Back in October, I had the pleasure of meeting and seeing the work of LA based artist EJ Hill. We both were representing Defibrillator Gallery at the MDW Art Fair in Chicago. In the midst of the bustle of the art fair, EJ stood as still as possible for 3 hours. I instantly fell in love with his piece and his demeanor. The Present Tense is thrilled to share a recent interview we did with him!
TPT: Who are you?
EJ: Ah! Such a big first question! I’m still working on that one. I haven’t quite resolved that one yet…
TPT: How did you find live art? How did live art find you?
EJ: I guess I’ve always sort of been interested in extraordinary experiences or circumstances but I didn’t really come to understand those as art until I found myself hanging out with other weirdos at Columbia College in Chicago. I thought I was going to learn to draw and paint when I got to art school, which, you know, was definitely there, but once I figured out that other things could be art, that experiences could be art, I hit the ground running in a different direction.
TPT: Tell me about one experience that has influenced, inspired or affected your work.
EJ: When I was about 6 or 7 years old, my only neighborhood friend was the kid who lived next door. He was about a year or two older than me and his family pretty much gave him free reign. My family was the exact opposite; I was so coddled and sheltered growing up that I wasn’t even allowed to go past our driveway onto the sidewalk alone. So I never really got to venture out and play with the other kids. Because of that, my friend knew a whole lot more about things than I did but he was always getting into trouble for one thing or another. So one day we were playing in my backyard and he told me that if I put my mouth on his penis that it would feel good. So not knowing what any of this was about but curious to try it, he pulled out his penis, put it in front of my face and I did what I always did when things entered my mouth… I bit down. Hard.
TPT: In October 2011, you made a piece where you stood still for 3 hours for the MDW Art Fair in Chicago. Can you talk about the intention behind this action?
EJ: I think I was just tired of performing at that point. I felt that when people showed up to see one of my performances, they expected me to make some intense, hyper-aggressive, balls-to-the-wall piece where I sweat and cry and freak out. And I don’t ever want my work to become predictable. Ever. So I was thinking about ways to perform, without actually performing. So I thought, “What if I just stood still and did nothing for as long as I could?”
TPT: Can you describe your process for realizing this work?
EJ: Yeah, so after the “What if…” thought, I decided to try it. The fist time I tried it, the plan was stand still for 24 hours and see what happens. I was working late in the studio one night and I asked my friend Dylan Mira to take one photo of me on the hour every hour. So I set up the tripod and camera and just stood about 20 feet away from it. That night, I only made it to 4 hours, but those 4 hours were so crazy! By the end of it, snot was running from my nose, my shoulders sagged by about a full inch, my feet were swollen, and I couldn’t really see because my eyes had been tearing up for the last hour or so.
TPT: What were some of your expectations/ hopes (if any) of your audience?
EJ: I had hoped that whatever meditative, out of body, mindfuck that I was experiencing could somehow be transmitted from my body to anyone else who encountered me. I wondered if whatever energy that was flowing through me while I was in that altered state could be felt by others.
TPT: Were there any moments that surprised you?
EJ: I think it was somewhere around the last hour where another piece in one of the other booths at MDW sent me flying somewhere else! It was a sound piece that could be heard throughout the entire floor. It was a continuous low drone that layered and got louder and more complex with time. I noticed that the whole time I was there, no one really engaged with me for longer than a few seconds but when the sound piece started to affect me in this hypnotizing way, people started to gather around and just watch. I’m not sure what I looked like but I think it was at that moment that I tapped into whatever I tapped into that first night in the studio. People stood around, and just watched. Just watched me stand.
TPT: Why did you choose to create this work over the duration of 3 hours?
EJ: I planned to go for longer, but shortly after the low drone of the other piece ended, I just didn’t want to continue. After the sound stopped, I felt like I was doing that thing where I was performing. I was only continuing for the sake of the audience and it began to feel really insincere.
TPT: How did the piece evolve for you over that time?
EJ: It was painful. Ironically, standing still takes a lot of hard work, tons of stamina. The soles of my feet were killing me, my back and shoulders were hurting from the weight of my arms. Physically, it wasn’t very pleasant but psychologically, it was almost euphoric.
TPT: How was performing in Chicago different from making work in other places?
EJ:Well, I went to school in Chicago so I had a few years of developing a practice or a working method. I was comfortable. And I think toward the end, other people were comfortable with what I was doing and expected me to deliver a certain type of work. So any time I got the opportunity to travel and make work somewhere else, it was exciting. I could go and make my work with an entirely new audience who didn’t go into it with any preconceived notions. Chicago also has this very impressive “get off your ass and make it happen” kind of attitude. If it’s not being done, and people want to see it happen, someone will make it happen. People are grinding hard and not so much because of market pressures as is the case in some other cities, but because they really believe in what they do. It’s phenomenal. It’s beautiful. It’s so fucking REAL.
TPT: How did the context of an art fair inform your piece?
EJ: I knew it was going to be busy. There was going to be a lot of people, a lot of action, a ton of art. I wanted to contrast the usually overwhelming nature of art fairs.
TPT: Do you have an ideal context for your work to be experienced in?
EJ: Yes. That moment when you’re least expecting it.
TPT: You were one of the performers who participated in Marina Abramovic’s piece for The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles’ annual Gala. How did this situation challenge your perception of stillness?
EJ: That one was weird because there were so many other things going on at the time (the Debbie Harry performance, the tiff between Yvonne Rainer and Marina Abramovi?) so it was really difficult to even think about stillness with so many distractions on and off court. And we were all supposed to rotate on lazy Susans beneath the tables so we were still, but only kind of.
TPT: How has this experience informed your creative process?
EJ: The MOCA performance itself, the action, sort of left as quickly as it arrived. But I still find myself asking questions regarding power dynamics in the art world. I haven’t unlocked any secrets or answered any questions definitively, but I’m thinking a lot more about work ethic, compensation, celebrity/art stardom, creative impetus, the role of the wealthy in the production/consumption of art…
TPT: What are you currently studying?
TPT: Any words of wisdom?
EJ: Go with your gut. Every single time.