The title of Sarah Hill’s video Flesh Prison tells you a lot about how the Jamaica Plain artist feels about the body (then) she was born into 26 years ago. Now in the midst of transitioning from female to male, Hill identifies as “transgender queer.” Hill’s feeling of arriving misaligned to the “heteronormative” world, and the world not accepting Hill’s effort to get it right, fuels the video’s fierce feral vibe.
“My body belongs to me and I’m going to do with it what I choose to do until I die,” Hill writes in her artist statement. “Gender as well as Flesh Prison becomes the performance of reclaiming psychological space.”
Flesh Prison, which screens at Anthony Greaney gallery in Boston from 4 to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Nov. 9 and 10, is a quick-cutting 15-minute video that is beautifully shot, hallucinatory, and an assault. Hill writes that it is “an aesthetic investigation of bodily imprisonment, and a shameless fascination with the abject. … I attempt to talk about the process of breaking down isolation in order to survive the trauma of day-to-day life.”
Hill teases gender—coyly hiking up a skirt, flashing hairy legs, standing up and peeing in a backyard. And the video offers symbols of transformation—a baptism in a lake, digging a grave in a wood at night and rolling a body in. But these seemingly straightforward interpretations wobble and crack open, revealed to not be simple and logically direct, but instead tapping into raw, messy, witty, uncomfortable, powerful feeling. The baptism turns into repeated underwater footage of Hill in a dress swimming and maybe drowning. When Hill shovels dirt back into the midnight grave, the camera looks up from inside the hole. The dirt is falling on us. We’re being buried alive.
There are sweet moments—like a motif of two women dancing across a sunny lawn (Hill and Hill’s sister)—but they feel like suspiciously peaceful lulls before the monster reappears. The underlying technique is horror movie. Hill, face painted deathly white and neck painted red like blood, lurches forward at us and snarls. A person, encased head to toe in a red body suit, grasps at a doorknob as if trying to get loose. The camera is up close, jittery, jabbing at you. The sound sneaks around quietly and then pounces with heavy breathing or loud yelps.
“The sound in the video is very abrasive and controlling,” Hill tells me. “But I think it needs to be that for the moments of silence. … I think that is the place for things that are unspoken or unhearable.”
Hill’s video is another example of how Anthony Greaney gallery has carved out a niche by finding compelling local artists that have tended to be off the radar of the rest of the Boston art world. Like Liz Glynn, whom Greaney showed in fall 2009 while she was coming off a star turn in “Younger Than Jesus,” the New Museum in New York’s triennial of up-and-comers. That was before Boston native Glynn left here for LA. For a while, Greaney’s aesthetic could seem like a voice alone in the wilderness. And his passion for cool formal rigor can at times be difficult to embrace. But slowly, steadily a buzz has grown around the gallery. In recent months, during the First Fridays receptions held by galleries in Boston’s Harrison Avenue district, the cool kids have clustered around his door.