DEMO Spot On
EJ Hill ’11 traces a history of performance art that began at Columbia College Chicago.
EJ Hill ’11 has a metaphor ready to describe his autumn 2018 return to Columbia College Chicago’s campus: “It feels like crawling back into an old snake skin, you know?” he says. “All these memories are immediately summoned of being in my scruffy late teens, early 20s, just trying to figure [stuff] out.”
Hill visited Fine Arts students with a presentation on his career so far. At just 33 years old, Hill’s installation and performance art has been featured in museums all over the world. His work often focuses on physical endurance by incorporating his body into the gallery space: In his 2016 piece “A Monumental Offering of Potential Energy” at the Studio Museum in Harlem, he lay on a platform surrounded by the neon-illuminated tracks of a rollercoaster every day that the museum was open for three months.
Hill is already jumping into his next art-making project: a nine-month fellowship at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute, examining academia’s gaps and pitfalls— and how to make them better.
Hill’s impressive trajectory has taken on the shape of a snake shedding its skin: a constant cycle of rebirth and leaving behind. He talked with DEMO about three career-defining pieces, from his first performance piece in a Columbia classroom to his latest three-month exhibition at the Hammer Museum in LA.
1. SPIT TAKE
Hill first began thinking of his artwork as a space for experimentation and play at Columbia. One of his first performance pieces happened in a Columbia classroom. “I just sat in a chair in class and bowed my head and opened my mouth and just waited for saliva to collect and start falling in my lap,” he says. “I sat like that for about 15 minutes.”
When asked about the result of that performance, Hill shrugs. “Saliva pooled in my lap, you know? I had wet pants for the rest of the morning.”
2. SHEDDING SKIN
When Hill was a sophomore, he applied to Columbia’s annual Pougialis Fine Art Award. For the performance, he dressed in a uniform as a nod to his Catholic school days, then disrobed in front of an audience and shaved his entire body—even his eyebrows.
“As I was getting deeper into this art and performance thing, I was losing people who weren’t on board with some of the things I was exploring,” he says. “So [that performance] was a shedding—quite literally.”
When Hill won the Pougialis Award, the support spurred on his ideas and confidence. “I can do this thing and then people can regard it, think about it, talk about it, hate it,” he says. “That bump of recognition was kind of a fuel.”
3. FULL CIRCLE
Hill’s latest installation piece at the Hammer Museum was an act of physical endurance. He began the project by running “victory laps” around six schools he attended in LA—reasserting his presence in spaces where he hadn’t always felt welcome. Then, for the three-month run of “Excellentia, Millitia, Victoria,” he spent nine hours a day standing on the top step of a winner’s podium—no breaks allowed. The room was decorated with photos from his victory laps, and the neon text behind him read, “Where on earth, in which soils, and under what conditions will we bloom brilliantly and violently?”
“[‘Excellentia, Millitia, Victoria’] was a musing of conquering the spaces that we felt conquered by, repositioning our bodies in relation to those spaces,” he says. “Thinking about how to, again, shed and let go of the things we no longer need by exercising them out.”