The first thing that hits you is the sound: ripping tornadoes, storms and drowning tidal waves, whirring machinery and lightning strikes. Doug Hall’s The Terrible Uncertainty of the Thing Described is a gallery-sized installation of video, metal, and electronics. It was originally acquired in 1989 by SFMOMA, but hasn’t been seen since the museum vacated the Veterans Memorial Building that same year. Its appearance, as part of the “SFMOMA on the Go” program, the museum’s co-exhibition arrangement with institutions around the Bay Area, signals a welcome reprise for an iconic installation. The hard-edged cement of the Walter and McBean Gallerles at SFAI creates an echo chamber for the constant booming noise of natural disasters and heavy machinery ostensibly coming from six small CRT televisions and one large-scale projection high on the wall. The TVs are on eight-foot-high pedestals that maintain a monumental appearance in line with the projection. Together, the seven screens show three different channels of video which alternate, seemingly at random, between the screens. The piece can be roughly broken into three sections with elemental themes: wind, water, fire/lightning. Each movement has natural disasters (tornadoes, floods, lava flows and lightning storms) opposite industrial applications of those forces (turbines, shipping, smelting and power generation). Intercutting between those two elements, Hall inserts abstract elements like TV “snow”, solid-color rectangles, and analog video effects. The work is from 1987, so the effects are somewhat crude by today’s standards, but they serve their function. In truth, the elemental themes are a little too on-the-nose and could use some complication, but this show isn’t about subtlety – it’s about the large functioning Tesla coil propped behind two giant metal chairs like a lamp in Frankenstein’s living room.
Every 20 to 30 minutes the Tesla coil revs up and generates huge voltages of electricity which arc like lightning bolts into the air and onto to the tops of the chairs, swirling wildly and lighting the dark gallery. For less than a minute, the lightning completely overwhelms anything seen on screen or heard over the speakers. The coil starts and stops out of sync with the looping video, so you can’t predict when the startlingly loud electricity is going to appear. For safety, the coil and chairs are housed behind a ceiling-high black metal grate which creates a prison execution-like atmosphere. There’s no real danger, but each time the lightning goes off it’s hard not to feel physically threatened. Seeing the video of natural disasters is impressive, but having a room sized lightning storm appear in front of you is indescribable.
used the example of witnessing a man being executed, as opposed to the depiction of that execution, as a way to say that the sublime fact is always greater than its depiction, no matter how detailed – a point Hall all but proves when he shows a projection of a lightning storm opposite real lightning; there is no comparison.