Church Basement Raves and Mirror Demons: A Conversation with Zach Hill

by Tannon Reckling

I first saw Zach Hill’s work on social media, and, eventually, at the Vox Populi art space in Philadelphia, PA. Hill’s work pointed me through sci-fi-horror daydreams of queer abjection and into formal, sculptural materialisms through time. This pleasant line of speculative positing made me forget I hadn’t actually been to a gallery in a year because of a global pandemic.

A common point of connection throughout this conversation was artist Ryan Trecartin’s 2004 video, A Family Finds Entertainment. This fantastical, queer, overloaded, 40-minute video came up repeatedly in our conversation, especially around queer kinship and community building. The video was created before screen-mediated interactions became omniscient as today: zoom-times, cringe social media, and maddening surveillance economies. As strange as Trecartin’s video is after viewing a pirated version recently in 2021, I think it showcases how a house full of hyper-saturated friends having fun is even more desirable now than in 2004—or maybe not? There’s fun to have, so try not to worry too much, and seek your kin for the best. I am thankful for Hill’s work in this viewing context: both away and near. Thank you to Hill for his kindness and labor during our visit and in the conversation below.

Spiraling Jewel Girl, Looping HD video, outdoor TV antenna, rubber, cords, 2020. Image courtesy of Zach Hill.

Tannon Reckling (TR): How did you find your way to Philadelphia? Is there a flavor of Philly that affects your art practice at all? 

Zach Hill (ZH): Before living in Philadelphia I was in Milwaukee, WI, before that Lawrence, KS. A good friend of mine from Lawrence who also went to Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design had moved to Philly. I came out to the East Coast and visited her a few times to get a vibe for the city and area. Loved it here and put in apps at some of the grad programs! While I was doing Bunker Projects Residency in Pittsburgh I made the decision to take an offer from University of Pennsylvania and pretty much moved to Philly from there.

Living in Philly has made me consider infrastructures and maybe even architecture in my work a lot more. I’m fascinated by the sometimes chaotic, strangely organized bundles of electrical cables outside of row homes. There’s a lot of construction debris and dumped items around the city. When I lived in West Philly, I would wander around the neighborhood on trash day just to find materials for assemblage sculptures. My studio is also by a few dumping sites and there’s always something weird to be found around there. Huge panes of glass, car parts, or just random metal stuff. Coming from the Midwest, being able to travel to surrounding art hubs and see exhibitions or programing in person has made my work much more informed too. 

Electric Candle Stick, Epoxy, beeswax, paraffin wax, faux fur, hair extensions, faux pine needles, electric candlestick, wire, aqua resin, jewelry, 2019. Image courtesy of Zach Hill.

TR: I’m so interested in your methodology regarding ideas of “queer failure”. In your works like A Sign 1 and Console, does this come out at all? Are there any relationships in your practice that are aligned to similar theoreticals such as author Jack Halberstam’s literature and work? 

ZH: My works A Sign and Console are both explorations in materials and symbolism. I imagine that each piece of the configuration is “attempting” something. Trying to mimic another surface or be the same shape as the piece next to it. Then each unit comes to create a nondescript icon. A Sign 1 mixes up basic gendered shapes and employs reflective surfaces. The whole thing is kind of iridescent and the colors shift as you move around the work. Console is much more about mimicking and less about a kind shifting in the present. I had found the top right metal square behind my apartment building and thought it was really unique. The other pieces and wall drawings were based off of that shape. The surfaces themselves are also trying to replicate other materials like marble or steel. Both of these pieces definitely rely heavily on notions of queer failure, for sure! I’m really intrigued by what happens when something is kind of a bad fake or purposefully does what is considered “wrong”. Like how A Sign is hung with screws that still have the drill bit sticking out of them. I like to think that most of my work is misbehaving in some way. 

A Sign 1, Glass, laser-cut acrylic, interference paint, iridescent film, foam, resin, enamel, spray paint, screws, drill bits, 2020. Image courtesy of Zach Hill.

TR: Does the circulated image, or documentation, in your practice play just as important a role as the installation or in-person gallery engagement? In works like Mirror Demon especially with references to mirrors and GIFS and portals and drawings?

ZH: As an emerging artist I think that the documentation of each piece is really important. At the end of the day, I’m sure more people see images of my work than have seen the pieces in person. Images also add a kind of legacy. Working on a large scale, I have to take apart each piece and store it. I love having good documentation so that I can go back, look, and keep thinking. 

That being said, the real thing is always a much more satisfying experience. Documenting something like Mirror Demon was a bit of a challenge. With these interactive works it’s like, do I make a video, still image, gif, or a combination? What’s going to translate the best on my website or in an online application? When I want to show a stranger or curator my work I don’t often take them to a show or have a studio visit, I send them a link to my website.  

Mirror Demon, Glass, transparency, mirror spray paint, 2018. Image courtesy of Zach Hill.

TR: What are some materials you have an attraction to in your practice?

ZH: This is a difficult question because I am obsessed with so many! I love anything that’s super glossy or iridescent. I’ve been working with resin a lot in the last couple of years. Typically doing something kind of experimental with it instead of traditional casting. Metal has become a constant material for me as well. I don’t usually fabricate anything but instead use found pieces. One of the main archetypes of sculpture are those super masculine, monumental, one-color metal works. I’m interested in subverting that masculinity by using modular metal scraps and weird chrome furniture or retro lamps. Maybe this is not really a material but I’m constantly snapping pictures on the street of things that I want my sculptures to look like. I keep a little catalogue of my inspiration which can range from a great pile of trash to a unique decorative element on a building. 

Screaming, 2 channel looping HD video, tripods, cables, cords, 2021. Image courtesy of Zach Hill.

TR: What interpretations of queerness in other aesthetic forms do you think about often?

ZH: Aesthetically, I’ve always had an interest in fashion. I used to make a lot of my own costumes when I was in a narrative video phase. It was mostly altered stuff, using dyes and DIY methods of chopping things up then stitching them together. I’ll often work small pieces of jewelry into my sculptures from a large collection I’ve accumulated over the years. Mostly costume stuff. Each of my newer sculptures has an anthropomorphic quality and the earrings, fake nails, or other adornments add to that for me. More recently I’ve been inspired by science fiction where queer themes are pretty limitless! 

Zach Hill (he/him/his) is an interdisciplinary artist and educator working between sculpture, moving image, and performance. He has been awarded the Mary L. Nohl Fellowship and Toby Devan Lewis Fellowship along with residencies at Vermont Studio Center, Bunker Projects, and RAIR. His work has been exhibited and screened at Haggerty Museum of Art, Milwaukee, WI; Frontera Garibaldi, Mexico City, MX; High Tide, Philadelphia, PA; Skylab Gallery, Columbus, Ohio; Studio 10, Brooklyn, NY; Comfort Station, Chicago, IL; James Black, Vancouver, CAN; and VisArts, Rockville, MD. Hill holds a BFA from the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design, an MFA from the University of Pennsylvania, and is currently Visiting Assistant Professor of Sculpture at Haverford College. 

Tannon A. Reckling (they/he) is a transdisciplinary artist, educator, and organizer living and working between the unceded lands of Kalapuya Ilihi and Lenapehoking. They received their MFA from the University of Oregon in 2021 and previously studied at the University of California, Los Angeles in 2017. They currently teach at Fleisher Art Memorial and work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. They are interested in: tremulous digital materialisms, shadow labor, queer semiotics, and collaborating with queer artists. They hope you’re having a good day.