not accountable." These phrases are hard to make out. They have been digitally reprocessed. Hill's voice is broken into fragments. There are gaps between the words, and sometimes even in the middle of words. The syllables come abruptly, in spasmodic stops and starts. Language gives way to an electronic stutter. Meanwhile, grainy video images flicker on the table top. They seem to glow from within, in the otherwise dark room. Actually there's a video projector on the ceiling, with a mirror that directs the light down onto the table. The images are fluid and inconstant. They keep on changing shape and orientation. None of them lasts for more than a few seconds. They are always getting bleached out by the brilliant flashes of light. Or else they fade back into the darkness. From moment to moment, I see a water tower, a park with trees, a cabin in the woods, a seashore. I see views from the windshield of a moving car, and out the window of a trolley. I see the walls of an apartment, and a rooftop with the city skyline beyond. I even see a small camera, held between two fingers, with an eye peering through its lens. These images and sounds are so fragile, so fleeting. They teeter on the brink of oblivion. Each moment threatens to be their last. Yet their disappearance is never final. They always come back again. They persist, in the face of their own obliteration. Their very frailty is a kind of force. Is that why I find them so beautiful? Fascinated, I cannot let them go. Standing inside Reflex Chamber is like being shut within my own skull. The outside world slips away. I lose all sense of time. I am alone with these ghostly presences. They are as close to me as my own thoughts, as intimate as secrets whispered by a lover. Yet these sounds and images are not mine. I cannot quite get hold of them. They hover just beyond my reach. They want something from me, something I cannot give. Hill's shattered monologue speaks of coming to a special point: "This point wants to show me something inhuman. It wants to bring me to my knees. It wants me to pray, it wants me to see through seeing, it wants me to act like knowledge. It wants acknowledgment. It wants me completely at the edge." It's a rare and precarious situation to be in. Usually I assume that sounds and images are transparent. I pass through them, to reach what lies beyond. I construct meanings out of them. I get information from them. I turn them into stories. I use them to make sense of the world. But in Reflex Chamber, I cannot do these things. I am paralyzed by the strobe and the broken speech. I don't have leisure to consider what the words mean. I only have ears for the contours of the sounds themselves. I don't have time to wonder what scenes these images depict. I only have eyes for the light itself, flashing or faintly shimmering. I see these images, and hear these sounds, without referring them to anything else. As Hill says in his notes about the piece: "rather than a picture (window) to stand before and see in perspective, the image takes on a more physical presence." That is to say, the image becomes opaque. It has a weight and density of its own. It is not a disembodied spectacle. It is right here in the room with me. I cannot stand apart from it. I cannot keep it at a distance. I must embrace this alien presence, in body and in mind. I am bound to it, by an obscure complicity.
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