Review: Doug Hall’s "The Terrible Uncertainty of the Thing Described" at the San Francisco Art Institute
Doug Hall, "The Terrible Uncertainty of the Thing Described," three-channel video installation with sound, electronics, steel, and Tesla coil, 144 in. x 360 in. x 480 in. (365.76 cm x 914.4 cm x 1219.2 cm); Collection SFMOMA, purchase through a gift of the Modern Art Council and the San Francisco Art Dealers Association; © Doug Hall; photo: Charles Mayer
By Joe Ferguson
The impact of a piece of contemporary art is, by most measures, fleeting. The experience is an expression of the moment, something, when viewed much later, lacks the sting of its initial viewing. Bound with the sentiments of its time, and mired in political hubris, an artwork can acquire intellectual and aesthetic impotence.
We may appreciate a work’s aesthetic qualities, but it is the historical context that often provides emotional and intellectual depth. For instance, we may be dazzled by the beauty of Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, but it is the fact that Seurat was attempting to incorporate the most recent scientific research on perception with his use of pointillism that leaves us awe struck. Likewise, we may be amused by Warhol’s Soup Cans, but amazed when we understand that he was making a statement about modern vs. classic iconography.
Occasionally, however, an artwork transcends its time not through our becoming aware of what was, but through a contemporary reinterpretation. For the first time in a quarter century, Doug Hall’s The Terrible Uncertainty of the Thing Described (1987) is on display in the San Francisco Art Institute, and it’s more affecting than ever.
Presented jointly with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s On-the-Go program, Doug Hall’s work is a visual and aural assault. It incorporates several channels of video monitors displaying extreme weather and industrial machines, and a functioning Tesla coil, into a huge sculptural installation. Even before you get into the galleries, you can hear the rumble of the soundtrack from the video feed. Once inside the darkened gallery, you find three channels of video footage redistributed among six pedestal-mounted monitors and a wall screen that include volcanic eruptions, a forest fire, a stormy sea, thunder and lightning, and a tornado. Intercut between displays of nature’s violence are images of industrial might: a power plant and steel mill. One standout image serves as a juncture for these two extremes; above a pastoral setting of grassy fields and decaying farm buildings, a cerulean sky steadily dissolves into video snow. Accompanying the video installation are two steel chairs straddling a large, functioning Tesla coil. As the video trails off, the Tesla coil powers up and artificial lightening reaches outward.
Hall said he took the title for his piece from Edmund Burke’s 18th-century essay A Philosophical Enquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, which juxtaposes the romantic notion of nature with the reality of sometimes devastating forces beyond our control.
Originally intended as a statement on the physical manifestation of power and a critique of media images, I couldn’t help but see the piece as a vivid warning about the perils of global warming driven by the unrelenting advance of industry. The question of who’s in control, nature or man with our technological advances and commercial aspirations, is not answered in Doug Hall’s work, but it is frighteningly confronted. When viewed through a prism of 21st-century industrial and ecological exploitation, Doug Hall’s landmark piece The Terrible Uncertainty of the Thing Described remains affecting as ever, and is a testament to the potential of art’s enduring relevance.
For a video of Doug Hall’s piece, click here.
The Terrible Uncertainty of the Thing Described is on display in SFAI’s Walter and McBean Galleries March 28th to June 6th.
Our October issue is live! Read here.