Today from our partners at Art Practical, we bring you a review of Doug Hall’s The Terrible Uncertainty of the Thing Described, currently on view at the Walter and McBean Galleries of the San Francisco Art Institute. Author Maria Porges notes: “Perhaps the most fascinating thing about Hall’s seminal work is its quality of timelessness.” This article was originally published on May 21, 2015.
In 1989, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) acquired The Terrible Uncertainty of the Thing Described (1987), a large-scale installation work by Bay Area artist Doug Hall, known internationally for his work in a range of media. Combining multiple video images and projections with sculptural objects—a massive, tilted barrier of steel mesh and two oversize steel chairs periodically enlivened with spectacular arcs of electricity, courtesy of a real Tesla coil—the piece was shown at the museum’s old home in the Veteran’s Memorial Building that year.
Since the opening of the SFMOMA’s Mario Botta–designed building in 1995, however, the piece has been unseen here in the Bay Area. Rumors suggested that the high voltage generated by the coil could not be accommodated by the complicated electrical/HVAC systems of the new building. Whatever the reason, SFMOMA’s closure for expansion in 2013 has allowed for programming at other institutions around town (“SFMOMA on the Go”), creating an opportunity for the current co-presentation of Hall’s piece at the San Francisco Art Institute’s McBean Gallery.
It is worth an extended visit. Until eyes become accustomed to the gloom of the darkened gallery, the most visible element is the six monitors perched on 8-foot-tall stands along the left wall, each hosting a continual program of video, which can also be seen in a large projection on the adjoining wall, above the entrance. Consisting of three channels, the twenty-minute-long loop spreads across these seven screens. Sometimes the same scene plays on two or three monitors, sometimes not, as the piece progresses through a sequence of sections that suggest the movements of a musical composition. Dawn on a farm’s fields, the sky filled with black-and-white static, segues into multiple tornadoes. Surging masses of ocean waves and massive waterfalls fade into wildfire, then boiling clouds of smoke. The clouds shift and reveal a blast furnace or maybe a foundry, where glowing ingots slide by in slow motion and giant machines move on gantries in showers of sparks.