Hazel Brill: Shonisaurus Popularis
Turf Projects, London
20 July – 2 September, 2018
Review by Piers Masterson
The Croydon shopping centre that is the site of Turf Projects is a far remove from the hyper-luxury of Las Vegas, the subject of Hazel Brill’s new work and this is one of many humorous paradoxes. Out of place, a Shonisaurus Popularis, an extinct aquatic leviathan that is the star of Hazel Brill’s show, swims across the gallery’s main window like an exotic animal placed in a casino lobby to greet incoming gamblers. For an artist whose work often deals with fantasy and simulation, Las Vegas is an ideal subject for Brill, its evolution as a setting for desire, is a perfect mirror for her distinctive, cinematic and kaleidoscopic installations.
Imitating the Nevada desert Brill creates a diorama of rocks, fossils and an oasis out of which a projection of Las Vegas rises. In the desert, Brill found a tourist attraction based around the huge fossils of these sea creatures still embedded in the rock strata that now become the main character in her constructed scenario, providing a geological dissection of the history of the area.
Brill projects synchronised images of Las Vegas and the reanimated Shonisaurus Popularis on to her desert diorama and the repetition of certain images becomes compulsive, triggering a deep fascination towards the impact the subjects have on the collective consciousness. The narration is by made by overlapping voices that include a palentologist and a tourist who is also a travelogue, who describes a visit to the fossil site and Death Valley and their relationship between the characters. These disembodied voices float over the work directing our attention and provide what Michel Chion calls the ‘acous-metre’, a cinematic device that provides an acoustic parallel to the sovereign eye of the Director. This ties together the multiple viewpoints of Brill’s camerawork, which includes the huge hypnotic eye of the Shonisaurus that stares out at us.
As Brill recalls this fantastical creature to life, its giant eye captures us with its gaze - a disconcerting instance of the spectator of the artwork being becoming the subject. The Shonisaurus eye’s massive lens was supported by a bone ring that, when fossilized examples were found, confounded paleontologists. The discovery of sea creatures in the middle of the desert prompted Mormons to assert this was evidence for Noah’s flood, and spurred Mormons to integrate into the area by investing in casinos owned by Howard Hughes.
The incredible Shonisaurus complements Brill’s encounter with the unreality of Las Vegas, such as her diaristic camera encounters with hotel guests dressed as Star Wars aliens. The deadpan narrators describe, in the style of Jurassic Park, an encounter between a reanimated Shonisaurus and Steven Wynn the celebrity Las Vegas casino owner and art collector. Wynn’s role in the work is comparable to the one of ‘Heston Blumen-tall’ in Brill’s previous work, Awake in Spring, acting as a fantasy figurehead of the landscape that the Brill explores. Wynn’s position as an art patron validates the ‘Sin City’ industry and empty capitalism of Las Vegas, the money drawn in by his casinos with fake Polynesian Volcanoes is justified if it finances another Gaugin. Brill shows a nightmarish projection of how Wynn’s triumphalist property developments and golf courses swamp the Nevada landscape that was once home to the Shonisaurus. In doing so, the work suggests an environmental disaster that killed off Shonisaurus will be repeated by Wynn’s schemes, though, as the corporate voice-over reassures us, it will all be very Feng Shui.
The depiction of the desert fossil display and Brill’s overlapping narratives is reminiscent of the Museum of Jurrasic Technologies in Los Angeles, described by Ralph Rugoff as ‘a metaphor for the fallible self, especially our capacity for unconsciously fusing made-up events with real ones’. This testing of an audience’s capacity to believe in something that is fake is a feature of Brill’s work that is extremely relevant; Steven Wynn is a major backer of fellow casino tycoon, President Trump, and there is a circular history between Las Vegas, Art Dealers and shady deals with Russian leaders. Susan Buck-Morss describes how Stalin’s government colluded with American banker Andrew Mellon to sell what would now be billions of dollars’ worth of Old Master artworks to finance the first of the Soviet five year plans. Buck-Morss notes that while Mellon’s private art collecting saved the Soviet Union it also drew the ire of the US authorities and he was forced to gift the works, in lieu of tax, to create the US National Gallery as a free public museum. Mellon as Treasury Secretary approved the construction of Hoover Dam and that triggered Las Vegas’ growth which grew to eventually become ‘Sin City’.
If this sounds like a stoner’s paranoid hallucinatory trip, then that is an appropriate summation of the paradoxes that Brill draws together, and does so with supreme wit.