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Doug Hall @ SFAI

Terrible Uncertainty of the Thing Described, 1987


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.

Much of the conceptual underpinnings of The Terrible Uncertainty of the Thing Described come from the writings of 18th century philosopher Edmund Burke on the nature of the sublime.  The show title is a phrase Burke used to describe a story in the book of Job.  In the story, a man sees an apparition “glide past his face” and is “seized by fear and trembling” which Burke likened to the experience of the sublime.  The spirit asks: “Can a mortal be more righteous than God?  Can even a strong man be more pure than his Maker?”  A question that may have a different answer depending on whether you ask a priest or an engineer.  An obvious second reference to Burke comes from the distinct capital punishment connotation of an electric chair.  Burke

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.

Philosophy aside, Terrible Uncertainty is a powerful experience, not easily replicated.  In many aspects the work resembles the 1983 art film Koyaanisqatsi, which uses time lapsed footage of cities, industry, people, and landscapes accompanied by a Phillip Glass score to describe “life out of balance,” or the antipathy between modern technology and nature.  Like Koyaanisqatsi, Hall’s piece is largely tonal in quality, with remote and epic images of nature spliced with human intervention and exploitation.  However, Hall is more compact and visceral, forcing you to feel the terrible power of technology that is usually hidden behind its domestic use and TV-friendly veneer.  Thirty years after Terrible Uncertainty was made, we are far more likely to be damaged by our technology than devoured by a tornado, drowned in a flood, or struck by lightning.
Doug Hall: “The Terrible Uncertainty of the Thing Described” @ San Francisco Art Institute, Walter and McBean Galleries, through June 6, 2015.

All photos this article: "Terrible Uncertainty of the Thing Described," 1987, three-channel video installation, with sound, electronics, steel and Tesla coil.  
About the Author:
Mikko Lautamo is an artist living and working in Sacramento. His work uses programming to create never-repeating loops of digital animations based on social systems, biological entities and interactions.  He teaches Electronic Art at Sac State and has exhibited work in Sacramento, Melbourne and online. His work can be viewed on Vimeo

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